Part I-Prologue: A cold afternoon

Two friends and I were sitting at a cafe near Northeastern for lunch. Two of us had just left an open house for Northeaster’s graduate speech-language pathology program, while the third was a current student in the program. When one of them left to pick up his order, a man approached the two of us at our booth. He explained that he was trying to buy a blanket at a nearby Target for him and his girl because it was cold out, and he needed some help. I gave him a ten, and he mentioned going to a nearby ATM. I then gave him five ones, not responding to his comment about the ATM. My friend at this point started rummaging around to find her wallet as he sat down and asked how we were doing. The man said something about exchanging bills to her, so she gave him a twenty. Then he got up and started to walk away.

My friend quickly stood up and walked after him. It took me several seconds to realize what had occurred, and during this time I only watched what was happening. My friend followed the man outside–it was a frigid, windy Saturday afternoon, and she had left her coat behind. She was talking and trying to get his attention, but he kept walking. As they both left the cafe, several people turned toward them to see what was going on. I saw the man cross the T-tracks and leave, while my friend came back into the cafe. I asked my friend if he had walked off, and she said he had. At this point our other friend returned, and he asked what had happened. We explained some of the details, and then we all started to process what had just occurred.

A few minutes later, a woman approached our booth and asked my friend if she was okay. My friend assured her that she was fine, and the woman continued to say that what my friend did was kind, but it was okay if she didn’t feel comfortable giving someone money. She asked my friend how much she had given the man. When my friend responded, the woman told her to wait, and she left the cafe. Several minutes later, she came back and handed my friend a twenty. My friend protested, but the woman insisted that it was okay. She then bade us farewell, and the three of us sat for a while and talked about all of these events. In total, the entire incident probably lasted around 15 minutes.

Before I continue, let me pause here for a moment and point out something. I left out many details about the people involved in this story, and mainly told the events of what happened. Did you fill in any of those details as you were reading it? If you did, I would invite you to hold those details in mind as I start telling you more about these 15 minutes.

In the past when I’ve talked to friends who belong to different communities, they have told me to consider the social and systemic forces that are at play in our everyday interactions with others. For this reflection, I am going to attempt to do just that with this story. In that process, I may say things that you may disagree with. I may say things that you find ignorant, narrow-minded, and perhaps flat-out wrong. I will be candid in saying that what follows are difficult topics to discuss and reflect upon. But I am willing to risk being wrong for the sake of starting a conversation about these forces.

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