Last Friday as I was going to work, I passed a street kid who seemed to be begging for something from a lady at a pastry shop. I thought to do something good for this complete stranger, so I asked the lady to pack him two tea scones. As she was wrapping them, I heard him say that he wanted tea instead. The woman said, and I got the feeling she was insisting at this point, that the person who makes the tea had not arrived. This was rubbish, of course.
It was slightly past six-thirty in a city that is constantly hungry. Serving him tea would probably mean inviting him into her establishment, and that would put off the other customers. It was a hole-in-the-wall. To-go cups were not part of their offering. I took the scones and handed them to him. He looked at me like I was giving him a pile of hot shit. I was a bit nonplussed. Which chokosh does not want food? By this time, his comrades had gathered around him. He kept insisting that all he wanted was tea and at this point the lady chimed in exasperatedly and told me not give him money.
I was not going to at first. I was getting late for work, so I asked his peeps whether they wanted the scones so that I could get going. They did, and I passed them on. From that confusion of urchins came a thank you. The “main man” however was having none of that. He wanted tea. He said he was cold, and that was what he needed. I agreed to get him tea, but I had “important things” to do, so I asked him how much he needed.
He would have preferred I walk with him to a mama wa chai and pay on his behalf. Depending on the place, he said, it could be ten or twenty shillings. I was in no mood to walk about town with a street kid in search of a tea lady, so instead I thrust twenty shillings from the change I got from the pastry shop into his extended hand. He made a slight protest, and his insistence was grating on my nerves. I told him to be grateful or return the money. I lingered for a bit, glaring at him then walked away.
That incident got me thinking about how we approach helping people in general, especially when coming from a place of privilege or advantage. Do we ever stop to ask the people we think need a hand what exactly they want? I do not believe so. Most of the time we do what we think will help them, which is the height of arrogance. What makes you think you know what someone else needs without even asking?
For all I know, I could have been being played. After a short reflection, I became ashamed because I was doing it to make myself feel better, not out of the goodness of my heart. I imagine the warm feelings that wash over us when we are generous to others is one of the primary drivers of notable random acts of kindness.
That kid knew what he wanted. Tea. Not scones. Not money. Tea. He even went so far as to ask me to accompany him and pay for the drink on his behalf. This was not one of the better moments in my life. I failed as a human being. The alternative would have been what we have all done more often than not: walking on by, pretending the street children do not exist, or worse, thinking them lying and lazy and taking advantage of hard-working Millicent Bystanders and walkers-by.
I have always believed that if you can, make the world a better place and not just for yourself. I have failed at this often, and I failed again when I went about this encounter clumsily and with hubris. Maybe next time when a street kid approaches you, ask them what they want. We should treat them like they have agency because they do. We owe them that much.