Why we won’t help: The difference between helping and enabling

Sometimes when someone comes in and asks for help, I say no, even though I know I will be berated for it. It is just sometimes not worth it to help certain people. Let me lay out a series of events, that are all recent, to explain why:

The case of the flat tire

A woman in her mid-20s, comes to the store with a flat tire which is just slapping around the wheel, not holding air. She parks the car in front of the door, the flat tire is steaming and pieces of it are crumbling onto the asphalt, she walks to the front counter wearing a uniform of a popular fast-food restaurant, her name is on her nametag. She introduces herself to me and I recognize her last name, her mother is a customer at the store.

She says she needs a tire. I have a few in that size, she chooses one, we get the car on the lift and put the tire on. I call her to the front counter to pay.

Me: That will be $87.73 please.
Her: Oh, I don't have the money, can my mom pay the next time she's in.

Me: No. Do you need to use the phone to call a friend or family member for the money?
Her: Sure. (makes a few phone calls) My boyfriend is on his way but he only has $40.

Me: OK, that's a start. (pause)
Her: (silence)
Me: (silence)

(Man in his 20s enters, he is wearing a uniform from the same fast food place. This restaurant is on the same road as our business. He gives me $40 in cash.)

Her: OK ... well ... I need to go.
Me: Yes ma'am, I still need $47.73

Her: I don't have it but we both get paid on Friday (today is Tuesday). We work right there (she points to the restaurant, you can see the top of the sign from our lobby, just down the road from us) can I pay you then?

Me: (Against my better judgement but it seems a safe bet, so ...) OK. Come by Friday before 6:00 and pay the rest.
Her and the guy: Thank you! See you then!

Friday comes and goes ... neither of them show up. Once the next Tuesday rolls around, I go to the restaurant but I don't see her car. I don't know what the boyfriend is driving but I figure I'll at least run into one of them there or at least find out when one of them is working again, so I go up to the counter.

Me: Is Sherry here?
Dude: Yes, hold on, Sherry!

Sherry: Hi - I meant to tell you, I don't have that car anymore.
Me: You still owe me $47.73 for the tire.

Sherry: But I don't have the car anymore. I wrecked it on Thursday and it's gone.
Me: That has nothing to do with the money you owe me - I need you to pay your bill.

Sherry: I can't, I don't have the car, I'm not going to pay for something I don't have any more.
Me: Well then give me my tire back.

Sherry: I don't have it.
Me: Neither do I, because you took it from me without paying for it.

Sherry: Well, you let me.
Me: Good point. Tell you what - keep the money, and don't ever come back to my place again. You and your boyfriend and your mom and your whole family. Tell them to stay away and if I ever see you on my property again, I'm calling the police.

Sherry: Fine!

Two days later, her mother came by and paid the bill and apologized for her daughter's behavior, and I still told her the girl was not welcome back. She understood.

The case of the angry veteran

A man in his 60s comes by the store, steam pouring out from under the hood of an Oldsmobile that appears to be about five years old. He introduces himself at the front counter, he is new in town, but his niece is a regular customer of our store and recommended he come to us when his car overheated.

The man is wearing a Vietnam ball cap and t-shirt, and is walking with a limp. I explain to him the cost on a pressure test/leak check for his coolant system, go through a couple of standard warnings about overheating and how quickly damage can be done to cylinder heads and the engine. He agrees on the test and we proceed.

It turns out it is a split in the radiator. The tech is also recommending replacing the thermostat and gasket, and the radiator hoses. The total cost of the repair is around $400. The man says yes, please do it.

While he is waiting, he hovers at the front counter, telling me everything about his current living situation - he is a wounded veteran, lives alone, needs to make constant trips to doctors offices and therapy, relies on his car for transportation. (I know what you are thinking - isn't there a veteran's administration? Yes, in our area, there is. And they provide free transportation. He is not the only wounded veteran I know. But, I'm just making light conversation with him, and honestly trying to work and answer the phone while he's talking, it's none of my business, I don't ask details on a stranger's personal life, so I let that point go.)

The car repair is complete a few hours later. I give him the total. He fishes around in his pants pocket and hands me three crumpled up $20 bills.

Me: Sir, that will be $421.18
Customer: This is all I have.

Me: Perhaps you need to call a friend or family member to give you a ride to the bank or something? I can wait.
Customer: No, this is ALL I have. When I pay you this, I don't have money for food.

Me: Sir, there's a phone in the waiting room, let me know when you are ready to pay and I'll ring you out.
Customer: This is all the money there is. I can't pay you any more.

Me: Understood, but the bill is $421.18. Please come back when you can pay.
Customer: I get my government disability check on the 3rd, I can pay you the rest then.

Me: OK, see you then.

Customer: (blank stare)
Me: (blank stare)

Customer: So, give me my keys.
Me: Absolutely, as soon as you complete payment, I'll release the vehicle.

Customer: You can't do that. I have to have this car to get to the doctor's office.

(Understand at this time other customers have been up to the front counter also, checking in, or checking on their car, or being rung out by another employee. A couple of them start to hover around the counter out of curiousity.)

Me: Sir, at the time you approved the repairs, you did not tell me you could not pay for them. The repairs are done, you need to pay to pick up your vehicle. Otherwise, come back when you can pay for the repairs.

What followed was a loud and emphatic lecture about how he fought for my freedom, how he served his country, how horrible he was being treated, and what a disgrace we are to our country for denying a wounded veteran food by taking his last dollar, and how his word was his honor and he would pay me on the 3rd as promised.

I am angry. I feel like I'm part of an orchestrated scam. I feel he is experienced in this. My instincts are rarely wrong. His tone of voice, the way the speech ramped up, the way he addresses the other customers, all felt rehearsed. However, can you have a wounded veteran at your front counter, in a Vietnam t-shirt and ball cap, proclaiming his service to the country, and berating you in front of people, and having people sympathetically tilt their heads and sigh with sadness, and not do whatever you need to do to cut the drama short and make it go away?

So I take $40, leaving him the $20 for food until the 3rd, he signs the invoice and provides the necessary identification of his address, full name, etc. and we agree he will return on the 3rd and pay the remainder of the bill. His tone changes to giddy jubilation, he proclaims us all "patriotic", and leaves with his car.

Can you guess what happened next? The 3rd rolls around, he's not there. Then the 10th, the 20th, the 30th. Then when the 3rd of the following month rolls around, and my many messages have gone unanswered, and I have sent him registered mail reminding him of his bill, and I have placed calls to his niece who very dismissively tells me she has little to do with him and rarely sees him, I go looking for his neighborhood and find him, and the car.

Me: Mr. (***), you still owe this bill.
Not-Customer: I can't pay it.

Me: This is the second month since you said you would pay it.
Not-Customer: I won't be spending money on that, I need my money for food.

Me: I will expect then that you are not to come back to my property until you have paid this bill.

(Rest of conversation is pointless and goes badly. He does suggest that I sue him.)

I can sue him, right? I have his signature. I have MANY witnesses. But how would that go? Can you imagine what would happen? This guy would probably have a press conference first about how we are persecuting wounded veterans. Just time to cut my losses and walk away.

The case of the Cadillac lady

An older woman driving a 20+ year old Cadillac comes in, she is walking stooped over and has a cane. Another customer holds the door open for her. It's a Tuesday, that will be important to know to understand this story.

She comes up to the front counter and said she was getting a warning light on her dashboard and asked if we could check and top off her fluids for her. Normally checking the fluids is free, we'll check fluids and tire pressure at any time for free. Topping off air is free, fluids are not free. We don't get fluids for free, we don't give them away for free.

I have never seen her before and she is hard of hearing, so just to keep things brief I say okay and ask a tech to check and top off and let her go. She goes back out to her car and does not even ask if it costs anything and does not even offer to pay (many people who are new will ask us if there is a charge to put air in the tires - I am sure they know that it is free, but they are just being courteous and showing appreciation.).

The next day, Wednesday, she's back. She says maybe they forgot to check her antifreeze and she's getting a warning light and asks if we can check again. The tech who did it Tuesday is off on Wednesday so I ask someone different, and this time I walk out there myself. The other fluids are dead on but the coolant is low, which is not at all like Tech #1 to forget.

I am suspecting there's more than just forgetting to top off coolant. I start to explain to her about the possibilities - she might have a leak, the sensor might not be working, but it is very hard to talk to her because she seems to not be able to hear well. I give up and ask tech #2 to top off her coolant. I watch it myself. Then when she starts the car, I look inside at her dashboard and see the light come on, then go off again. She leaves, again does not even ask or offer to pay.

Thursday, she is back and annoyed with me, at the front counter there are already a few people as it is lunchtime and that's the most popular time for people to get an oil change or something else quickly, so she has to wait, and when she gets up to the front counter, being kind of hard of hearing, she is very loud and says we haven't helped her and she's still getting a warning light.

I am trying to explain to her that her car needs to be diagnosed and she probably has a problem with it but I can't just keep pouring antifreeze in it for free every day. She is yelling. She is not steady on her feet and customers are tilting their heads and sadly sighing as I am being berated by an old woman with a cane saying we are not fixing her car. Mainly for the benefit of people listening, I explain that we have added coolant FOR FREE twice to her car but the car has a problem and she needs to get the problem fixed.

She is becoming angry. She keeps saying "Why won't you help me?" and I keep saying "Dumping coolant on the ground does not help you! The car needs to be fixed! Leave it with me and I will find what is wrong so it can be fixed!" She says she can't, she needs her car. She keeps asking me to add more coolant. I say no.

I am getting yelled at by an old woman who can barely stay on her feet with a cane. But I've had enough of this extortion and I'm not doing it any more. I say as loud as I can "MA'AM YOUR CAR HAS A LEAK. ADDING COOLANT DOES NOT HELP. WE CAN FIX YOUR CAR. IT IS NOT FREE. I AM NOT DOING ANYTHING ELSE FOR FREE. IF YOU WANT IT FIXED, LEAVE IT WITH ME. IF NOT, I AM NOT GIVING YOU ANY MORE FREE COOLANT. THAT IS ALL!" She leaves in disgust, yelling also at the other customers about how she can't get any help, that no one will help her, that we won't fix her car. People glare at me like I'm the devil.

There are many charities we are regular contributors of, and many organizations who come to us for help. This is money we choose to donate to organizations of our choice. These people who rely on sympathy, causing a scene, or emotional blackmail to get what they want are not charities, they are scam artists. Whether they do it intentionally or not, their behaviour gets rewarded by the businesses they pull these stunts on so they keep doing it.

They may not be walking in the door thinking "I'm here to pull a scam," they might just be thinking "I will ask these people to help me;" I don't know what's in their heads but it works for them and somehow they justify what they do.

So does this mean we are anti-pregnant women, anti-wounded veterans, and anti-old ladies? Or just tired of being ripped off and tired of being forced to "donate" against our will?

—Beth

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