I had arrived at Superior Court in Hartford early. The judicial marshals hadn’t unlocked the doors to the courthouse yet, but already there was a line forming at the entrance. Standing in line is a waste of time, and wasting time is a mortal sin in the practice of law. I decided that this was as good a time as any to try my hand at praying the rosary. Of course, I’ve recited the rosary before, but I’m not particularly good at it and, admittedly, I don’t do it very often. Nevertheless, I keep a rosary around the rearview mirror for the same reason as many Catholics: to remind me not to use the middle finger or yell obscenities while driving.
As I started saying the rosary, I noticed a man walking around near the courthouse. He was early middle-aged and only marginally unkempt. He was approaching people who were arriving to court or otherwise milling near the entrance. I could tell from the body language of those he approached that he was asking them for something.
I’m a lawyer and in court in Hartford often. I’m also a member of St. Patrick–St. Anthony Parish, also in downtown Hartford. I had seen this man before and recognized him immediately. I knew that he was asking people around the courthouse for money.
He tells people that he was arrested recently. That the case against him was dropped and that the marshals had just released him from the courthouse, without his wallet or cell phone. Or he says that the bus from the Hartford Correctional Center had just let him off at the courthouse after having his case dismissed. His tale is one that preys on those who are unfamiliar with the criminal justice system; people who find themselves at court for the first time in their lives or the family members and friends of a defendant are particularly susceptible to his story. His appearance is just clean enough and his account just reasonable enough for it to all seem credible.
I don’t think he tells this story intentionally to lawyers at the courthouse. A lawyer would know that the marshals do not just foist people from the courthouse, penniless and destitute, without their possessions. A lawyer would know that the Hartford Correctional Center transport, also run by the judicial marshals, is not a bus that is going to let anyone out and free before they see the judge. Unfortunately, too, many lawyers may have seen enough begging and homelessness around the courthouses that they wouldn’t give this guy 10 seconds for his story.
Earlier in my career, before this man had pegged me as a lawyer, he had approached me with his story. My wife tells me I am a sucker when it comes to those who resort to begging on the street. I know that there are better ways to support the poor than by giving a beggar money. I know that sociological research would suggest that among the transient population of the homeless, there is a high likelihood that my money will go toward narcotics, alcohol or some other vice. I know that giving money is a sure way to continue getting solicited. Nevertheless, all too often when I’m approached on the street or drive by someone holding a sign, I can’t help wondering if, when I’m standing at the gates to heaven, Jesus will say to me: “Remember the time that the guy with the prison release story came up to you asking for money to eat and you refused? That was me.”
That day, the marshals were running late. As I sat in my car in front of the courthouse, rosary in hand, the man approached me once again. I rolled down my window and let him give me his spiel, yet again. I heard him out and then reminded him that I’ve heard it before, a couple of times. I asked him why he keeps coming around and telling this lie to people. So he tells me another story I’m well-acquainted with too: He is hard on his luck, has a substance abuse issue and is homeless. He’s saving money and is going to turn his life around. His story worked and I gave him a few dollars, but I told him that he needn’t approach me again because that is the only time I will contribute to his cause.
Of course, I don’t know what he spent the money on. I hope his second story, about getting his life back on track, was a true one. However, I still see him around on occasion.
I don’t know if it is a spiritual or moral necessity to give to beggars in inner cities. I don’t know which, if any, of them actually might be Jesus in disguise, here to test me. However, if you see a beggar and hear his or her story, and it reminds you to say a decade of the rosary and/or contribute to a nonprofit that services the homeless community, perhaps there is a spiritual element to the encounter, after all.
Cody Guarnieri is a criminal defense lawyer with a Hartford law firm and is a member of St. Patrick-St. Anthony Parish in Hartford.