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Like old cars, good deeds can backfire

Sometimes you hear people say that no good deed goes unpunished. But that's pretty cold and cynical. It's warmer and fuzzier to say that good deeds are like old cars. They often backfire when you least expect it.

The good folks at First Congregational Church of Akron, Ohio, found that out. The kind flock there permitted James Dunn and his dog, Kaye, to live on the church's front steps after Dunn informed them that God had told him to live there. What could they say in the face of such divine flattery?

Thirteen months later, they wished God had sent Dunn to the Methodists.

His cardboard lean-to attracted rats and other vermin. With enviable regularity, Kaye was a bad girl on the church lawn. Finally, the church members voted to evict Dunn and dog from the premises. But it was a narrow vote.

That's because nice people refuse to believe that somebody who looks like a bum, acts like a bum and lives like a bum might, in fact, be a bum. Nice people are convinced bumship is a phase. And sometimes it is. But often it is a career.

The plight of the Akron folks reminded me of what happened some years ago to a friend of mine named Bob. Bob is one of the nicest fellows you would ever want to meet. Some days he is too nice to roam the planet without a keeper.

Bob noticed that every morning when he walked to work the same old panhandler was waiting, shivering in the cold near his building.

Old panhandlers make Bob feel guilty. And this old panhandler sent tidal waves of guilt in Bob's direction. Because this old panhandler was a woman.

This was back in the days when panhandlers had started demanding exact sums of money. Instead of saying, "Say, mister, can you spare a dollar?" they had started saying "Gimme a dollar and 47 cents!" My hunch is that this was a technique taught at panhandler school to lend the extortion an air of organized credibility.

So the female bum asked Bob if he could spare $1.75. But Bob is no sucker. He is more of a gumdrop. Fearing she might squander the money on drink or nicotine, Bob weighed in with a counteroffer.

"I'll tell you what I'll do," he said, addressing the woman in a hearty man-to-bum tone. "If you'll come with me, I'll buy you a sandwich."

When interfacing with bums, nice people often assume they can control the agenda. That's the mistake the people in Akron made. But it is a strong desire to set their own agendas that usually inspires bums to take up bumming. Eventually, nice people learn this the hard way. That's the way Bob learned it.

Bob's act of generosity got off to a deceptively good start. The female bum accompanied him to a nearby restaurant, where Bob requested a table for two.

"Smoking!" the female bum said, firmly. Bob, a non-smoker, decided not to make an issue of it.

And then it developed that she was out of cigarettes. So Bob bought her a pack. Bob hates smoke. But unlike Bob-the-presidential-candidate, Bob-the-gumdrop is sure nicotine is addictive. When he returned from the cigarette machine, the waitress was there to take the order.

"Let's see," Bob's companion said, "I'd like three hamburger sandwiches, one to eat here and two to go. And what kind of soup do you got?"

Then Bob's protege turned to Bob. She shook a finger under his nose.

"Remember," she said. "You still owe me $1.75." After peering at Bob to make sure her point was made, she turned back to the waitress.

"And I'll take a couple of pieces of pie," she said.

"No pie," he said firmly.

"I WANT PIE!!!" the bum wailed at the top of her voice.

Everybody in the restaurant stopped eating and looked over at what seemed to be a young man abusing an old woman. Frowns and scowls were directed at Bob. Muttered comments on his lack of sensitivity rustled around him. He lurched to his feet. He threw too much money on the table and ran from the restaurant. As he left, the object of his pity was speaking to the waitress.

"A dollar seventy-five of that is mine," she was saying.

Bob is still a gumdrop. But now he is sometimes heard to say that God helps those who help themselves. That's not a bad piece of philosophy. Though, when you think about it, that's what Bob's bum and Jim Dunn were doing.

_ Dick Feagler is a columnist for the Plain Dealer of Cleveland.