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The giver and the receiver 0

Dear Bradshaw,

A woman approached me while I was on my way to a lesson last week. She was about thirty years old, maximum thirty-five, and in great physical condition, as if she worked out daily at a gym. She seemed to need directions and when I stopped to help, suddenly her eyes went wild and she frowned and then asked me for money.

Believe it or not, Shaw, I ignored her and walked on, and I know that sounds terrible but in the last seven and a half years I’ve grown callous. Yes, there are beggars who need my charity and in fact I give often to people on the streets but it can be difficult to distinguish the needy from the swindlers. I once saw a guy kneeling at the corner of Ottaviano and Giulio Cesare with a begging cup in one hand and talking on his cell phone with the other. Another time I watched a girl board the metro and deliver a rehearsed speech in which she claimed to be poor and hungry though her hair was streaked with red dye and her designer jeans fit like a layer of skin. Another time, a gypsy was limping toward me while hunched over her cane. As I was reaching into my pocket for a coin to drop in her cup, she saw a gap in the traffic, tucked the cane under her arm, and then raced across the street.

Let’s face it, Shaw, not everyone who asks for charity deserves it though everyone who asks probably needs it. Whatever the case, I decided long ago to give when I wanted to and not because I felt sorry or obligated, and definitely not when I knew I was being hoodwinked.

When I first moved to Rome, I gave almost everyday. In fact, I started carrying change in my pocket to make it easier to access. Then I began noticing the imposters and, for a while, I considered offering an apple or an orange but walking around with a hunk of fruit in my hand was a discouraging inconvenience.

To return to my story, as I continued to my lesson, wondering whether or not I should have given that lady some change, I passed a cafe and, glancing inside, saw sandwiches and bowls of various pastas waiting to be spooned onto a plate. Twenty steps later I passed a place that sold pizza by the slice. Another fifty paces and there was falafel and shwarma. At the corner of the next intersection was a man roasting chestnuts. Simply said, Shaw, in three blocks I passed four places that sold food and I thought, The next time someone asks me for money, I’ll offer something to eat.

Sure enough, after my lesson had ended and I was on my way to the next one, another beggar asked for money. This lady was shaped like a blimp and had an oily, pimpled face. Her hair had been cropped with a Weed Whacker and her teeth tarred by cigarettes and stained by alcohol. When I offered her something to eat, she smiled and said okay.

We were near Piazza San Pietro and had to cross under the bridge to Via delle Fornaci. Arriving at the first coffee bar, she wanted to wait for me by the bridge but I was in a hurry and said so, “I’m sorry but you’ll have to come with me. I have to be at my next lesson in ten minutes.”

Entering, I explained to the bartender that I’d like to buy the lady something to eat. He eyed her up and down, and then jerked his thumb toward the sandwiches on the counter. The lady pointed to the one in the middle, a spinach-filled French roll, and then I paid for it and left.

I have to admit, Shaw, it was awkward, first of all, because the bartender was displeased, as if he knew the lady or didn’t like the looks of her. Also, having rushed off without learning her name, shaking her hand, or making any kind of connection was weird.

Now I’m wondering how to handle such situations in the future. I want the experience to enrich both the giver and the receiver of philanthropy and, well, anyway, Shaw, if you have any ideas, I’m all ears.

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