She saw me through the big picture window, where I was dusting in preparation for dinner guests. “Oh shit,” was my honest reaction as I waved back, knowing now she would come up the front walk to my door and that now it was impossible to pretend I wasn’t home.
I recognized her immediately from sometime past, a heavyset African-American woman with graying hair slicked back, gold on her teeth and unusual light green eyes. Struggling for breath as she climbed the stairs, she claimed to remember me, too, saying she’d talked to me not last year, but the year before, selling magazines. She remembered my pretty short gray hair and slim figure. And probably that I was nice to her and an easy target. I’m sure I gave her money that time, too, just like I knew I was destined to do again. In my mind, thoughts raced in a loop: “It’s a scam! Everyone knows it’s a scam! How do I get out of this? Why can’t I just say ‘No thanks’ and shut the door? How am I going to tell (my husband) Gaylon I gave money to a door-to-door scammer?”
Instead, I focused my full attention on her and stared straight into those green eyes. Very light green, the whites bloodshot from her ability to turn on tears at any given moment. It’s impressive, and amidst my racing thoughts I marveled at this talent, wondering if she does it on cue at every stop. She softened her voice and launched into the first story, that she is an abused mother of three children who does this job to save money so her kids can have a better life. “She’s so good at this,” I thought, knowing just what story to tell to pull at the heartstrings of her current victim. She introduced herself, “I’m Angela. May I ask your name?” I said, “Elaine.” Then she went on, saying “I know I’m selling something you don’t want – magazines.” I chuckled, because she was right on with that one. “But let me tell you how you can help me,” she continued. “And when you’re done, if you can write your comments down here in pencil, so if it’s bad I can erase it.” Ha ha ha! She’s a comedian, too. Knows just when to lighten the mood to keep the victim off balance.
Just as quickly, here came the tears and the breathy voice again. “I just lost my grandmother, who raised me and my brother. My mother didn’t want us and gave us up when we were just kids. I ask you, why didn’t she want us? I just wish I knew.” I told her I was sorry to hear about the passing of her grandmother, and added her mother leaving wasn’t her fault, that her mother’s issues had nothing to do with her or her brother and that she must have been dealing with her own troubles.”
She seemed surprised by my interjection, becoming a little unbalanced. She thought for just a second, then replied, “Well, thank you for that, Miss Elaine.” Another ploy by people asking for money – putting me in a position of authority. She was back on track. “Miss Elaine, my grandmother did the best she could for me and my brother, and that’s why I’m here now, because I’m trying to do good for my kids. This job has taught me so much about how to stand up for myself and gave me confidence. But you won’t see me again next year, because my kids don’t like it when I leave them to do this. No, you won’t see me next year.” She then told me the names and ages of her three kids, all teenagers. Wanting to make it seem like we’re familiar with one another. In turn, I don’t volunteer anything about myself or my family.
I really want to get this over with and back to my cleaning, so I ask, “How much are the magazines?” She tells me that it depends on what package I get, and hands me a stack of plastic-covered pages stapled together. I begin flipping through the magazine titles, looking for anything that looks even mildly appealing. I see a Yoga magazine listed, but no prices. So again I inquire, “How much is it?” After some hem hawing she finally says that it’s $75 for a year subscription. That’s way more than I’m prepared to give, so I ask if there are other options. After going back and forth on this, she finally says, “You could buy the Animal Stories magazine and donate it to a children’s hospital. It’s only $40. And I can’t accept a handout from you, but if you pay cash, I get 70 percent, and if you write a check, I get 60 percent of the money.”
I knew I had two twenty dollar bills in my purse. It was still $20 more than I wanted to give her, but she had honed in on exactly what I had available. She repeated again that cash was the best deal for her. Then she repeats, “You won’t see me next year,” but this time adds, “because I’m going to nursing school! That’s right, Miss Elaine, I want to be a nurse so I can help other people!”
Wait, what? Had I not reacted emotionally enough to her previous stories? This is harder for me to believe than the abused mother and the grieving granddaughter, but I championed this idea right away. “That’s so great! Such a good example for your kids, too.” She says, “Well I know I’m getting old, 43 years old and here I want to go to school. But that’s what I’m going to do.” I know that at this point, she could tell me anything, and since I have no idea whether or not any of it is true, it no longer matters. I’m always going to applaud anyone who challenges themselves with learning, so she can reel me on in. I tell her to wait on the porch while I go find my purse.
I come back with my $40 cash and she says, “Tell me, why are you willing to help me today, Miss Elaine?” At first I said, “Oh, for many reasons.” I didn’t want to engage in more conversation than necessary. But then I added, “Because I can see that you’re a hard worker,” and I meant it. Begging for money under the ruse of selling magazines is a really crappy job. I put the money in her hand and she gave me the clipboard holding a form where I filled in my information: name, address, and reason why I bought a magazine subscription. I wrote, “Angela is hard working and good at her job.”
She tried to shake my hand but instead I went in for a hug, maybe because the week before I’d been at a creative writing camp and experienced the love of many good people who were supportive, inspiring and generous with big, solid bear hugs. Or maybe because I have a nice house where I can dust furniture in a big picture window and have friends over for a lovely dinner. Or maybe because I looked deep into those weary green eyes and doubted that the other strangers she talks to in her bizarre job of wandering through nice neighborhoods all over the United States to ask for money give her a heartfelt hug. So whether or not any of the stories she told were true, I was going to be that person. Whether it made her feel good or guilty was something she had to sort out for herself. It definitely made me feel better about allowing myself to be scammed – I mean, about donating a magazine subscription to a children’s hospital – because I could justify it as helping out another human who’s just trying to live.
Before she walked away, Angela, softened her voice once more, to add a note of sincerity or maybe to get back on script, and said, “Yes, I’m an abused mother and recently my kids and I went back to my abuser. I know it’s scary but I felt it was the right thing to do, and we’re doing good.”
I just looked at her as she turned around and walked down the stairs with my $40. “Take care of yourself,” I said.