I sensed her before I saw her.
The gas nozzle chugged noisily beside me as I squinted in the sunlight, trying to make out the figure approaching me.
“This is so embarrassing,” she laughed, and I knew instantly I was about to be hit up for money.
“I live in El Reno and I think I left my purse at home… I’m so sorry, but is there anything you could spare to help me put gas in my car? I’m just so worried… if I can’t find my purse I’m in such big trouble!” She screwed up her face then and actually attempted tears.
I knew she was lying. First, because she was terrible at it, and second, because she followed the oldest script in the book. I’ve been pitched her exact sob story more times than I can count, and I’ve never hesitated to politely say, “Sorry, I can’t help you,” and walk away.
But this time I didn’t.
Blame it on the fact that it had been a rough parenting day and I was sick of telling people to straighten up. Blame it on the fact that I had an extra $10 in my gas budget and I figured, Well, I guess I can spare my extra and God can deal with her later. Blame it on the co – o – o – o – o – o – o – fee (little Jaimi Foxx humor there), but for some reason I actually followed her to the next pump and swiped my debit card.
“Oh, you’re just a godsend!” she gushed. “Thank you so much – I’m really not the type of person to ask for this, but I just didn’t know what else to do!”
I noticed a man watching me from the driver’s seat. And I noticed how nice their zippy little sports car was. Liars, I thought to myself. But I smiled politely, told her to have a nice day, and returned to my SUV.
After putting away my wallet and checking in with my husband, I circled the lot to return home.
That’s when I saw another man fiddling with the credit card reader at the pump *she* had just vacated. He pulled something out of the reader, stuck it in his pocket, and walked away briskly.
You’ve got to be kidding me, I thought.
I had been royally scammed.
She Clapped Her Hands
I called my bank and immediately cancelled my debit card. I told my friends and family what happened and gave descriptions of the woman in case she tried to pull her stunt on someone else. And I silently berated myself for being so stupid.
I’m the daughter of a private investigator, after all. (And the sister. And the niece. And the cousin. Seriously. Don’t mess with me.) I can spot a scam from a mile away, but for some reason, I just keep giving and I just keep getting burned.
Not anymore, I decided. That’s the last time I help somebody with the word “shady” painted all over them.
So when I saw a tiny, shabbily-dressed woman pulling a wagon and walking toward me in a Wal-Mart parking lot a few weeks later, I practically threw my daughters in the car and refused to make eye contact with her.
I unloaded my groceries as quickly as I could and braced myself for a tap on the shoulder.
But a tap never came.
Instead, I heard a loud banging behind me, and I slowly turned to see what in the world the woman was doing.
Oh, Lord, forgive me.
She was digging in the garbage can a few feet from my car.
She didn’t ask me for a thing. She caught my eye and smiled, then continued to rummage. And suddenly I knew.
I knew I had to help her.
I scrambled to do something. I had no cash and I’d only stopped at the store for a few things. What can I give her?? I silently screamed.
The bread. I had bought a loaf of fresh bread, and it was the only item I had that she could remotely make a meal out of.
So I caught her eye again, smiled, and held out the bread.
And nothing could have prepared me for her response.
When she saw what I was offering, her face lit up exactly like a child’s on Christmas morning. She clapped her hands and took the loaf from my palms, thanking me profusely.
She clapped. her. hands.
I’ve never seen somebody so grateful for a $3 loaf of bread.
I Will Never Stop
I sobbed as I told my husband about the woman that evening. (Why didn’t I ask her name??) Her look of glee had seared itself into my brain, and I found myself praying for her throughout the day.
Her smile had broken me.
Because one act of pre-meditated deception came very close to destroying my faith in humanity.
But one woman… one smile… one act of gratitude from an individual who was profoundly lacking material wealth but profoundly rich in joy and contentment…
One woman restored everything I almost lost.
So here’s what I want to say to the couple who scammed me:
I will NEVER stop giving.
I may be taken advantage of, and I may be thought foolish, but I will NEVER allow thieves like you to steal my compassion.
You can take my money. But you can’t take my empathy.
I will help when it doesn’t make sense and I will give when it hurts and I will continue to believe that there is goodness in the world.
I will never again turn my back, and I will never again hide when confronted with a need.
Because that would make me just like you.
So you can keep on thieving and keep on preying and keep on lining your pockets with the hard-earned fruits of another person’s labor.
And you can keep your zippy little sports car.
I’d rather be a woman with just my wagon and my integrity any day.