It was a cold, bleak day in February. The SuperAmerica on the corner of Bedford and University was crawling with the average crowd: car owners fueling their vehicles, people walking in and out of the front door holding bags of chips with looks that warranted determination to get back home.
After starting the pump, I cleaned the windows of my ’97 Toyota Camry. The dirty water of Minnesota winter clung to my windshield as if it, too, was looking for warmth. Pulling out the squeegee from its black plastic shelter, I dipped it back into the blue liquid a couple more times to ensure it had the proper amount of cleaning fluid.
Lifting the windshield wipers, I noticed a scruffy looking man. He was talking with the person pumping gas two cars in front of me. With a long, green trench coat and gray faded hair, he seemed distraught. Finally, the conversation they were having ended when the other man pumping gas got into his car.
The scruffy man turned to me. Eye contact. The best and worst thing that could happen – a sign of acknowledgment between two people. He began to slide over to me, his coat speckled with salt all the way to his knees. Putting the squeegee back into its bin, I braced myself for the coming conversation.
“’Scuse me, sir,” said the man. “Would you happen to have some money for a bus?” His words were rushed. They barely formed before sputtering out of his grizzled face.
“My wife…my wife’s in labor. I was drivin’ to the hospital but I got a flat.” He started fumbling around in his pocket. Finally he pulled out his wallet, a damp piece of paper pressed against it.
“Look…look, see… I’m an honest man, I live in Brooklyn Park. I work full time. I just need some money to get my wife to the hospital. I’ll give you my number, my address. Please.”
Dumbfounded, I pulled the gas pump out from my car and put it back into the cradle. My heart stopped. I had never witnessed someone ask for money with tears pooling in their eyes. A normal response would be to say that I only have plastic. Unfortunately SuperAmerica comes equipped with Wells Fargo ATMs. Also, a story like his requires me to reconsider a normal response. What if he is telling the truth? Does the risk of not giving him money and his story being true outweigh the risk of losing money to a normal begging man in Minneapolis?
I decided to put my faith in this man. The simple fact that he could be telling the truth in such a grave situation gave me no time to reconsider. He had too much emotion etched on his face. I looked him over and responded.
“Yeah, sure. Just let me go inside and use the ATM.”
As I walked into the gas station, the man followed me. He continued to thank me. It was odd witnessing people watch me inside the station. I got the impression this man was either there awhile or was regularly asking for money. I pushed those thoughts out of my head.
I put my card in the ATM, punched in my PIN and thought: How much do I give this guy? I can afford a good amount, but on the off chance he is bluffing do I want him to waste it?
Decided, I pushed the screen on the $40 icon. It would be enough for a new tire and the install.
Two twenty-dollar bills shot out of the machine. I turned to the man and handed him the money along with a piece of paper.
“What’s this?” he asked.
“It’s my number. Call me if you want to pay me back.” Handing him the money, I walked out of the station and got into my car.
Turning the key in the ignition, I heard the rumble of my engine and watched the man walk down the street. Panic withholding from his steps.