Under Analysis . . .

Have a good 2015

Mark Levison, The Levison Group

The years keep rolling on. We have survived the law firm Christmas parties, lawyers were paid for the work they did and the client dollars they generated in 2014, and now it starts all over again.

My wife Cheryl always goes overboard when it comes to gift giving. This year, she said, "Mark we have so much, and our kids are all doing well, so instead of buying presents, let's give the money to charities in our children's names, and tell them not to give us anything at all." That presented a different sort of spirit of Christmas giving.

Lawyers participate in a variety of charities including bar-sponsored charities, general civic charities, and various types of board work. Like others, sometimes we give to people on the street.

My wife read that the Salvation Army bell ringers stand by their kettles as part of their payback for getting help from the Salvation Army. Now, she will never let me pass a Salvation Army kettle without adding to the till. Some of the bell ringers don't look like they need help, but it's hard to know.

It's also hard to know when to give money to those who approach us on the street or on our way into stores. It can be irritating. The story often told is they need money to get someplace. The thought often contemplated is they need money to support an unhealthy habit. This season several videos concerning the homeless were getting a lot of hits on YouTube (check out https://youtube.com/watch?v=AUBTAdI7zuY and http://youtu.be/CPdqtktkZnO). The videos reflected the message that the homeless, although down on their luck, were good and charitable people themselves. In one case, a homeless man is given $100 and then surreptitiously followed and filmed. When he goes into a liquor store, and comes out with a big bag, the giver of the money is certain it is filled with alcohol. The camera then follows him as he distributes lots of food - not liquor - to other homeless men. These videos are very moving, but the lawyer in me remains skeptical. How can we know they aren't productions created with an agenda in mind?

That skepticism received a couple doses of reality this holiday season. One cold winter's night, the weekend after Christmas as Cheryl and I were exiting the parking lot of a Walgreen's Drug Store, a middle-aged woman knocked on the passenger side window and asked for money. She looked pretty distraught. Cheryl, who almost never has any cash, said, "Give her some money." I said, "All I have is a $5 bill, and that will leave me with no money at all." She said, "So." I handed the money to Cheryl who gave it to the woman. She seemed surprised to receive any money at all, and, overwhelmed with gratitude, she said, "Thank you so, so much, my children have been eating out of dumpsters."

I left my law firm yesterday and walked the one block through the unlit alley to the entrance of the garage where I park. A thirty-something, tall, well-built man, bundled up in a short jacket and scarf, approached me as I was waving my magnetic entrance card in front of the reader to gain access to the garage elevator lobby. He said, "Sir, please don't be offended, but could I just take 15 seconds of your time? I stay at a homeless shelter, but we aren't allowed in there until 8 p.m., and we have to leave in the morning. I just need some bus fare to get to a nearby fast food restaurant so I can sit in there for a couple of hours until they open the shelter. Even a few pennies would be okay." The man had a nice face and bright eyes. He didn't strike me as someone who would likely be homeless, but there was a sense of panic in his demeanor. I was carrying lots of legal documents, and had on gloves to protect against the 5-degree weather. I reached into my pocket for my wallet. At the back of the bill portion was a twenty. I cumbersomely - after all I had on gloves - tried to leaf to the front portion of the bills. There were a bunch of ones. I was looking for a five. He was watching as I sorted through the ones. He probably thought I was going to give him a one, or maybe a few ones. As I fumbled through my wallet, a fellow about 21, and rough-looking, walked by. I couldn't help thinking, "You know this may not be the smartest thing in the world to be doing." I didn't see any fives. I looked into his eyes one more time, then reached to the back of the pile and handed the fellow a twenty. He started to cry. He said, "Do you mind if I give you a hug?" We both hugged, and he whispered, "[I]t is so cold out here". I just nodded and started to cry myself. He said, "God bless you." Of course, that is already the case.

I got into my car, which was getting warm by the time I drove a few blocks to my health club to swim. After I was done swimming, I got an hour and a half massage. I then went home to do several hours of legal work in my carriage house accompanied by my wife, three dogs and a cat, glancing once in a while at the big screen TV.

It's hard to know when to give money to strangers. At times, it seems like such a complicated issue: Are you encouraging them to panhandle rather than work? Are they scamming you? Are you feeding their addiction? Are the YouTube videos fake? But then there is the lady at the drug store and the fellow I met on a very cold night.

A simple New Year's resolution for all of us might be to try to be a little less judgmental, a little more generous and to be very thankful for having some money in our pockets and a place to sleep at night.

Under Analysis is a nationally syndicated column. Mark Levison is a member of the law firm Lashly & Baer. You can reach the Levison Group in care of this paper or by e-mail at comments@levisongroup.com.

© 2015 Under Analysis L.L.C.

Published: Fri, Jan 16, 2015