My decision to "just say no" when approached by panhandlers with touching but improbable stories has prompted some readers to reproach me for a lack of compassion.
My hardness of heart was a result not only of having been bilked of $20 by an appealing young couple who turned out to have bilked hundreds of others but of numerous stories of similar scams from readers.
Several came from women who had been approached in the Marina del Rey area by a young woman who said her name was Becky; she was variously a paralegal or an insurance investigator, living in San Diego, and she had a small daughter in her parked black 280ZX. Her wallet had been stolen and she needed money for gas to get home.
"The logic used to arrive at your 'just say no' conclusion seems to be the foundation of bigotry," writes Michael Hix of Redlands. He then supports this vague charge as follows: "You have a bad experience with a particular individual. Others write to relate similar anecdotes. You conclude that all such interactions must be scams based on these limited encounters. Once a week, then, could you not relate a similar story about a person of a certain gender, or ethnic or socioeconomic background, and receive like responses? Would you then conclude that Jesus wouldn't have helped those deadbeat welfare moms? You could then write off the blacks, the gays, the poor, et al, and find some frothing Neanderthals to back up those notions."
I confess I do not follow Mr. Nix's reasoning. In any case he lets me off the hook:
"By no means do I believe that you are a bigot. The upsetting part of your conclusion is the cynicism it bespeaks. Your writing frequently champions the individuals, virtues and values that are largely overlooked in a daily newspaper. To come down on any side but that of compassion and love seems at odds with the general tone of your column. . . . "
Edmond Finucane, who had written previously to recommend the generosity of Jesus, writes again to say, "I can see I haven't converted you."
Evidently Finucane was disaffected by my remark that "Jesus didn't live in Los Angeles."
"From the accounts of the scam," he perseveres, "it seems the same people did most of the damage. In any event, let's not let them destroy our trust. It's much better to be stung (what's $20 worth of good intentions) then not to give. Not giving diminishes us, whereas by giving we receive. Life is about laying down our lives in loving service for one another. Go with your 'bountiful' heart."
Bob Kelsey of La Crescenta, a retired Probation Department pre-sentencing investigator, takes a different view in a letter to the editor. In our society, he says, vicious criminals often become celebrities. Mass murderers find wives while serving their sentences.
"Yes," he says, "Jack's victims got off easy. They didn't marry their predators. And yes, Jesus did say that we should give to those who ask. The giving, however, is not the problem; it is the inability to distinguish the needy from the swindlers, or the good from the bad. And yes, Jesus did not live in Los Angeles."
Meanwhile I have more stories from readers who have been victimized.
Allen Lidyoff of Montebello tells of a young woman whose approach was not only dramatic but unusually bold. She appeared sobbing on the first green of his golf course, saying that she had been raped. She declined offers to get help. The rapist had stolen her purse. She needed money to get home. The golfers obliged. She started for the clubhouse but, noticing other golfers on a nearby tee, she headed for it. Same results.
Dave Parris was approached on a Beverly Hills bank parking lot by a young man who said he was a UCLA law student. His car had been towed away with his paperwork locked in the trunk. He had $32 but needed $18 more to get his car back. He had money in the bank, but the bank wouldn't give him any because he had no ID.
"I don't consider myself naive or easy prey," Parrish says, "but I was taken by this guy's tough luck, youth and sincerity. He had all the answers."
A man who asks me to withhold his name points out that it must be humiliating and demoralizing to beg. "Maybe Becky comes from a good family, dropped out of high school because of pregnancy and has never learned an occupation and is therefore unable to find a job."
OK, Becky. I'm giving you a chance. Two of your victims have sent me your license number, and they match. I will not turn them over to the police unless I hear that you have struck again.
Have you ever thought about studying to be a paralegal or an insurance investigator?