She held a sign that read, “Hungry at Christmastime. 5 Children. Please help.” Perched on a corner by the bank in my small, well-off town of Republicans and good schools, this woman looked sad enough with one child next to her. But it was the baby strapped to her chest that got me.
A baby strapped to her chest.
I’m used to seeing the homeless beg on the streets of Santa Cruz, five miles down the highway. Sometimes their signs are plaintive (“Veteran. Homeless. Need help.”), and sometimes direct (“Need a bottle. No lies. Help if you can.”) and sometimes funny (“Too ugly for prostitution. Please help.”), but I hadn’t seen a woman holding a sign with a baby strapped to her chest. That seemed like a new level of desperate. And it was a week before Christmas.
I parked my car near the coffee shop, and walked across the lot to her. As I got closer, I focused on the baby and the warm fleecy suit he or she was wrapped in from foot to head, hood up so you could see no part of the child. That baby didn’t move in the Snugli. But something seemed odd, particularly the wary look in this mom’s eyes as I approached. One hand went to stroke her baby’s shoulders. The apparently sleeping baby in the fuzzy sleeper on a sunny 70-degree day. The mom’s gesture seemed calculated to elicit emotion from me. Emotion that would make me want to part with my money.
As I extended my hand to offer $5, the thought dawned on me that the baby could be a hoax. That the baby wasn’t sleeping but was a doll. That this was the reason a super-warm fleecy suit was fine on a sunny 70-degree day and not causing the baby to be hot and sticky and crying. That this was the reason the woman looked so warily at a stranger who walked across the parking lot to her, instead of quickly offering money from a car window.
And then I realized it didn’t matter. Whether it was a hoax or not, if some woman was desperate enough for money that she would strap a fake baby to her chest, then she probably needed that $5 more than I needed a latte. That if she had decided to risk begging in my town where the police force is known for hustling homeless on down the road, that she was either crafty or hungry. And if I was falling for a trick and giving up $5 I had earned in an honest manner? So what. It was a $5 lesson. This woman may have been begging for money, but, in a way, she was an entrepreneur who had chosen to distinguish herself from the others, try a new location, and make an emotional appeal. Most people saw a beggar and possibly a scammer, but maybe if you tried, you could see a little more.
I looked her in the eye. She took the money and nodded her head. I walked into the coffee shop, and watched her stand on that corner for the next hour. The cops rolled slowly by. People shopped for Christmas. More cars pulled up to the stop sign, and passengers offered money. She took it. And then she was gone.