The setup begins in a familiar manner. The young man, hands bunched in his pockets, slouches to my pump. He doesn't catch my eye until he's right on top of me. He says, "Hey, can I ask you a question?"
I have stopped at the Super America on 35th and Chicago. My fuel gauge teeters on empty. My stomach is crying out for something more substantial than the few tortilla chips I wolfed on my way out the door. I have an appointment in an hour. And I've heard this line before. Too many times. "Can I ask you a question?"
What am I supposed to say? No, thanks, got enough questions of my own? Do I win a prize? What about that dude with the Beamer? Bet he's rolling in answers.
The people with the questions rarely single out the BMWs, Acuras and Audis of this world. Instinct or hard experience has taught them that you don't earn a big-ticket car by being free with your wallet.
Or maybe I'm generalizing again. Already, I've lumped the young man into the generic "they" and "them."
But you and I both know where his question about a question leads. On this particular morning, I say, "OK," because it would be rude to say otherwise.
And so he continues. "See, my car basically drifted here on fumes." His thumb gestures at a bucket loafing at the next pump. "And I was wondering if maybe you could just" -- my jaw tenses -- "give me four bucks or whatever?"
"No," I say, and unscrew my gas cap. I'm already looking at 50 bucks to fill my modest sedan. Dare I add a $4 gratuity to assuage my Christian guilt? To feed the poor and all that?
By now, you've possibly made a judgment about me - either than I'm cheap or that I'm generous. I certainly made a judgment about the young man: that he was bent on a cheat.
Later, I shared my story with friends. They stand among those who rain spare change on the Twin Cities' less fortunate. Yes, they said, he may have been working a con. Yes, he's not Cinderella and you're not his fairy godmother. But ...
Maybe it's because I live in the suburbs -- where people angling cardboard solicitations at stopped traffic are rare -- but I don't feel a civic duty to cough up dollars for the asking.
I've been promised impromptu poetry and country-western ditties in return for cash. I've been approached at bus stops, in coffee shops, on walks and outside restaurants. I've been told about keys locked in a car. (She needed money for a locksmith.) I've been petitioned for light rail fare and cigarettes and booze -- in currency, if you please. Still, I say no.
I guess I'm a born cynic. But I believe, too, that there are better means of improving society, and people closer to home and to heart in need of a boost. I believe we strive, most of us, to live our today better than our yesterday, and that we fail again and again. Yet, by slipping a bill into a stranger's hand, do we improve a human life or our own self-regard?
At the pumps, the young man watches cars come and go. He disregards some and approaches others. "Excuse me? Can I ask you a question?"
I merge into traffic, weighed down by a full tank and a familiar guilt. I would not give the young man $4, not for anything in the world. A cynic, I don't credit a word he says. Still, I have lost in our exchange. I have lost the certainty of my own goodness. Someone asked for help, and I said no.
Britt Aamodt is a print and radio journalist, and the author of "Superheroes, Strip Artists, & Talking Animals." She is a source in MPR's Public Insight Network.