Al Donalson, a.k.a. Al Don, was an irreverent and beloved local news editor for The Pittsburgh Press and then the Post-Gazette for nearly 30 years. He died April 8 at the age of 80. Today we are running in his memory a Saturday Diary he wrote from March 26, 1988.
The other week, while I was walking Downtown on my way to work, minding my own business, this white guy stopped me on the street with a “Yo, Brother.”
Experience told me that when a white guy I don’t know gives me a “Yo, Brother” for openers, I’d better hold tight to my wallet. Experience was right because he then asked, “Bro, can you give me a buck or two for breakfast?”
Aware of the biblical admonitions about my responsibility to the blind, crippled and crazy — not to mention the lame and halt — as outlined in Matthew 25, I told the guy I would take him to the nearest fast-food joint and buy him a breakfast. He didn’t agree that was a fine idea. “What is this? Don’t you trust me?” he asked.
“In point of fact, no, hell no,” I replied.
That gave him cause to question the authenticity of my Afro-American heritage and to suggest in the strongest terms that I be fruitful and multiply without the benefit of a female partner. Or, for that matter, any partner at all.
When I told him, “Sorry you feel that way about it, Brother,” he muttered that he harbored some suspicions about my sexual orientation.
This encounter brought to mind some of the other more notable conversations I have had with panhandlers over the years.
There was the time I stopped for a tall cool one at an outdoor joint in the hills overlooking Port-au-Prince in Haiti. This husky, nattily turned out young dude approached me.
“Hey, soul brother from New York [most Haitians think all American visitors are from New York City], let me speak to you for a moment.”
Experience told me that I should hold tight to my wallet when a black guy I didn’t know wanted to talk to me for a moment. Experience was right.
He asked me for 50 cents. I asked what he needed it for. He said for his sick momma. I told him to take me to his sick momma and I would give her the 50 cents. He exploded.
“Big fat soul brother from New York chomping on his big fat cigar wants to play games about a lousy 50 cents.”
Under normal circumstances, the young man and I would’ve had words. But it was the time of Baby Doc and the Ton-Ton Macoutes, so I bit my tongue, chomped down hard on my big fat cigar and walked away. I may be stupid but I ain’t crazy.
Then there was this other time in a back street of Budva, Yugoslavia, where I had wandered to get away from the creeps on the tourist bus for a few minutes. A gaggle of dirty little kids came running up to me.
Normally, when I get to a foreign country, the only language I take the time to learn is how to cuss and how to say, “That’s too expensive.” But it didn’t take much learning to figure out that a few of them wanted me to go with them into a dark alley where, they said, I could be entertained by one of their female cousins for a few dinars.
I wasn’t born yesterday. I knew that some old mamasan or some young tough was probably waiting down that dark alley to stick a shiv in my back and make off with the few dinars I had. So I told the little freaks, with the help of a few international hand gestures, to take a walk. One of the little beggars replied, in a most surly fashion, “Niger.” He ran like the wind before I could practice my entire lexicon of Slavic cuss words on him.
Most of the time, I’m civil to those with the open palm because I enjoy hearing their pitches. I like good, entertaining stories. If a beggar comes up with a good story, I’ll dig deep.
If somebody tells me, like a guy did recently, that he needed some bus fare to get to a hospital to see his son who’s suffering with AIDS, that’s worth 25 cents. Also worth two bits was the lady who stopped me to say that she needed help to pay for a psychiatrist for her husband who drinks too much.
However, a request for a dime for a “cup of java” just doesn’t cut it anymore.
That was the request I got a month or so ago from this familiar-looking fellow. On closer inspection, I realized it was a guy I went to high school with. Each day, he would prowl the lunchroom asking for a “case dime.” Before long, he would have enough case dimes to order lobster or whatever it was they would be serving at the table where the teachers ate, while we fatheads who had financed him had to be content with Hamburger Helper.
When I realized who he was, I gave him a dime, just for old times’ sake. He looked at it and said, “You’re just as cheap as ever, ain’t you?”
The pitch that gets me every time, though, is honesty. Like the guy who told me not long ago that he needed enough for Jack Daniels because his stomach couldn’t stand the cheap stuff. I gave him a buck.
There was another time when I coughed up two bucks for a guy who was real honest, but for taste reasons I can’t tell you the details. Of course, if you want to give me two bucks …
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