There’s a gas station on my way home from work where, 90% of the time I go there, someone asks me for money. Yesterday, it happened again. This time, I was the only one at the pumps The old black man in a wheelchair and army jacket was far away, up against the outer wall of the mini-mart. I’d never seen him before–it’s never same person twice, but it’s always somebody. 

I cursed myself for not making eye contact for fear he would ask me for that which I’d worked hard for (well, worked for anyway). Assuming someone is a beggar is a pretty rotten assumption to make. It wasn’t until I put the pump back on the handle and turned his way that I realized what I thought was the grunting of a crazy homeless man was, in fact, him asking me for “spare change.” I told him I didn’t have any, which was a lie.

Let me back up. My policy is to give when people ask for it, if I have it. The guy near the McDonald’s two weeks ago got two bucks off me. I emptied my pockets for the woman at the grocery store a month back. I was glad I had more quarters than I thought I did. It’s the right thing to do and it sets a good example for my daughters. It’s not my place to judge anyone’s situation. If someone asks me for help, I give them the benefit of the doubt and give what I can. No, I’m not rich. Times are pretty tight right now and it’s been an unusually bad year, financially speaking. But I do what I can.

Sometimes, I like to do a little more than just give money. If you have a sickly look and stumble towards me before asking, I’ll usually put a caveat on my gift. If you tell me you won’t use it for booze, then you get the money. I’ll take your word. Most everyone makes the promise, but not all. Once, this one guy said, to his credit, “Nah, man. That’s alright.” And he walked away.

But it seems my generosity does have its limits. There’s something about not being able to go to certain places without the bother of someone asking me for what’s in my wallet. When I can count on it happening, it feels intrusive. I get irritated. I get impatient and I won’t make eye contact with people when I pump gas at that one station. When the man in the wheelchair asked me for money yesterday, I was bothered enough by it that I completely forgot I had change in my pocket. I didn’t have any bills in my wallet, but I could have given him my change if I’d been less focused on getting home quickly and how bothersome it was to not be able to pump gas in peace . Sure, I didn’t have much. Maybe 25 cents in pennies and nickels. But it was better than nothing. Which is what I told him I had.

Then, I got back in my car, cued my shiny new iPod back up, and drove away. I felt pretty darn wealthy in that moment and I didn’t like the feeling. At all. Next time, I hope I do better.

What about you? What do you do when someone asks you for monetary help?