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Sunday, April 12, 2009

True Acts of Charity

Appeared in the Beacon News on April 12, 2009

Although I rarely ride Metra, I recently decided the train was the best way to go to a training class in Chicago. I arrived at the transportation center about 15 minutes early and stood in line to purchase my ticket. Once I got to the window, I was stunned to learn Metra didn't take credit cards. Those who know me well know I rarely carry cash. I go through life swiping my credit card for nearly everything because I find it less cumbersome than writing checks or fumbling with loose change.

The cashier directed me to an ATM so I again waited in line to get cash. When it was my turn, I fed in my credit card and typed in my PIN number and waited. Denied. The transaction could not be completed because my PIN number was incorrect. After trying twice more with the same results, I looked at the people waiting behind me and offered with nervous laughter that I was having technical difficulties.

I then panicked because my train was about to leave. Recognizing my angst, a man behind me offered to give me some cash. I was taken aback by his offer and my initial (and silent) reaction was "no way." I am not very good at taking charity as my pride tends to be an inhibitor, but I had no other choice. I could either accept the man's offer or I could politely decline and miss both the train and my class. Without hesitation, he handed me a $20 bill.

I scribbled down his address and promised I would pay him back. He gave me a knowing smile and said, "It would make a great letter to the editor if you didn't because I read your columns in the Beacon." I was absolutely flabbergasted (but secretly giddy) at being "recognized."

After I recovered and took my seat on the train, I thought about a previous column I had written about Good Samaritans and instantly knew I had crossed paths with one. Some might argue the man wasn't really a Good Samaritan because he knew where to find me if I was delinquent on my payment. Nevertheless, he most certainly did not have to bail me out of my predicament. My ride on the "cash-only" Metra train gave me an hour to contemplate human nature and what makes a person trusting enough to hand over $20 and risk not getting paid back.

If I'm honest with myself, I don't think I would have given money to a total stranger if the tables were turned. Being a police officer for 15 years has made me rather suspicious of the motivations of others. Mind you, this isn't something I'm particularly proud of, but it comes from years of investigating the intricate scams that some criminals successfully pull off by tugging at the heart strings of others.

I have seen seemingly gentle mothers use their children as props to scam money from charitable victims. Then there are unsuspecting people who handed over money to the nice couple that knocked on their door with an empty gas can and a "stalled" vehicle -- the same thing they pulled in several neighborhoods and made a handsome earning. There are hundreds of similar scams that I have seen over the years that have made me into the skeptic I am today.

And then a man in a train station gives me a moment to pause and reflect on humankind. I immediately settled my debt by sending him payment, but I wondered what he would have done if I hadn't. Some people just give to others without expecting anything in return. No scams. No motives. No need for recognition. Whether it be a kind act or a charitable donation, those who selflessly go out of their way for others are reminders of everything that is right in the world.

If you have any topics or questions that you would like Aurora police Lt. Kristen Ziman to address, e-mail them to Kristen Ziman@gmail.com.

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