Today is my birthday. So, naturally, I wanted to tell you an embarrassing story about myself. It’s a story that my family still teases me with...some 25 years later:
In college I traveled home for visits on the Trailways bus line that ran from New Paltz to Buffalo, NY. What should have been under six hours was routinely a 9-hour trip that often involved transfers and stopovers at various and sundry bus stations - every single one of them a big fat TEN on the sketch-o-meter.
Albany. Schenectady. Amsterdam. Utica. Syracuse. The stations were rife with all manner of humans and their paraphernalia - literally. I once spotted a crack pipe (!) on the floor under my seat (I think it took my nineteen-year-old brain a full five minutes to work out what it was - and then I got up and moved).
In one such iffy terminal, as I stood waiting with my suitcases, I was approached by a man who asked me very politely for $4.87. You see, he needed a bus ticket that cost $13 (or something) and he only had $8.13. He showed it to me and explained that he was short $4.87. Did I have it? Would I give it to him? He REALLY needed to get the ticket.
I told him I couldn’t spare it. I was a poor college student, after all. I told him I only had $10 to my name. I even pulled the bill out of my pocket to show that I wasn’t bluffing. I only had ten bucks and I REALLY needed them, too.
So, he did what every good hustler would do: he asked if I could break the ten and just give him the amount he needed. I said I couldn’t - I had too many bags and I couldn’t carry them to the counter and be back in time for my next bus. Lo and behold, he came up with a solution: I could simply give HIM the $10 and he would take it to the counter, buy his ticket, and bring back the change.
I hesitated. What if he’s trying to swindle me? What if I’m being taken for a ride? Then again, what if he really does need help? He’d had a pretty compelling story...what if it were true? I might have been the only thing standing in the way of this man getting where he needed to go for the very important reasons he listed but that I can no longer remember. Besides, if I didn’t help, he’d likely be very disappointed. And at nineteen, I’d hated disappointing people...even complete strangers in bus stops.
So, I gave him the money. (You knew I would, didn’t you?) And as I handed it to him I looked him right in the eyes and I said, “Make sure you bring back my change.” That ought to do it, I told myself, he’ll for-sure hold up his end of the deal.
Here’s the (not so) SHOCKING CONCLUSION: Dude did not return with the money.
I stood there looking around expectantly. My hopefulness slowly turned to humiliation as the minutes went by and I accepted that he was never coming back. What’s worse, I started to realize that he hadn’t ever planned on coming back. I’d been a mark. And an easy one, at that.
This wouldn’t be the last time I’d get duped, taken advantage of, or scammed - by strangers or by people I know. (Though, looking back, it certainly is the funniest.) And whenever these types of things have happened, I’ve felt foolish and even questioned my own judgement. Was I not as good a judge of character as I’d believed?
This is just a small, silly example of the types of experiences we all have that make us wonder if we should be more suspicious, assume the worst, and be generally untrusting of others in order to avoid being made a fool, or worse. After all, getting bamboozled doesn’t feel, or look, good.
What I’ve realized every time - after the initial sting has worn off - is that I’d rather help than not help. I’d rather trust than not trust. I’d rather have an open heart than turn my back. I’ve decided that I’d rather act according to my own character, not what I judge another’s character to be...even if it means sometimes getting burned.
Don’t worry, though. The lessons of caution, security, and vulnerability were not lost on me - I’ve learned a lot from these events. That bus station man schooled me with a $10 reminder of the fact that not everyone will behave the way we expect them to. But should we let that affect the way we behave? Not if we can help it.
Moreover, I’ve learned that situations like these are not about me. People are on their own paths - for better or for worse. I can let other people’s choices anger and harden me or I can let them go.
So, for all my fools and easy marks - keep doing you. The good stuff is all that matters.
Keep Up the Good Work,
What does this have to do with nonprofits? I’m glad you asked! My business is dedicated to creating resources and tools on BernadetteMack.com for people who work in nonprofits...and those people also need encouragement. These newsletters are my attempt to give you a chuckle or an idea that helps - thanks for reading!