It was with sadness, though not much surprise, that I learned the homeless-and-barefoot fellow who caught the sympathetic eye of a Manhattan cop is actually a bit of a fraud. He apparently has dibs on some governmental benefits (which will be expanded if President Obama has his way,) an apartment somewhere in New York, family members who want to take him in and an admirable appreciation for the free market.
No sooner had that heartwarming photo of Officer DePrimo's selfless act of charity become public than Mr. Size 11 1/2 tried to sell his footwear for some quick cash. And so, another uplifting parable about Good Samaritans and grateful sinners becomes a cheap joke for the Internet age.
That's not to say the act itself wasn't noble. Regardless of the unworthiness of his beneficiary, NYPD's finest did an amazing imitation of the Christ that I studied in catechism class. The unfortunate part of the story is that instead of focusing on the kindness of good people, we are forced once again to ruminate on the futility of expecting grace in a world overrun with manipulators.
Let us pause for a moment in this joyful Christmas season to give the Pollyanna readers a chance to cluck their tongues and say, "Oh Christine, why so jaded?" And I do hear you, earnest friends. I, too, want to channel my inner Tiny Tim and say "God Bless us everyone!" and hold hands with the other Whos in Whoville to sing that unintelligible yet classic song "Pha-room, Phoray."
But it becomes harder and harder to see the good in a world where there are so many others who are willing to exploit that native compassion for their own benefit. Yes, the homeless exist and Sister Mary Scullion (who is probably disgusted with the way this Mercy girl turned out) is a saint. Indeed, there are people who through no fault of their own have lost jobs to downsizing and are finding it harder and harder to make it to the end of the month. And yes, the 47 percent probably do manage to pay taxes, after all.
But knowing that there are so many people out there able to impose upon our better angels and then make a mockery of our good will like the big-footed clod in Times Square makes it that much harder to feel empathy, an evanescent thing that can disappear as quickly as it forms in the soul.
I think the real reason I'm disturbed by the sour ending to the New York story is that it confirmed my deepest suspicions, the ones that I'd pushed to the back of my mind when I first heard what had gone down on that dark corner. My initial inclination was to think that, perhaps, this homeless person was going to sell those shoes for drugs or some other unsavory contraband. But buoyed by the unnatural innocence of this inner-city cop and his unprecedented humility, I abandoned my Scrooge-like cynicism and celebrated this small triumph of humanity.
It took only a few days to realize that once again, pearls had been thrown before swine. That fellow in Times Square did not deserve the kindness shown to him by the police officer. This doesn't diminish in any way the grandeur of the act. It does, however, show us that the saying "whatsoever you do to the least of my children, you do to me" doesn't always translate well on the mean streets.
Of course there are those who will say it doesn't matter that Lawrence Hillman has a place to stay, a family that wants to help and now, apparently, some cash in his pocket. He is still, to these warm-hearted ones, a child of the same God that looks down with love upon us all.
And yet, not all of us are on a street corner somewhere accepting the favors of strangers or, worse yet, accosting people on the subways and, most threateningly, lunging at people from dark doorways as happened to me a few weeks ago. I have to tell you that when that deranged man hit me in the head and slammed my cell phone into the ground after I refused to give him money, my desire to help him was about as strong as my desire to get hairstyling tips from Debbie Wasserman Schultz.
There are good people out there, people like that New York cop. There are open hearts, and open wallets. But each time such goodness is twisted and mocked, and each time we are made to feel guilty for having a bit more than our neighbors, it makes it that much harder to bend down and help the next time around.
Christine M. Flowers is a lawyer and columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News.