Thursday, July 05, 2001

Beggars and Salesmen

By Alan Burkhart

Okay, It's July 5th, 2001, and I have HAD it!!! I'm in a Chicago-area truck stop; marooned until tomorrow morning. When my dispatcher told me that I couldn't reload until the next day, I accepted the news with good grace and found myself a place to (I thought) rest and relax. I believe in making the best out of any bad situation.

So, I walk into the truck stop (it's one of the big fancy "Travel Centers"), make my way through the tangle of mindless tourists and grab myself a couple of cold, fresh Lipton bottled teas and head back out to the truck. As I'm nearing the exit, here's this dude with a tiny fold-up card table stacked with some unidentifiable green substance in little plastic bottles. A humidifier is also on the table emitting a steady cloud of steam."Excuse me sir," he says, "let me have your glasses for a moment."

Let me say here and now that my glasses were not dirty. I don't like dirty glasses, windshields or windows. I glanced at the pile of stuff on his table and took a guess: "No, thanks," I said, "my glasses are clean.""But sir!" he began, and then launched into a sales pitch about his ANTI-FOG product for glasses and all but demanded that I give him my $120.00 specs so he could clean and "treat" them for me. I'd be so amazed, he promised, that I'd surely wish to purchase a lifetime supply of this green gobbley-goop so I could smear it on my glasses. I was utterly amazed at the temerity of this guy. What, I'm gonna let some total stranger put his hands on something that I put on my face? I finally just walked away and left him talking. He raised his voice and shouted at me across the store, still making his pitch. I jammed my tired body into high gear and got out of the store before I lost my temper.

I walked out to the truck and dropped off my drinks, then headed across the street to another truck stop that happened to have a Hardees onsite. I have a real weakness for the "Monster Burger". As I approached, I noticed a middle-aged fellow in a wheelchair sitting directly in front of the entrance. Another man was standing there beside him, politely declining whatever it was the guy was selling, giving away, or begging for. I stepped around them (QUICKLY) and went inside.

At Hardees, I walked up to the counter and a young lady bustled out to take my order. My exact words were: "I'd like a Monster Burger to go please; not the combo, just the sandwich." She asked me if there would be anything else, and I replied (politely and with a smile, I might add) that I only wanted the sandwich.

"But sir!" she began, and started a sales pitch about the two for a dollar apple pies or whatever it was they were pushing that day. I interrupted and reminded her that I wanted only the sandwich. Looking like a spanked puppy, she retreated to fill my order.

As I approached the exit, I noticed that the guy in the wheelchair was still partially blocking the doorway. I pulled my cap down tight, got a good grip on my Hardees bag, and charged out the door, straight across the gasoline islands towards the street. The guy was yammering at me the moment I exited the building.

"Hey buddy!"I kept going."Excuse me! Hey there!"I kept going."Hey! You in the black hat!"It's a CAP, not a hat. I kept going."Well I guess yo' ass is deaf and blind ain't it!"I almost turned around, but decided not to satisfy him by rising to the bait.

I crossed the street, returned to my truck, and locked the door behind me. I've now eaten my burger and I'm slowly sipping the remnants of a bottle of tea and enjoying a cigarette. And, I'm thinking that by now you're probably wondering what the point of my rambling may be?

To the point: Is it just me, or is importunity becoming an accepted practice in this country? I encounter people like this almost every day! What's wrong with walking into a business, doing business, and walking out without having no less than three people hassling me for various reasons? Can't I just go get what I want and do it in peace?

At most every truck stop I visit, I encounter people who have one thing in mind: MY WALLET. They're selling pre-paid phone cards, t-shirts, used computers, metal polish, sex, drugs, cheap gold plated watches and jewelry, and just about anything else you can think of.

There are representatives of every religious faith passing out pamphlets to save my soul, grass roots wannabe's trying to sign me onto their cause (and get a donation of course) and recruiters from half a dozen trucking companies who all claim to have the best deal going (I like my present job just fine, thank you).And then there are the BEGGARS. Each one has his or her own story:
The car's outta gas and Aunt Mable is in the hospital and I just GOTTA get there to see her!
I'm a trucker myself, and I need to get some money to get to a job interview (by the way, most trucking companies pay travel expenses for new hires).
I'm outta work and I got seven kids! Can you spare some change?
I got robbed and I need money to get home!

I'm not insensitive to needy people, but I'm not stupid either. You don't see nearly as many of these people in Wal-Mart parking lots or shopping malls. They gravitate to truck stops because people seem to have this notion that truckers are: (A) Made out of money, and (B) Dumb as a sack of rocks. By the way, I'm NOT made out of money. I drive a 1993 model Rice Burner, I live in a trailer house, and I'm up to my freckled ass in debt. Hmm… Chances are you didn't really want to know about the freckles on my ass. Oh well, too late now.

The vast majority of these people are frauds. How low does one have to sink to go out and impersonate a homeless person? Gimme a break! A lot of Americans are running low on pride. My advice: Don't give in to these people. Don't feel guilty. If they truly need help, they'll go to a shelter and get it. It's easy to fall prey to the notion that this person might really be in need of help. I know that feeling. It bothers me to see good people fall on hard times. But you must remember that thieves and hustlers will use this honorable trait to milk you for hard cash.
Back a few years ago, I was sitting in the little truck stop in my hometown when this guy came in carrying a stack of what appeared to be business cards. Without saying a word, he walked to each table and passed out cards to each and every person. The card stated that he was a deaf mute, had no means of being self-supporting, and was humbly requesting donations. After distributing the cards, he returned to the first table and stood there, staring expectantly at the good-natured old trucker who had been eating his supper. The guy smiled, albeit uncomfortably, and fished out a bill for the guy. At that, EVERYONE started pulling out their wallets and handing money to him. As he walked out, he was smiling. We all felt so good about ourselves. It really does make you feel nice inside to help someone, right? Then he hopped into a Corvette (I AM NOT MAKING THIS UP) with a beautiful young woman and burned rubber leaving the parking lot.

Upon seeing this, the waitress called the police, who caught the guy a few miles down the road. The truth came out a few days later: He and his little woman did this on a regular basis! They were hustling people for money to finance a summer road trip! They were both gainfully employed, but didn't want to dip into their savings to pay for their vacation. The county put them up in the "Cross Bar Hotel" for about three months. Hey, free room and board!

My ex and I (before she was my ex) were sound asleep in the truck one night when these two guys started knocking on the door. They were trying to get to work, you see, and one of their vehicles broke down. The other guy came along, saw his car, and stopped to pick him up. Hey, this could happen, right? Read on...They explained to me that they didn't have much time (hence I didn't have much time to think about their story) because they could not afford to be late for work. Would I please LOAN this perfect stranger twenty dollars so he could get the part for his car and go fix it on the side of the road so he wouldn't be late for work? I politely said that I did not have twenty dollars (a lie), but I wished them all the best luck (a bigger lie) and see ya later. They promptly went to the next truck in the line and woke the man up. To his credit, he declined as well. I was too tired to sit up and watch, and returned to bed.

How did I know he was lying to me? Well, if he really was in a hurry to get to work, then he didn't really have time to go fix his car, did he? And, couldn't his buddy loan him twenty dollars? It was also very late at night in a small southern town. There were no auto parts stores open right then. You won't get someone to come down and open up for free. These dudes probably did this little trick once or twice a week, preying on the tired, the sleepy, and the gullible to get their beer money.

Please do be careful of those who pander to your sympathy. There are, I know, people who really do need our help. But, remember that there are legitimate organizations out there to help these people. I donate clothing and canned goods to the Salvation Army once or twice a year. I stop and assist motorists on the roadside when I can safely do so. I share with my neighbors and family. But I ain't gonna loan you twenty dollars at two in the morning. I was born at night, but it wasn't LAST NIGHT.

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