Driving Mr. Walker
By Steve Suitts
Vol. 12, No. 4, 1990, pp. 5-7
I was taken for a ride on Memorial Day Sunday. At home without my family (off visiting relatives) I was sitting on my front porch when a stranger approached. Dressed in a golf shirt, shorts, and running shoes, the black man had a story–one I had heard dozens of times.
“My family and I were driving through Atlanta and our car broke down on I-20. I have been stranded with my wife and two little babies all night… ”
It’s a line that has been used by panhandlers and hustlers in Atlanta so often in the last few years that even the local radio talk shows have discussed the come-on. “The wrecker service has my car and we haven’t eaten all night…”
“What do you want me to do?” I asked.
“I need a ride to my car and get it from the wrecker. . . ”
This time I said, “All right. Let me get my keys.”
We drove my car, a 1978 Chevy Malibu with a loud muffler, and he talked non-stop. He was from Boston…in the Air Force as a career man…had been stationed in Panama…now he wanted to come down South…his car had broken down late yesterday afternoon…he had been walking around looking for help all night. . tan older couple had taken in his wife and kids…a police lieutenant had helped him with some money until called away on an emergency…the wrecker repair shop wanted $120 and he had paid them all he had… “What’s your name, sir?”
“You look like a lawyer, are you, sir? Do you need to go by a money machine to get any cash?”
“How much do you owe for your car?” I asked.
“Fifty-seven dollars. Do you have it? Do you need to go by a money machine to get the cash?”
“I think I have that much.”
We were traveling down Memorial Drive where a Baptist hospital and the Martin Luther King Center stand as landmarks. I hadn’t expected him to ask for so much cash, whether his story was genuine or fake.
“Sir, don’t you wear a seat belt?”
Only then, as I pulled up my strap with a thank-you, did I realize how tense I had become.
Mr. Walker continued to talk and talk. About his car…about his life…he had bought the car from his lieutenant…He was “one of the lieutenant’s boys…We looked after him and he looked after us…” He talked about his family…about how hard it is to have someone help you when you’re in a strange place…
As we turned right, following his instructions, the monologue began to blur as I realized that the city wrecker service was actually in another direction. “I think we’re
gonna like it down here. ..Atlanta is such a clean city. . .look over at that parking lot…there’s nothing there…no trash. . .nothing.. . ”
Finally, when he said to turn left, I asked him: “What was your name, again?”
“Walker. Robert Walker.”
We were now at the edge of Capitol Homes, one of the federal housing projects squeezed between the interstate highway and the Georgia government buildings. He asked me to stop.
“Where’s the lot-the wrecker service, Mr. Walker?” I asked.
“Oh, I have to call him first on his beeper…I just thought you might want to give me the money here so that we don’t do it out in the open. ..This is a rough neighborhood and I wouldn’t want folks to get the wrong idea. ..Do you have a pen or pencil and I’ll get your name and number and send you your money as soon as I get to the base. . . ?”
With no wrecker service, tow-truck, or family in sight, I ripped a piece of paper and wrote down my name and telephone number while Mr. Walker did the same.
“See, I even wrote down that I owe you $57.” He now had my money.
“I could just walk on over from here by myself, if you don’t mind.”
As I drove away, I looked back in the rear view mirror at Mr. Walker. He was walking away with the same brisk step, the same sense of purpose with which he had arrived on my porch. I tried to understand what had happened. Why had I given a not-so-perfect stranger $57 when two or three times a day I stubbornly turn down pleas on the street for a quarter?
Part of it was fear and part was comfort, I suspect. While listening to Mr. Walker’s monologue, I realized that there was something large, bulky, and sharp in his short pants. He kept his hand near it. The object could have been a knife or it could have been a long key chain. Sitting within two feet of me in the car, Mr. Walker left me more vulnerable on a deserted Sunday morning than do most panhandlers on the street.
Also, Mr. Walker didn’t appear to be entirely destitute of drive or ambition. A middle-aged black man, he was dressed just like my brother would have been had he been coming down from Chicago. He was articulate and talked clearly about values of family and work-all characteristics that probably made him seem all the more deserving in my eyes.
But, why did I allow myself to be put into that situation? Why did I let that chain of events happen in the first place?
Looking back, I think it was one of those moments in my life when I needed to risk something, a little money and perhaps my own faith in human beings, in order to see if I was really living in a community where people do help strangers in need.
This wasn’t an organized decision to witness my concern for the poor, as is volunteering at a homeless shelter. While important, that commitment could not touch the
core of my need on Sunday. Then and there I could no longer go on turning down strangers blindly without knowing if I was truly able as an individual to do something meaningful about the suffering and distress that I see walking down the streets everyday near my office and home.
For ten years I have negotiated with my conscience and with the homeless, hustlers, peddlers, and the distressed as I walk the streets. Telling most of them, “No, I’m sorry I can’t help you today…but good luck,” I have built an elaborate set of rules of personal conduct: Always give money to women and children who are homeless; If people say they’re hungry, take them to a nearby restaurant if convenient; Don’t give money to people who are drinking or drunk; Don’t give money twice to people who make a business out of begging. On Memorial Day weekend, I was tired of living by these rules that have no virtue other than convenience and compromise. I wanted to know if my own sense of Southern neighborliness, my own belief in a South of concern for all had become so narrowed over time that I can now count as my neighbors only those individuals I know in person. Simply, I needed to know if I could truly be a good Samaritan living in the heart of the South.
Apparently not. Mr. Walker took my money and I have not heard from him since. Don’t expect I will. Clearly, I was more of a sucker than a Samaritan. Suspecting as much, I called the phone number Mr. Walker gave me for the “naval air side base.” It was probably a random number–a phone recording for someone who tried to sound like W.C. Fields when asking that you leave a message.
Looking back, I know that I was willing to run a risk from the time Mr. Walker came to my porch to the time I handed over the money because I thought both he and I had promise. He was energetic and able-bodied. He was someone who, if helped, could prevent tragedy in his life, make something out of his life. My little act of charity could possibly make a big difference in his life, I hoped.
Of course, I didn’t get nor deserve such self-satisfaction. Had Mr. Walker’s family been sitting in a car as we turned the curve at Capitol Homes, I now see that I would have been the victim of a false sense of community, a bogus self satisfaction about what I alone can do in the face of societal homelessness and poverty.
Until the society in which I am an active, productive member acts in its own collective self interest, I am virtually paralyzed as a neighbor to stop the violence of poverty that empties the spirit, soul, and pocketbook of individuals and communities. My own individual need for neighborliness–my own need to be open and generous to those who are different and strange–cannot be quieted for now. I must live with convenience and compromise because I do not live in a city or region where neighborliness cares for all.
If Mr. Walker had returned my money, that would have been the real hoax.