It was Christmas Eve and, like a chump, I found myself shoulder-to-shoulder with all the other desperadoes looking for last-minute miracles at Walmart. 

By the time I came out of that sweat-scented store, I had my arms heaped high with an array of items because my early Christmas wish for the return of shopping bags had not been answered. Thank you, Santa, for that big heap of nothing. 

The lady approached me just as I stepped into the slush outside the doors. 

“Excuse me sir,” she said. “Can you spare a few dollars so I can get something to eat?” 

Through the wobbling stack of boxes balanced so precariously within my arms, I peered at her. Here was a lady of about 25 with stringy blond hair and a face full of freckles. She wore a hooded sweatshirt under a light windbreaker and the kind of gloves where the tips fold away from the fingers. 

While I struggled to balance my loot, the woman watched me as other, more organized shoppers streamed by her.


“Let me run to the car and unload,” I mumbled to her. “And then I’ll come back.” 

A curt nod was the lady’s response and then she was on to other targets. 

On the unsteady march to the car, weaving around abandoned shopping carts and stomping through dirty slush, I pondered the great question of the day. 

Was she an honest-to-God woman in need? Or just another scam artist looking to make mucho dope bucks off the naivete and generosity of good-hearted souls at Christmastime? 

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. It’s just sad as hell that we have to ask ourselves this question any time a stranger puts their hand out for money these days. Because we all know that there are genuine people in need out there — more than ever, maybe — and passing one by when you could have helped would not be good for the soul or for the conscience. 

And yet for every legitimate person in need there is at least one grifter out to lift money from our pockets to fund things that have nothing to do with warm beds or full bellies. 


The wild-eyed woman who hits you up for food money outside the convenience store is really just looking to fund another night of snort at her dealer’s downtown apartment. 

The man who asks for gas money so he can visit his sick momma is really just supplementing a larger home repair scheme because he finds the notion of regular work distasteful.

Over and over we find scammers like these undermining the more pressing efforts of those who sincerely rely on the generosity of strangers to survive day-to-day. Fewer people give outright these days because after the fourth of fifth time getting punked, it starts to leave a bad taste. We feel bad for people who are so horrifically addicted, but who wants to contribute to that whole mess? 

So I mused over this unhappy question as I unloaded store-bought stuff into the car. At one point, my foot slipped backward in the slushy parking lot muck and I banged my head on the car door frame. My frozen fingers at last abandoned their task and two of the boxes from the store went tumbling down into that dark brown ooze. 

What a crap day I was having! 

By the time I was done huffing and puffing and swearing, I remembered the lady in front of the store. Through my banged and buzzing head, I had reached my conclusion — there was a pretty solid chance that the lass was scamming us all, I reasoned, and probably for nothing more than a night of blow and bottles of Mad Dog 20/20. 


But so what? It was Christmas Eve and if there was even a 5% chance the lady was starving while the rest of us stuffed our faces with tourtière pie and fancy dips, it would be stone cold cruel to stiff her. In fact, I felt a little guilty about having ever wrestled with the question at all. 

Ultimately, I came to be at peace with the notion that I’d probably be helping to finance a night of partying and holiday decadence. The easing of guilt and tortured ambivalence alone would be worth the crumbled $20 bill I meant to fork over. 

So, I went back to the store and, as the old-timers say, there she was: gone. It’d been maybe two minutes since I last spoke to the lady but now she was nowhere to be found. I searched in front of both entrances, scoured the parking lot and scanned the desperate faces of all those last-minute shoppers stumbling every which way in front of the superstore. 

Nope. Gone. As far as I know, the lady with the freckles was merely an apparition, sent by Father Christmas himself to teach me a thing or two about the holiday spirit of giving. And if that’s so, then did I fail for questioning the lady’s true motives? Or did I pass because in the end I decided to help the lass no matter what? 

I don’t know what the final ruling was, but here it’s nearly a month after Christmas and you still can’t get disposable bags in the stores, so I consider the whole holiday season a wash. 

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