Ethics Encounter In The CVS Parking Lot

My local CVS on Quaker Lane in Alexandria, VA, scene of many human dramas….

The errand I tried to complete this afternoon (resulting in my hearing the most outrageous comedy act I have encountered  since Red Foxx and Buddy Hackett were in their vulgar primes) failed, so I had to return to my pharmacy to get four refills of various drugs. As I was getting out of the car, I heard a loud voice shouting “God DAMN you!” and realized that the expletive came from behind the mask of large African-American man  of indeterminate age. I had to ask, “Was that directed at me?”

He immediately shook his head vigorously and walked over to me, saying, “No no! I’m so sorry, I was yelling at myself! I’m so damn mad—I locked myself out of my car!”

He continued, “Hey, maybe you’re my guardian angel.” He started handing me his IDs and wallet, and showed me the pills he had just received from the same pharmacy where I was headed. The man was sweating hard.  “I’m not some gangster or anything, I swear—I’m just hot, and tired, and I have prostate cancer…” I interrupted him.

“Just tell me how I can help. Do you need a ride home?”

“No man,” he said. “I need $32 so I can get home.  I gotta lie down.Here…” and he started handing me his IDs again, with his phone number and address. I happened to have more cash on hand than usual, and handed him the $32.

“Don’t worry about paying me back, just pass it along some day, ” I said. “Get home and take care of yourself.” I also told him that my father had prostate cancer for the last 30 years of his life, and died in his sleep at 89.

“Thanks for that too, man,” he said. The man sounded like he was smiling—damn masks! It also seemed like we would have shaken hands in more normal times. As I left, he was calling a cab.

I can honestly say that the fact that he was African American didn’t make me more inclined to give him the money–“Take THAT, Black Lives Matter!”—or play any part in my thinking at all. I did find it sad that he felt that he had to reassure me that he wasn’t a “gangster” or a street hustler. This was a straight Golden Rule situation. I’ve been in his predicament. I’ve been helped by strangers, several times. My reaction was automatic, and, for an ethicist, mandatory. And if it was a scam? It doesn’t matter. You’ve got to trust people, or society doesn’t work, and life feels nasty, brutish and lonely.

I also don’t think my response was unusual, whether the two human beings involved were black, white, male, female, young, old, or any combination thereof.

At least, I plan on believing that, all evidence to the contrary. Human beings matter. All of them. All the time.

32 thoughts on “Ethics Encounter In The CVS Parking Lot

  1. At least, I plan on believing that, all evidence to the contrary. Human beings matter. All of them. All the time.


  2. A side note: Am I the only one who finds not being able to see and read people’s faces in public terribly disconcerting? I had not realized how important random, passing contact with other human beings is to one’s well being. Masks deprive people of their humanity.

  3. I am reminded of a homeless vet who stood with a sign (and his dog) at the same intersection every day. I always gave him money, with the caveat “to feed yourself and your dog, not buy booze.”

    This went along for weeks. He disappeared for a while, then one day showed up with a big sign (and his dog) that said “THANK YOU!” Stopped at the light, he explained that he had found a home, had a part-time job, and remembered me for helping him.

    All I said was “pay it forward,” — though I’m not a fan of the movie the concept is a good one. Any charitable act is potentially falling for a scam, but if you don’t have faith in humankind, what are you left with?

    • Apropos of not much of anything, I just turned sixty-nine and attended my fiftieth high school reunion last fall. Last summer I pulled up to a stop light coming off the interstate. A guy, about my age, was standing at the corner pan handling. His sign didn’t say, “Out of work” or “Will work for money” or “Homeless.” It simply said, “Old Guy.” I never pay pan handlers. Maybe I’m just ornery and cheap but I just consider pan handling a business plan. Anyway, I just loved the guy’s creativity and honesty. I almost gave him some money and would have had him pose for a picture to show the guys at my boys’ high school reunion if it had been safe to do so.

  4. I enjoy living in a relatively highly taxed and socialist country (Australia) with a a well developed socialised medical and welfare system. I don’t generally feel obliged to support beggars on the streets claiming to need money for food or shelter. In addition we support a number of well recognised charities. We rely on the staff in these systems to decide where our taxes and contributions should be deployed; and in general I believe they do a very good job – certainly better than I would do.

    Yes, of course all human beings matter.

    • There are a couple of regulars at our local shopping centre.
      They don’t ask for money, but gratefully accept food items bought at the supermarket.
      Just bread, milk, fresh veggies, though I often add cookies if they are on sale.

      Canberra is ..brisk..this time of year, with temperatures around 2°.

      A long, long time ago, and only for a few days, I had to sleep rough on nights which were sub zero. It’s the kind of thing you don’t forget. I will also be eternally grateful for the guy who gave me a can of beer after I’d not eaten for 4 days while doing hard work. My knees at the time were rubbery due to very low blood sugar, and the sugar hit kept me going until payday.

      As for Jack’s actions – no less than I’d expect from him, he’s a decent human being. . On the other hand, he’s blissfully unaware of how privileged he is to be able to give out $32 to someone in need. As am I, by the way. To be able to afford to do that. Some I know, $32 may as well be $32 billion. Not just do they not have it, it is wealth greater than they can conceive.

      • It’s the basis for a larger discussion, which we have not had here since Still Spartan decided this was a hive of Nazis and moved on, still I have to say again that I do not comprehend the “privilege” line of thought at all. In the hands of most who wield it (not you, ZB) I find the tactic the equivalent of Butch Cassidy kicking huge Harvey Logan in the balls to start their knife fight. Interestingly, the reason I had more than 50 bucks in my wallet yesterday was because our credit cards are maxed out and we’re about to start collecting change, because cash flow is terrible. My business, which is mostly talking to large groups of people live around the US, has been non-existent since early March, and reserves are about gone. So this was not exactly like Rockefeller handing out nickels to street urchins. I was a little worried that my wife, who keeps the books and pays the bills and who has been very anxious about finances since the shutdown, would be angry at me for giving away money at a time when things are tight. Of course she wasn’t, and said it was the right thing to do.

        Telling people they are “privileged,” to my ear, is just a way of making good luck some kind of sin that disqualifies an individual for being treated with respect for their accomplishments. Clarence Darrow’s favorite poem was “Life is a game of whist,” which states the philosophy that one’s task in life is to take the hand one is dealt and play it as well as possible without bitching about it: the game’s the thing. I agree, and I know my father would have agreed, though he never mentioned that poem.

        I’ve been an barely OK player, not a great one; indeed I have mentioned here more than once that I consider myself a something of a failure—an underachiever– for not doing much more with the good cards I was dealt. I’m not to be praised for being born white, male and healthy in the US, smarter than the average bear and creative by nature, with parents in a stable and loving relationship who raised me well and sacrificed their whole lives to make the road easier for me and my sister than it was for them, but I’m got going to feel guilty about it either, nor should I. No, I am not like George H.W. Bush in Ann Richards’ famous cheap shot (but funny!), waking up on third and thinking I hit a triple. But the fact that various agencies beyond my control put me on—well, not third–second maybe? A healthy lead off first? does not mean anyone has a right to make me go back to home plate, or give me crap for my proximity to scoring.

        Would I rather be black than stupid? Absolutely. Would I rather be brilliant, gorgeous and female than old, fat, bald and male? Sure. Born in a dysfunctional family than born with a physical handicap or a chronic disease? Yes. Are Michael Jordan, Mookie Betts, Tiger Woods and Brooke Shields more “privileged” than I am? Damn right. Do I resent that or their success, or ever for a second think that they don’t deserve what they have achieved? Never. Do they have an ethical obligation to help me play MY metaphorical cards?


        • Jack – if you started a Patreon for the time being, I’d support it, and I’m sure others would as well.

        • I’m privileged too, remember.
          Do I feel guilt? Should I feel guilt? Nope.

          Noblesse Oblige on the other hand… but that’s because I have an ego as big as all outdoors. According to the Tax Office, I count as a low income earner. Still, in comparison to all too many, I have wealth beyond the dreams of avarice.

          I’ve been there, a long long time ago. I know how even a few bucks can make someone’s life vastly better, and reduce world misery significantly.

          “Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen, nineteen and six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery.”

          Even then, I had access to clean water. Many in the world do not. So many mountains to move.

          Agree that the word “privileged”, like “fascist” and “communist” has been weaponised so much that unless you trust the person using it, it’s meaningless attack. That you trust me was noticed and appreciated.

          Would I rather be brilliant, gorgeous and female than old, fat, bald and male? Sure.

          What about brilliant, gorgeous and male? Old, fat, balding and female?

          To understand Gender Dysphoria, ask yourself that question.

          • “I’m privileged too, remember.”

            If you have a dollar to your name, you’re better off than 1/2 of Mother Gaia, who have (I’ve heard but can’t cite) zero to negative net worth.

            “Old, fat, balding and female?”

            Isn’t cursed advancing follicular challenge heavily weighted toward the Y-Chromosomal Unit demographic?

  5. You’re braver than I am, Jack. Rule 10(h) of the nonblack version of “the talk” by John Derbyshire says “Do not act the Good Samaritan to blacks in apparent distress, e.g., on the highway,” and 10(i) says “If accosted by a strange black in the street, smile and say something polite but KEEP MOVING.”

    If I’d been where you were, I would have just quickly snapped, “not interested in engaging with you sir!” repeating if necessary, before I jumped in my car and peeled out of there.

      • I don’t know about Steve-O, but in my experience everything John Derbyshire writes has to be taken as either tongue in cheek or intentionally outrageous.He was a right wing troll before the term had been coined.

        • Yeah, I have to admit that I didn’t know of Derbyshire until reading Steve-O’s quoting of him. I’ve read a bit in the last half hour. It’s pretty gross stuff. He may have been backwards way ahead of his time, predating the term “right wing troll” so let’s just use the term “Unapologetically Racist Twat”.

          • That’s fair. I am not and was not a fan. I didn’t understood why the National Review tolerated him for so long, but eventually he was pressured to leave. I seem to remember some kind of foofaraw about him around that time, but don’t care enough to take the time to refresh my memory I considered. I thought of him as the Andrew Dice Clay of conservative pundits.

  6. My experience says you got scammed. I get approached that way 10 times a day, and it’s always the same story as you reported. A presentation of ID, a story of why the person is in this predicament, and apologetic assurance that they are not of any harm to you, in any way that you may assume from their appearance, and finally a curiously specific, and yet not divisible by 5, dollar amount. That routine is so classic i’m sure it has a jaunty name.
    I give people money 9 times out of 10, too, fully knowing it’s a scam but not really caring. If someone needs the money enough to employ the story, it’s ok. But I usually don’t let them finish. Who’s got time for that?

      • In all my travels i find if you’re not located far from a train station, you’re not far from this classic!

        • Well, I ‘d cast the guy from yesterday in a show if that was a performance. He had fresh bottles of the prostate drugs, one of which I recognized. He seemed be in genuine distress. The screaming at himself was a great touch—I stopped him rather than the other way around. And if he was calling the weather rather than the cab company when I left, he deserves the money for all the details.

          And maybe all the BLM guilting helped hiis routine: I wasn’t about to cross-examine the guy, in 90 degree heat, as a white guy being appealed to by a black man the same age claiming to be stranded and suffering from cancer. Who knows? Like you, I refuse to doubt people to that extent—it demeans ME. If someone can fool me, well, begging persuasively is a grand old profession. And we’ll never know anyway.

            • I’ve met a lot of significant people by happenstance—Gene McCarthy, Hulk Hogan, Chris Matthews, Patrick Moynihan, “Gopher” from the “Love Boat,” lots of actors, but THAT would be a prize: the Master Panhandler!

          • If you are auditioning, I’d recommend a young woman who approached me in Melbourne CBD, very convincingly distraught. I could have resisted the first appeal, that she had lost her wallet. But when she followed up to say her dog was going to be put down if she didn’t get to the vet by 7:00pm, I was a goner.

    • One time I had a guy ask me at a train station for money to get home. I offered to buy his ticket, started walking towards the kiosk, turned back to see him walking in the other direction.

      BTW, he was white. In fact most of the homeless and the panhandlers in my area are white

  7. Looks like my comment was swallowed by the internet gods. Lets try to recreate it from memory:

    Pretty sure you got scammed my friend. That scam is called a confidence trick. Attention getter, display of ID, medical issue, and a specific plausible amount of money. Key and Peele once lampooned it’s formulaic nature on their show with two con-men trying the same trick on each other. I can’t link it but search for “You Can’t Con a Con Artist If You’re Also a Con Artist – Key & Peele” it’ll be the first youtube video. Your story has remarkable parallels.

    • I’m not denying it, but as I told Mike, he was mighty good, if that’s true. How many times does he walk out of the pharmacy and down the walk trying to catch a white motorist who will ask the huge black man why the hell he was screaming at him rather than getting back in his car and parking somewhere safe—which I considered?

      IF it was a scam, such individuals make it more difficult for those who really need help to get it. Can’t let that happen, or we’re all sunk.

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