Giving is important, even though it doesn’t help anybody.
Last week in Times Square, a 25-year-old police officer, Larry DePrimo, felt a twinge in his heart as he passed by a barefoot bum, Jeff Hillman. Moments later, DePrimo emerged from the nearby Sketchers store with a brand new pair of $100 boots for the homeless man. A tourist from Arizona snapped a photo of the good deed, it went viral on the internet, and then we all felt warm and fuzzy inside. Dickens himself couldn’t have written a better story.
Earlier this week, another New Yorker, perhaps touched by DePrimo’s good deed, tried to help out a similar transient brother. Ki Suk Han, drunk and out on the town after a fight with his wife, tried to calm down a belligerent bum on a subway platform not far from where DePrimo’s moral stunt was captured days earlier.
Like DePrimo, Han’s good deed was caught on camera (and video). Unlike DePrimo, however, Han’s help was not well taken. The bum pushed Han onto the tracks, and Han became a greasy spot on the front of the Q train.
Okay, so maybe Han didn’t make a dent in his subject of suffering any more than his skull made a dent on the train’s bumper. At least DePrimo got through to his bum, right? Not exactly. When Hillman’s family was reached for comment, they made it clear that they have welcomed Hillman into their home many times, but “this is the life he’s chosen for himself, and we have resigned… to accept that.”
Then, we learned Hillman had already gotten rid of the boots because, “[the boots] are too expensive to have. It’s unsafe.” This may mean he traded them for a oral sex, or it just means he hid them under a rock in Central Park. Either way, he’s not wearing the boots. A $100 boon to the bum economy would cause a riot, just like paying factory workers in the third world $10 per day would cause a riot.^1
So the best we can say about the end result of these two stories is this subway bum is going to go to jail. And all that had to happen was Han had to die, and his wife will forever live in guilt over their last conversation, which was also their last argument. Seems a tad Pyrrhic to me.
With the season of giving upon us, perhaps this doesn’t feel like the best message about giving. But that’s the truth about giving—it doesn’t help that much. If you really want to help others, it takes tons more work than a silly pair of boots, or drunken words of affirmation.
This doesn’t make giving unimportant, though. It simply frees us from having to be serious about giving, and instead renders it exactly what it is: fun.
So by all means, buy presents for your family, help out at a soup kitchen, or just say hi to one of those old, decrepit Jewish ladies you see puttering around. But realize that whatever is exchanged in that moment is going to die in that moment.
Television, movies, and 19th Century literature romanticize random acts of kindness more than they romanticize women, but this tale of two bums whiplashes us back to reality.