encountering domestic abuse

Today I gave $5 to a stranger.

She1 approached me while I was walking my bicycle past the Porter Square subway station. It was 10pm on a Sunday night. She was smoking. She said “Hey” to me. I didn't know what to expect, but her demeanor didn't seem threatening, so I approached cautiously. Her words came quickly like a spooked crowd of geese. I listened. “My boyfriend beat me up.” She continued in that vein, clearly upset, for a hundred heartbeats. She continued, “I need to get home. Can you give me $2 for the T? I really am really sorry for asking. I'm sorry. ... I don't have anything. I bummed this cigarette off of someone.” After a moment, I decided to give her money.2 While I was getting the money out, I asked where her home was,3 and she named a T stop on the Orange Line. I didn't have exact change, so I gave her a $5 and said “Here's five dollars. Good luck.”4 She walked into the station and I biked away.

I wish her the opportunity to be as well as she wants to be.

  1. I didn't ask her name or pronoun. The person was probably female and that is important to the story.

  2. I am as confident that her story is true as I can be about any social situation I'm fairly unfamiliar with, which is about 70% confidence. It is likely to be true because abuse is really common and people tend to tell the truth. It is likely to be false because asking for money on the street for other reasons is fairly common. It's likely to be true for several reasons. I approached her feeling comfortable even though it was late at night, and continued feeling comfortable with her demeanor and the medium distance she kept from me, and my intuition is often good at sensing people. Frankly, I think hers is a fairly risky story to tell a stranger in today's society, and if I were a liar choosing a lie to tell, I would not choose it. This is borne out in the statistical fact that the vast majority of sexual assault claims are true, and yet skepticism, disdain and abuse of survivors are much higher than for most crimes.

    From a utilitarian perspective, I gave 70% × $5 to a cause I care deeply about (and I was one of the few people who could have in this situation), and 30% × $5 to someone I don't feel so strongly about. That's worth it.

  3. I am not proud of asking. I was hoping to be able to offer transit advice, because the subway (the “T”) was being slower than usual, which was why I was bicycling. I was also a little bit hoping to hear any detail to help me relate to her situation better and have more confidence in it.

    Details, especially her location, are not information I have a right to, or even to ask or want from anyone who's in this vulnerable situation. To be more noncoercive, I made sure only to ask after I started getting out money, and to accept any answer or non-answer, but I am still not proud of asking. This is why.

  4. An hour later I was super relieved that I didn't have exact change, because the CharlieCard price for a subway ride (which both of us were thinking about) is $2 but the CharlieTicket price is $2.50. I realized that I could have opened the fare gates for her with my CharlieCard but that would've been too inconvenient because I was with my bicycle and slightly in a hurry. Also, giving her the extra money was a good thing. I also realized, after getting on my commuter rail, that giving her $5 meant I didn't have enough cash to pay for the commuter rail home. I would still have given her $5 knowing that. It turned out to be unimportant because I had a commuter rail ticket in my wallet that I'd bought the previous day.

    The next day, I noticed that my wallet contained a domestic abuse hotline card and I'd forgotten to offer it to her. Maybe I'll remember next time.