The Challenge of Giving

/ 17 minutes


Not long ago, my family was sitting on the couch watching some YouTube clips by Mark Rober. (Yes, we are "cord cutters", currently using an AppleTV hooked up to the living room flat panel. Though we are more like "never been corded" types, as I have not had/paid for cable in over 20 years. But that's another story.)

For those not familiar, Mark Rober is a former NASA and Apple engineer who has made a name for himself as a YouTuber who does... how shall we put this?... interesting (and often funny) scientific and engineering experiments. 😀 He has some solid engineering chops and a very good presentation style. I am jealous. He is younger, better looking, more articulate, and worth a crapton more money I am sure. 😀

Most may know him from his Glitterbomb creations, an engineering masterpiece designed to teach porch thieves a lesson. 😀 More recently he put together a video showing how they were able to get back at some of the scammers out there, and he lays out just how devious and cold these folks are. (Well worth a watch, especially by older folks, as they are the target demographic.) There is also the Squirrel Ninja Obstacle Course (one of my favorites), and... well just go see for yourself.

Anyway that evening we watched the video Mark Rober had recently posted titled The Truth About My Son, in which he talks about his autistic son. Now personally, I found it very moving. First, it takes courage to put yourself out there on the Internet, as invariably the haters will show up. It also hit close to home, as I suspect it would for almost any caring parent. For me, the father of a young son, it was just that: a loving father talking about his young son. The man wants only the best for his son and others in a similar situation. And based on all the other videos we have watched of his, Mark Rober strikes me as a sincere, genuine person who cares about others. (If he is faking it, he deserves an Oscar.) I also happen to think he had a unique way of trying to help those of us not on the autistic spectrum (what they would term neurotypical I believe) to have even just a faint idea of what it might be like. Worth a watch.

During that video, Mark Rober announced a livestream YouTube fundraiser/special that he and Jimmy Kimmel were cohosting on Friday, 30 April 2021 to raise money and awareness. It was called NEXT for AUTISM Color the Spectrum. (For those who may not know, Jimmy Kimmel also has a son who had a congenital heart defect and required surgery as a baby.)

Long story short, my family sat down to watch the livestream. In the end, we (ok, my wife and I) watched the entire 3+ hour event. And during that stream, we learned a few things we did not know. And by everything I observed, I believe they did a very good job in helping raise awareness around autism, giving voice to the autistic community, and doing so with dignity and respect.

Now I had shared the link for this event with some folks I chat with online. And one friend wrote back the following, which knocked me back a bit on my heels (notably the last bit):

I sincerely hope they make good on the promises they made to the adult autistic communities who came forward to ensure that autistic folks actually benefited from this. There are a lot of autistic-led orgs that provide meaningful aid and support to fellow autistics: nothing about us without us.

NEXT for Autism has done some major image surgery recently to pretend they never used language that was, to be blunt, quite eugenicist.

Now I am familiar with the root word in "eugenicist" but honestly went to look it up to make sure I was not misunderstanding.

[My father lived through World War II as a teenager in The Netherlands, and my mother was born there in the middle of the war. So that war had a huge influence over our lives albeit indirectly. My father loved to watch all things WW II related. Let's just say that, beyond movies like "Mr. Roberts" and "A Bridge Too Far", I grew up as a child on a diet of WW II documentaries like "World at War". (Excellent series. I do not recommend watching while eating hot dogs with ketchup. Just sayin'.) Again, a story for another time. But point here is that due to my upbringing, I am well aware of the term eugenics. It is not one I associate with positive meaning.]

So having someone use that term in relation to an organization that was supposed to be a positive thing... well, it made me uncomfortable. Had we inadvertently supported bad? This, in turn, led me to go do some research, as I tend to do when I want to learn something and get at the truth of a matter. A pile of browser tabs and some time later, the result was that, at least for my own conscience, I felt that while in the past there does appear to be some poor word choices and (possibly) less than ideal sentiments regarding autism from certain, specific folks, overall this did not strike me as systemic. And during the livestream, I believe that everyone involved showed the right attitude. They showed how autistic folks cannot be pigeonholed into some simple box. "If you have met one autistic person, then you have met... exactly one autistic person." And they had various autistic folks on to show the... yep... spectrum. Through their word choice, they reflected things like that autistic folks do not like being labeled as "having autism"--as if it were a disease to be eradicated--but rather prefer "autistic", as in that it is just who they are. Honestly, I think it was very positive.

Of course, I could be wrong. I am open to that. It is why I went off doing research. Because the truth matters.

The Challenge of Giving

begging_600x400 But it did bring up a topic that comes up again and again. And that is the challenge of giving in general.

Now I believe most folks are decent human beings. They care about not just themselves but others as well. For example, while politics and social media in recent years may show how divisive folks can be here in the U.S. (and likely elsewhere), the statistics still show that Americans are very generous in donating to charities.

The challenge, of course, is that invariably there are also those who exploit that generosity. So how can you be sure that the donation you give to charity X, or that cash you hand to that person begging on the street, truly goes for a good purpose? How do you make sure you are not being suckered? How do you make sure that you are not, in fact, acting as an enabler of bad behavior such as drinking or drug use?

The truth is, you can never be 100% sure. But if you do your due diligence, use a bit of logic and common sense, and maybe have a little bit of faith, you can at least come to a place where you are comfortable with your decision to give, or not.

A Trip Down Memory Lane... err... to NYC

One story from my life comes to mind. Back when I was in grad school, object-oriented programming (OOP), notably around C++, was just really kicking off. And back in those days, to do any real coding work in a language, you needed a paid compiler. Open source was not what it is today. And oh yeah, there was no public Internet at that time.

And of the compiler companies that existed at that time, Borland was by far the premier maker of compilers for PCs. I had used Turbo C in my undergraduate operating system class to write an OS. And Turbo Pascal was popular with others. So when Borland announced Borland C++, I was excited. But it was a high-end, rather expensive compiler costing in the range of $300-400, way out of my price range as a poor grad student.

Then Borland announced that they would be doing a "tour". They would have Bruce Eckel teaching C++ in these one day classes at various venues around the country. If you signed up, at a cost of ~$200, not only did you get a full-day of C++ training, but you got to walk away with a copy of Borland C++! Needless to say, my Dutch nature kicked in. 😀 I could get the compiler AND a day of training for less than the compiler itself? Sign me up! When I saw this, and that they had a class going on in NYC, that was all it took. To me it was an investment in myself.

Now my parents lived just across the border from New Jersey (NJ) in Pennsylvania (PA), basically about 1.5 hours driving away. So though I was in grad school, it was summer and I was home. So I took a bus from eastern PA to NYC.

I remember that day well. I spent about half the day in the class thinking, "So what?" over and over. Bruce Eckel started with the usual introductory bits about classes and inheritance, instantiation, etc. He used the idea of a car class, with 4 wheels, etc., and then having subclasses where you had more specific attributes/etc. for designating specific kinds of cars, blah blah blah. But as someone who had coded in C and used structs, pointers, etc., it was like, "But what's the point? Can't I do most of this already in procedural languages?" I was not seeing the real benefit of OOP.

But at one point I had one of those "ah HA!" epiphany moments. I am talking where the light bulb goes off over your head, when it finally clicked for me the value in all this OOP business. And it was the best money I ever spent. (How I leveraged that in a graphics class later on I will save for another time.) But this is likely why that day sticks in my head.

Anyway, when the class was over, and I had my copy of Borland C++ in my bag (that box was heavy, but then it was a pile of floppy disks and several books), I headed back to the NY Port Authority to find my bus ride home. It was a gorgeous day. I remember the off-white jacket I wore to try and look professional.

NY Port Authority

I walked into the NY Port Authority (Midtown Bus Terminal), and as this was my first time taking a bus into/out of NYC, I was a bit disoriented figuring out where I needed to go. So I was standing at a map in the center of the station for all of 10 seconds when this teenage boy walked up to me. He was wearing jeans and a sweater that had clearly seen better days. His clothes were dirty, but he had the look of someone who was making the best of what he had. Understandably, I think, my senses were heightened.

"Are you looking for the bus to Easton?"
"Now how in the hell did he know that?!" I thought to myself. And in my mind's eye I went over everything I had on, the bag I was carrying, etc. "I am not wearing anything that indicates PA or Easton or anything like that. Nope, no name tag or badge or anything. And I'm standing in front of a 6-8' map and it's not like it says "buses to PA" or anything. It's a map of the station. So how did this kid figure out where I was looking to go?"
When I said I was, he said, "No problem. You just need to go down here on this escalator. I can take you."

Now for anyone who has not traveled much or who grew up in a small town, this kind of thing sets off all kinds of alarm bells. Is he trying to lure me into some dark corner to mug me? Is he hoping to pick my pocket on the escalator ride down? What is going on here?

But this boy started talking to me, telling me his life story. How he was living in the Port Authority (homeless), but how he had just landed a job at a fast food restaurant. (I want to say it was KFC or Chik-fil-A, but don't quote me. It was a place that served chicken, that is all I remember). And it was clear from the tone in his voice and how animated he was that he meant all this. He spoke with excitement about how he would be starting in a few weeks, and that he could finally find a place to live, etc. And so here he is talking to me as we go down this escalator, and the whole time I am looking around and over my shoulder, remaining very aware of my surroundings.

But all he did was guide me right to the specific booth where I needed to go in order to buy my ticket home. So I got in line, bought my ticket, and then he said, "You want to go over here to this platform for your bus." And he showed me where to go.

As I had some time to kill (my bus was not coming for over an hour), I started talking to him. I asked what he was doing there in the Port Authority, etc. And he was very friendly. He explained that he and other kids like him would help tourists and travelers to get to where they needed to go, and that if those folks wanted to give them something in return, that was fine.

What struck me was that he was not simply asking for a handout. He was offering a service. If anything, he was being rather entrepreneurial. Instead of panhandling, these kids figured out a need, and then they tried to fill it. That is, you got something for the money you gave.

Could I have figured out where to go eventually on my own? Absolutely. Did he save me time? Yes. Yes he did. In fact, he saved me enough time that I was starting to feel hungry. At one point he said, "If you want something to eat, there's a counter right there." And he pointed.

So we walked up together. I asked if he would like anything. He told me that the guy who ran the counter wouldn't serve him. I asked why. He said that the guy did not approve of what these kids did. Right in front of the man I told the boy, "He's not serving you. He's serving me. What would you like?"
The boy hesitated, then looked up at the board. He asked shyly, "Could I get a hot dog?"
"Sure. Anything to drink?"
"Orange soda?"
I looked at the guy behind the counter, and I ordered two of each. The guy behind the counter was clearly annoyed. But hey, I was the customer. So he served up the food, I paid, and I handed the boy the hotdog and soda.

We stood there eating and chatting a bit. And it was really nice.

Then, at one point, this other, larger, older teenager came lumbering along, stumbling a bit, clearly drunk. And he put one arm around my shoulder, put his face close to mine--so close I could smell the alcohol on his breath--and he said, as he wobbled there, "Hey... You're my friend... You're my friend... But... but I need your help."

Now this was the classic case of a drunk homeless person hitting you up for money. And to say I had no interest in doing so would be an understatement. But before I could say or had to do anything at all, two more teenagers showed up, similar to the one who had helped me, and pushed the drunk larger teen away from me, almost as if to protect me. And they started berating the drunk teen. "Why you gotta be doing this? You make us all look bad! Get outa here!" And they kept pushing him until he went away.

To be clear, those last two boys never came to me. They never asked me for a thing. They seemed to be helping the teen who had been helping me. My guess was they were doing like he was, trying to help folks in return for some cash. And clearly they were looking out for each other.

So once we finished eating and it was close to time for me to go, I gave the teen $20, and wished him well with his new job.

Now could this whole thing have been a setup? That is, could it all have been an elaborate sham by all these teens to sucker me, a guy from out of town, out of some coin? Sure. Sure it could. Do I believe that was the case? No. No I do not.

And I have no remorse for giving him $20 that day. In fact, if anything, I have often wondered whatever happened to that teen who helped me that day. I would be genuinely interested in knowing what he made of himself. If he was, as I believe, sincere, he struck me as the kind of person who could go far in life. He seemed to have a good attitude. And if it was all an elaborate scam, then hey, props for a job well done. Hopefully they put those skills to better use eventually.

And to this day, I have never figured out how he knew exactly which bus line I was trying to find.

And a Few Years Later

Grand Central Station Main Concourse There was another time when I was doing consulting in NYC where, each morning as I came up out of Grand Central Station, I would walk past multiple folks on the sidewalk who positioned themselves just outside the stations' escalators looking for a handout from the incoming commuters/visitors. Now there was an elderly woman who sat in a wheelchair who had no legs. To her I had no trouble whatsoever giving money. Yes, it was clear that someone else must be wheeling her into position each day for maximum exposure. She could not have gotten there on her own. But SHE.HAD.NO.LEGS. I did not care what the circumstances were. I was blessed to be in good health, had work, and was in a position to help. And here an elderly woman was relegated to sitting outside a train station, regardless the weather, asking for handouts.

Now about 30' further down the sidewalk there was another person, a young woman, sitting on the stoop, a cup of coffee and a cigarette in one hand, asking for handouts with the other. That one I had more difficulty with. If she could afford cigarettes and coffee, then she did not need my donation. Was it a judgment call? Absolutely. Could there be reasons for that, like someone coming by each morning and giving her that coffee and cigarette? Possibly. But my instincts told me otherwise. So there I did not give money.

I write all this because the truth is, in any event such as these, or the fundraiser, or cases more recently like driving up a highway exit ramp and standing at a light, where you see folks with signs saying they are veterans/etc. and can you spare something, it is difficult to know when to give and when not to. I tend to err on the side of giving when I am not sure. And that likely makes me a sucker in some folks' eyes. But I am ok with that. Because in the end, I am the one who has to live with my decisions.

But yes, it is not always clear. And I do not think the challenge of giving will ever fully go away. All we can do is the best we can with the information we have, and possibly with a bit of a "trust your gut" instinct in any given situation. The one thing I would say is that, if you always start from a place of love and compassion, odds are you will land on the right side more often than not.

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