Years ago, there was a restaurant in San Jose, California called “The Monk’s Retreat.” It was nearly all brick and occupied the basement of what looked like an old wine cellar. There was an alcove or niche where the owners had put a wooden chair with a monk sitting in it.
The monk consisted of a hooded robe stuffed with paper, tissue, and newspapers. I’m not sure why they did that. They probably thought it would bring in business, which it did. The Monk’s Retreat was a popular family attraction for years, representing a part of San Jose that has since vanished along with Frontier Village and Santa’s Village.
Just the other day, however, I had a different encounter with a monk. This one did not retreat. I found myself walking down Fifth Avenue, minding my own business and trying to skirt tourists in baseball caps, plaid shorts, and sandals gaping up at the tall buildings, when from out of nowhere a monk came up to me. He was a Buddhist monk in saffron robes, carrying brochures. I expected the brochures to be about the Chinese occupation of Tibet, but they weren’t. These were about money.
The monk stopped me, slipped a beaded bracelet onto my wrist and handed me a Buddha prayer card with the word “peace” on it. I accepted it, which he mistook as a commitment, and then he opened a photo album with a picture of a partly constructed, two-story building in red sitting in what looked like a Walmart parking lot. Apparently, they needed money to finish the building. He kept pointing to it and smiling, which is when I realized this was a silent monk.
Before I could react, he whipped out a notebook and showed me a list of names of people he had met on the street who had signed what I thought was a petition. It wasn’t. It was a recording of names and prayer intentions of people who had given him twenty dollars. I didn’t realize that until after I signed the list and tried to walk away. As I did, he grabbed my arm and held me back. He pointed to the list and the column that read, “Donation $20.”
Now, here’s the thing. I am not a stingy person. In fact, I can be pretty generous. I give money when I can, talk to homeless people, refer them to potential employers, and have even taken them out to dinner. I know what it’s like to be vulnerable. But I don’t like to be hustled. It makes me feel stupid. It’s as if everyone involved–me, the hustler, and bystanders–are all worse off for having been exposed to what are usually minor league antics. No, that’s an insult to the minor leagues, which, after all, are professional.
This guy wouldn’t let it go. He held the list of donors up to my face and kept tap-tap-tapping it in a forceful manner. I relented and gave him ten dollars, which is a miracle, because I hardly ever carry cash. Who does? He took the ten-dollar bill but then grabbed my arm again as I tried to leave. More tap-tap-tapping. I actually had a twenty-dollar bill on me as well, which was the extent of my cash. At this point, I was willing to give him the twenty if he returned the ten. I tried to take the ten back, but he moved away and held out his hand, insisting that I live up to our written contract.
I don’t like yelling. I don’t like yelling in public. I don’t like yelling in public at religious men. But now I was mad. I started yelling, telling him that I most certainly was not going to give him twenty dollars. I moved away, he followed. I yelled, he tapped. By now, a small crowd of tourists had formed, wondering how this New Yorker could be so rude to a poor little monk who was just begging alms for his supper. I didn’t care. The guy was a con artist (how did I know he was really a monk?). Mobile phones started coming out.
“No, I’m not giving you twenty dollars! Are you crazy?”
And with that, the monk finally stopped. I tried giving back the bracelet and Buddha card, but he refused them. He looked me straight in the eye, folded his hands together in prayer, bowed swiftly but gracefully, and retreated into the crowd as quickly as he had appeared. It was as if he were shaking the dust off his feet and moving on. There was no hope for me. I was the dust.
I was so upset I spent two hours in the basement of the public library contemplating the misery of existence, my existence. But it could have been worse. I could have been out twenty bucks instead of ten.
May God have mercy on my soul.