Doorbells for pennies

Can’t say I like it much when people come ringing the doorbell, trying to sell pictures, books or whatever, or just downright beg for money. Just now this little, seemingly middle-aged, bearded Polish guy wanted to sell me pictures. He apologized in limping English for not speaking Norwegian, and handed me instead a note where someone had written down his story in the local tongue. In short he was going door to door, selling pictures to finance his 23 year old daughter’s cancer treatment back in Poland.

I admit that I don’t have a whole lot of patience with beggars. For better or for worse, I don’t feel inclined to buy their stories, and I don’t feel at all comfortable when some stranger comes along asking to take a dip into my wallet.

I think I was cured for any urge to donate to beggars when, a few years ago, I was approached by a woman who asked for money to buy herself a meal. This was right outside the McDonald’s at Oslo central station, and she certainly looked in need of food as well as an easier life. With no cash on me, but in a good and forthcoming mood, I offered to buy her lunch instead since I was going to have a bite to eat anyway. She looked at me as if I was mad, and proceeded to give me a thorough recount of her qualified insight into my personal qualities, of which the word “idiot” was the kindest and certainly the only one suitable for print, including a few references to my alleged reptile and lower primate heritage, and to my relief took off elsewhere before falling for the apparently increasing temptation to claw my eyes out.

Later I have noticed that many of the most tired, sad and sick-looking beggars in Oslo tend to be a jolly, bouncy bunch when they’re off duty. Crutches are suddenly no longer needed, filthy rags and blankets no longer cover clothes that are in less of a ragged state than they previously appeared, and I therefore conclude that the sad, tired and sick look simply goes with their line of work, like advertising. I dislike being deceived, and more so to have my better and sympathetic side tricked into giving from what is, in fact, my hard-earned income to people who, by all appearances, are lying to me. Or ungrateful. Or both.

I’ve no idea whether this Polish guy even has a daughter, and if so then much less whether she actually has cancer. The cynical side of me was screaming that “this is not my problem”, “he is probably lying”, and “no way am I going to have my sympathetic strain beaten into submission and donation at someone’s unverifiable say-so.”

I ended up saying no thanks to his pictures (I didn’t even look at them), but instead handed him a few coins (about two Euros’ worth) simply to get rid of him without physically slamming the door in his face. In all honesty this was all the cash I had on me, so he wouldn’t have gotten any more anyway, assuming he wasn’t carrying a mobile credit card reader in his back pocket, which I doubt. He gave me a warm smile and thanked me ever so humbly, both in English and what I can only assume was polite Polish, and went on his way.

So now I’m thinking, what if he really has a daughter who suffers from advanced cancer? What if a slightly bigger donation would have helped him a little further on his quest to finance her treatment? With two daughters of my own, I know I would have done whatever was in my power if either or both of them were in such dire need of help, even going door to door to sell pictures if necessary. Two Euros aren’t much, and had I known for certain that his story was true I might have given him a bit more. The problem is, I don’t know. One simply can’t tell for sure.

My conscience is having a great time rattling my chains, and I’m not enjoying it one bit. I only hope that my two Euros were better than nothing.


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  1. It certainly is hard to know what to do. Last Friday Dan & I were volunteering at the Salvation Army soup kitchen with a group from our church. Near the end of our shift a distraught woman approached him (having to bypass me and two other women from church, and a SA staff member) and proceeded to sob out a story to Dan about how she had been raped two nights ago, that a friend had put her up at a hotel since then, but she needed to stay there one more night before the women’s shelter could find a bed for her, and could he please help her get the $64 dollars she needed. Another SA staff member was following her around, on a cell phone, trying to locate appropriate housing for her.

    Our consciences are still rattling…was she raped? If so, she certainly deserves and needs all the help we can give her. Was she delusional or drugged? Was she looking for money? Was it a scam? She was made up to a fare-the-well, was very nicely dressed-think summer wedding nice-, and headed straight for the youngest, most presentable male in the crew-which doesn’t mean her story wasn’t true,, but…. I’m glad the Salvation Army staff was there to deal with her.

    If we’d been accosted by her on the street, I don’t know what we would have done. I like to think we’d have erred on the side of generosity, but we don’t usually carry much cash on us either-between us we might have scraped up $10-which was not the $64 she said she needed to continue to stay at Days Inn.

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