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Spare change:

If it’s all you have, can you spare it?

A well-dressed woman came to my car window today and pushed all my buttons. She made me question everything I want and know and think and do. But all she asked for was some help. She had a story, she looked frantic; she was immaculately groomed. She was asking for money, she needed gas to get home to Vallejo and had forgotten her purse. She was desperate to get home.

Red warning lights went off. SCAM ALERT, they said. But I opened my change-bin in the car and said, “All I have are pennies,” and she said, “Would you take pennies if you had left your wallet at home and had to get home? It’s a blessing.”

She was a lady, dressed in her high-heeled boots and dress and cape, with her hair well coifed. She had on lipstick and was probably 60 or older.

I was dropping my daughter at high school – she was already late – and I had to get to work because of a deadline. I know I didn’t have any cash besides the pennies because we’re flat broke, behind in bills, with the threat of worse to come, and besides, teenagers had sucked every cent from my wallet in the past few days for drinks and snacks and bus fare, except the handful of pennies – perhaps 30 cents for a lady in need. My 30 pieces of copper.

My daughter got out of the car, gave the lady a handful of her own coins, and went into school. I backed out and kept on to work. But my mind wouldn’t keep still. I should go back. I have a gas card. I should ask her where her car is. My gas card only works at certain stations. I could use the ATM, if I wasn’t already broke. But what if I ask her where her car is, if she wants a lift to the station and I will buy her gas, and it turns out to be a lie?

But what if she’s telling the truth?

Let’s face it. I’ve been scammed before. By a neighbour who said he just needed to borrow a few dollars but would be right back to pay me. Turns out he didn’t even live there. By homeless people so down on their luck it made me want to weep, until I tried to do a bit more and suddenly it became a slippery slope of I want, Help me, Fix me, I’m broken, and I had to shy away. I just don’t have enough here to give.

But what about the widow’s mite? Giving from your want is surely blessed. Giving at all is surely blessed. I gave what I had to give. Why does it simultaneously feel like not-enough and too-much?

I’ve given – have I been screwed?

I’ve given, but not much. I could have done more. Have I been damned?

Would I have offered a ride to a less-dressed woman? A woman, not a lady? A man? A woman/lady/person of a different colour? Who am I to say who’s truly or more in need? And face it – we’re in need. We’re struggling. Who am I to judge? And yet I do, always.

What if I had driven back around the block, as my pangs of conscience told me to, or was that guilt? White guilt, never-enough guilt, Christian guilt? Could I have given her a ride? Would she have thanked me, or scammed me? What if there was violence in this action – if I had played the fool, then been threatened or abused? Would she have thanked me? Would it have mattered?

What kind of fool am I, to weigh the deeds as good or not good, as worthy or wasteful, in balance with how much I will be lauded and thanked? A Pharisee would do the same. Should I stand on the corner and rend my gown and pray aloud so people can hear; give my alms in the daylight?

What-ifs keep me from reaching out. What do you do when the what-ifs arise?

  • Julia Park Tracey wrestles with her faith at She’s the Poet Laureate of Alameda, CA, and author of several novels. She has written for Salon, Paste, The Mid, and Sweatpants & Coffee.

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