Cashing In

Okay, it must be divine appointment weekend here in Chicago. After ANOTHER great night out with some really interesting and intelligent writers, I got off of the el (how cool am I to use the lingo of Chicago?) at Harrison Ave. and begin walking back toward the hotel. It’s a crisp 30ish degrees out, and I am feeling alive. Alive, feeling the ache and wear of three days walking around the city, breathing in clarity and exhaling exhilaration. Next to a fenced parking lot (and underneath a streetlight, for all of you paranoid and worried mothers out there), a woman asked as she began to walk past if I was familiar with the city, to which I promptly replied, No, sorry. The poor lady was almost in tears and shaking like it’s nobody’s business to shake. She started going on, sobbing and hiccuping, about how she drove into the city and parked her car somewhere, and the car had been towed to some lot on 18th street, and she needed to get to it, had a driver’s license and wallet to prove she wasn’t some nut, and just needed $20 dollars more or so to get her car out of the impound.

I prayed with the lady, whose name turns out to be Patricia, and she praises Jesus all over the place, shouts a hallelujah and says she will repay me, asks for a name of a church or something so she can send something to me care of so-and-so. I wasn’t going there so I just said you go ahead and give to a charity to take care of whatever she needs. And then we hugged and she cried and I gave her some money (how I am going to appropriately reconcile all of the expenses for this trip is going to be an adventure, let me tell you – I will not be getting reimbursed much once I factor in cash) and off she went.

All this time the fear and panic meter is ticking steadily around low to medium gauge, somewhere about the caution rate. I keep thinking some guy is going to run across the street and snatch my purse as I’m closing my eyes and putting my arm around the woman in the long coat with a fur-lined hood to pray that the Lord would protect her and ease her fears. Ease my fears, ease my fears. All this time, I’m weighing the cost – does she really, truly need my help to get her car out of the impound, or is she one very gifted actress working the out-of-towners at the Hilton Chicago? Is this her way – walking the block with nervous hands – to con skeptical but trusting tourists into generosity without begging? And does it matter which scenario is true?

As I’m typing this, it occurs to me I heard a similar version of Patricia’s story earlier this week, told by a friend at the conference, and I suddenly feel douped. Was this a divine appointment or merely a scam artist? As I read an article on that sick feeling of douped-ness settles in my stomach. SCAM! Did she not have one credit card? Claiming to have driven six hours into the city and then to have her car towed, she successfully eliminated a nearby friend or relative option, but no credit card?

I feel taken advantage of in some ways and then just plain silly, walking away from her feeling as if I’ve just connected with another human being at her point of need, smiling and light. How does one pull such a fantastic trick, such fraudulent faith and hope, such an orchestrated deceit?

Or is the skeptic in me rising up, vaguely aware of the depravity of mankind, ready to harden her heart to any pleas for help for fear of being taken advantage of.

I think what I need to settle in, because it’s 11 p.m. CST which means it’s midnight EST (and we all know what happens at midnight), is that my motives were sincere. My concern and prayer was sincere, though cautionary, senses on alert. Perhaps my business is not to know the outcomes of tonight but to know that I had an opportunity to be a light to a lady in some way, and if she got the better of me – it’s on her soul. I hope she was true and authentic. But if not, I hope she finds a warm place to sleep, eats a filling meal, and works toward a day when she can use her theatrical talents to glorify God rather than trick a tourist.

Published by Sarah M. Wells

Sarah M. Wells is the author of The Family Bible Devotional: Stories from the Gospels to Help Kids and Parents Love God and Love Others (2022), American Honey: A Field Guide to Resisting Temptation (2021), Between the Heron and the Moss (2020), The Family Bible Devotional: Stories from the Bible to Help Kids and Parents Engage and Love Scripture (2018), Pruning Burning Bushes (2012), and a chapbook of poems, Acquiesce, winner of the 2008 Starting Gate Award through Finishing Line Press (2009). Sarah's work has been honored with four Pushcart Prize nominations, and her essays have appeared in the notable essays list in the Best American Essays 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2017, and 2018. Sarah is the recipient of a 2018 Individual Excellence Award from the Ohio Arts Council. She resides in Ashland, Ohio with her husband and three children.

3 thoughts on “Cashing In

  1. It looks like you had a lot of interesting experiences in Chicago. It makes for some good writing topics. I’m very happy that we got to hang out with you!


  2. Maybe it’s the Cleveland in me, but I’m way overly skeptical of people I meet on the street. You’re much nicer than me. Remind me to tell you about the time we almost got robbed at AWP in Atlanta. AWP is dangerous! 🙂


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