Can you spare a dollar?

Yesterday there was a news story about a man who committed a bank robbery for only one dollar.

In North Carolina, on the morning of June 9th, James Verone walked into a bank and handed the teller a note that read, “This is a bank robbery. Please only give me one dollar.” Once given his meagre loot, he said, “I’ll be sitting right over there in the chair waiting for the police.”

And why would he do this? In the hopes of receiving health care in prison. Mr. Verone has some serious health problems, no insurance, and is unable to work. Having exhausted his savings, he decided this was his best option, calmly put his affairs in order and went for a walk to a bank.

It’s one of those stories that gives me the impulse to smugly sit here around the other side of the planet, shake my head and think, “Only in America.” But there are disenfranchised and desperate people in any society.

Last year I was going into the city a few evenings a month for various user group meetings and the like. I was surprised by often being approached by homeless or street people asking for any spare change.

In the past, I’d tended to give these people short shrift and keep walking, but a friend of mine turned me around on this one evening when he was approached by a man who was asking for some money so he would have a safe place to sleep that night. He talked with the man for a little bit, gave him the few dollars he had in his pocket and wished him luck.

I gave what is probably the usual reaction. “Hey, you don’t know why he really wants that. He’s probably gonna go drink it or shoot up or something.” His response realigned my thinking. He said that here was somebody in front of him who was in such desperation that he would approach strangers in the street, asking for help. Had swallowed their pride and needed to beg. The very absolute least you can do is take them at face value and give them a few bucks. Shrugging he concluded, “Never miss an opportunity to practice compassion.”

Some rights reserved by looseends

Mr. Verone’s heist reminded me of another story I heard not so long ago. In the early 1900’s the Mayor of New York, Fiorello LaGuardia had a habit of showing up at a municipal court and presiding as judge. An opportunity that not many Mayors availed themselves of.

The story goes that this particular night during the Great Depression, and old woman was being charged for stealing a loaf of bread. She told the mayor that she did it because her two grandchildren were starving. The shopkeeper refused to drop the charges, wanting her as an example because it was a “real bad neighbourhood.”

His hands tied, LaGuardia charged the woman a fine of ten dollars. As he was pronouncing this judgement though, he took off his hat, threw in ten dollars, and announced this he was remitting the fine. Not only that, but he fined everyone in the courtroom fifty cents for living in a town where a person has to steal bread so that her grandchildren can eat.

The hat was passed to the bailiff, who used it to collect the fines from seventy odd people in the courtroom that evening: petty criminals, traffic offenders, a few lawyers, and one narked shopkeeper. The bewildered grandmother was handed the collection and sent home to her family.

“Law is nothing unless close behind it stands a warm living public opinion.”

    — Wendell Phillips

I hope public opinion is warm for Mr. Verone.