My, but we've become a suspicious lot.
I was walking through a parking lot this week when a guy came up to me and said, "Excuse me ..."
That was as far as I let him go. I started shaking my head and said, "No. I don't have anything for you, can't help you, don't have any money." I kept walking and he kept on his way. But then, from behind me I heard: "Man, it wasn't even about money."
This got me curious because it's always about money. In the 10 years that I've worked (and for part of that time lived) in Lawrenceville, literally dozens of people have come up to me in parking lots to beg for money. It's always the same old stories: My car broke down. I'm out of gas. My brother/daughter/son, etc. is in the hospital/stranded/needs medicine, etc. Their stories are always fanciful lies that all translate to the same truth: They need money for drugs.
I used to give people what I thought was gas money, medicine money, etc. I even gave a guy a plastic gas can and $20 once, only to find out later that, yep, he'd been lying, too.
So, having been burnt so many times, my official policy is I don't even talk to these people anymore, which is why I cut the guy off in the parking lot this week.
And when he said what he said about it not being about money, it only fueled my suspicion - and even made me a little angry. I turned around.
"Oh, yeah? It wasn't about money, huh?" I asked, with an edge to my voice to let him know I was on to him. "Then what was it about?"
"I just wanted to know if you knew where the Lawrenceville Co-op was."
I didn't know what to say. I had expected a lie, and an easily detectable one at that. But the man looked so sincere, I believed him.
"Yeah, I heard they had one here, but I don't know where it is."
I found myself a little embarrassed. Not only had my "policy" caused me to make an assumption about this man's purpose, but I didn't even know where the co-op was, and me a newspaper man. I should know something like that. I searched my brain, but I couldn't remember.
All I could do was apologize and explain about how so many people had ripped me off panhandling that I just didn't make time for strangers in parking lots anymore. He nodded, said he understood, and went on his way. I went on mine, feeling decidedly cruddy.
The incident is indicative, I think, of a broader attitude of suspicion that has permeated our collective attitude for decades and has only grown in recent years.
Watergate, Monica Lewinsky, Iraq, hiking trips to the Appalachians - politicians have lied to us for so long about so many things that if one tells me it's sunny outside, I make sure to take my umbrella with me.
Every corporate lie is backed up by a team of lawyers schooled in deception. Every celebrity "apology" is wrapped in insincerity and ulterior motive. Every famous death fuels conspiracy: Oswald couldn't have acted alone. Elvis couldn't have died. Somebody had to have murdered Michael.
We can't even enjoy our accomplishments anymore. Just this week, on the 40th anniversary of man's greatest achievement, Whoopi Goldberg aired her suspicions on "The View" that the moon landing was a hoax.
What an insult that is to the people who worked for years on the Apollo program. What an insult to Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and the other astronauts who went there. What a dishonor to Gus Grissom and the other astronauts who died in the effort.
This cycle of suspicion proves that we live not only in an information age but also in a disinformation age. We've been fooled so much that not only do we not believe anything anymore, but many of us don't want to believe anymore.
It can make a television host believe in a ridiculous conspiracy. Or it can make a man who tries to be an otherwise nice guy snap angrily at someone who only wanted directions.
I wonder if we could break the cycle by listening a little more and assuming a little less, by culling the lies from the truth instead of assuming that it's all a lie.
Maybe we should weed the garden instead of assuming it's all poisoned.
E-mail Nate McCullough at firstname.lastname@example.org. His column appears on Fridays.