Under the Sun


Wednesday, June 19, 2002

Distrust spoils
a donation to charity

The two young men who came down the driveway to my house probably didn't expect the intense interrogation I put them through. They were smiling as they approached, wiping the sweat from their faces, saying they were glad for the shade from a neighbor's mango tree on the hot, windless summer afternoon.

Wary of strangers, I told them to stop where they were.

"What's up?" I asked abruptly.

Their smiles vanished, replaced by expressions as uneasy as mine. After quick glances at each other, the thinner one launched into an obviously prepared speech. He stiffly explained that they were from a group that helps young people escape the life of drugs, drinking and crime and were collecting for donations for their cause. Both wore T-shirts with the name of the organization printed across the front. They looked well-groomed, clear-eyed and healthy. The thinner one carried a loose-leaf binder full of photographs of teenagers engaged in various wholesome activities, the other held a bunch of brochures that explained the organization's mission.

They appeared to be legitimate, but I questioned them anyway, thinking "can't be too careful." In full reporter mode, I fired off a slew of questions. They answered each query politely. Then I asked them their names. They responded with their first names only, saying that for their own protection, they didn't give out last names. I asked if they had any identification to show they were really representatives of the group authorized to collect donations in its name. They had none. The thin one said he'd lost his; the other had not yet been issued one, having been in the program only two months.

At this point, I thought to send them away, but they seemed sincere. I took a brochure and told them to wait while I called the number printed on the back. They checked out fine so I grabbed some money and went back outside. They were standing exactly where I'd left them, looking a bit apprehensive.

Before I could hand them my donation, the thin fellow pulled his wallet from his pocket. "Look," he said, "I don't have a driver's license, but I can show you my probation card." He flipped open the wallet to display the card bearing a color photo of his unsmiling face, his full name and a series of figures that defined him: weight, height, age, probation identification number.

When I looked back at him, his face colored with embarrassment. He seemed shamed, but so was I. I had shown him little charity. In exchange for a few dollars, I had violated his privacy and damaged his dignity.

I suppose what I did would be considered the wise thing to do. After all, the newspapers are full of stories about people bilked by con artists disguised as charities. An appalling example took place just days after the Sept. 11 attacks, when crooks went door to door in New Jersey and New York, flashing fake Red Cross credentials to gather donations. Police and other authorities constantly warn the public to make sure solicitors are sanctioned before giving them money.

It's too bad that the awful acts of a few swindlers compel us toward skepticism and distrust. That's my justification, my rationalization, my excuse to explain away my behavior.

After thanking me graciously, two young men retreated down the driveway, bearing their hard-won donation. My 8-year-old nephew who was visiting joined me at the door to watch them leave. I guess he could see that I was disturbed because he asked what was the matter.

"Nothing," I said, "it's just that sometimes your auntie can be such a jerk." I don't think he understood what I was talking about, but as forgiving and trusting as children can be, he said, "That's OK."

Cynthia Oi has been on the staff of the Star-Bulletin for 25 years.
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