Tuesday, 2 January 2018

The Kindness of Strangers

This article (without the above illustration, in a slightly shorter version) first appeared in Fortean Times Christmas 2017

'TIS the season for giving, with professional fundraisers and chuggers rattling collecting tins, whether virtual or in the physical universe. At this time of year it’s worth noting that delinquent altruism ain’t what it used to be.

Delinquent altruism? Older Fortean Times readers will recall its regular round-ups from the days when cash was still king, featuring the phenomenon of random strangers who regularly seemed to hand out banknotes indiscriminately to bystanders in the street.

Back in 2003, for example, a man who wanted to share his stock market winnings emptied just under US $10,000-worth of dollar and yen banknotes from shopping bags into the streets below the TV Tower in Nagoya, Japan. He reportedly said, "I have too much money. I don't need it," (Times of India, December 24 2003.)

Some mystery benefactors preferred to post money through letterboxes - such as the woman seen posting at least £600 in £20 notes in envelopes through letterboxes of houses in Ramsgate, together with notes saying, "a gift to you." (London Evening Standard, 4 April 2001, FT 153;20). Others slipped banknotes under motorists' windscreen wipers. New London, Connecticut resident Felix Pope was among those who found a $20 bill in that way one morning in April 2000, while noticing all the other cars in the street had $20 bills under their wipers too. (FT 153;20.) The practice was still going strong around Christmas 2005 in Birmingham, where a "Secret Santa" paid parking tickets, leaving cash with Christmas cards under windscreen wipers along with the penalty notices issued. (Metro December 21 2005).

A more inventive mystery benefactor threw wads of Italian lira denominations out of a light aircraft over a busy square in Rome in 1977. (Reveille, 7 January 1977).

An elderly, smartly-dressed man in the trilby known as Goldfinger left at least £18,000 in gold sovereigns in people’s gardens in Portsmouth in 1992. Much of this was handed into Hampshire Police. They tracked Goldfinger down, interviewed him and decided he’d obtained his money honestly, was of sound mind and at liberty to give it away. (The News [Portsmouth], 4, 8, 24, 28 October 1991.)

Identikit picture of the man known as "Goldfinger" sought by Hampshire Police after he left gold sovereigns and silver Dutch guilders in gardens in Portsmouth. Hampshire Police, released into the public domain

The "Good Samaritan" of Rochester, New York wore a cape and a black hat with a plume as he handed out one $100 bill to each passer-by in June 1987. He reportedly said he'd had tried giving out money dressed in ordinary clothes, but people had been too scared to take it. (FT 59;38) A mystery man in a ski-mask and a three-piece suit experienced similar difficulty giving away money to puzzled bystanders in McCook, Nebraska, in 1986. (Houston Chronicle, 30 November 1986). And it was a “smartly-dressed man” who handed out at least a grand in fivers to passers-by in Keighley, Yorkshire in 2002. (FT 166, January 2002.)

More sinister was "The Riddler" a middle-aged man in glasses and a suit giving away at least one new tenner in "prizes" to any child in the parks of Benfleet, Essex, who could answer his cryptic riddles. Last seen in 1987, he'd been active for many years, eluding police after a chase through woodland. (FT 59;38)

I've kept an eye on delinquent altruism since I found myself involved in the "Free Shop", an anti-capitalist stunt in London’s Oxford Street just before Christmas 2003. It was basically a help-yourself secondhand shop where everything was given away. I was a little perturbed to find not one but two police photographers from the Met's Forward Intelligence Team photographing me, although Constable DM 603 who came along from Marylebone nick did tell us, "Very well done."

The 2003 "Free Shop" in London's Oxford Street

Since that apparent golden age of random strangers handing out money and gifts in the street, the practice seems to have declined. This is partly down to enforcement by the likes of the British Transport Police, whose Chief Inspector David Dickson was telling Londoners as of 2004 that they were fuelling the capital's drug trade if they so much as gave their unwanted Day Travelcards to ticket touts in Underground stations. (Metro 1 March 2004).

Like a lot of phenomena that were once cool, the act of showering random bystanders with gifts in the street has become increasingly commodified, examples from more recent years have the whiff of a gone-wrong marketing stunt about them.

A case in point was the "cash mob", the rain of banknotes leading to a stampede in London’s busy Covent Garden shopping zone back in September 2006. The two people throwing a grand’s worth of fivers into the air turned out to be winners of a competition to advertise the show Brotherhood on the FX TV channel, promoted by the MySpace website. The victors won the right to throw a grand in the air and keep as much as they could catch. (London Lite, 28 September 2006.)

Another commodified "random" giving operation to emerge in recent years was "Tips for Jesus", a tipping syndicate, named from notes left behind along with cash tips of up to $6000 in restaurants and strip clubs across the US and Mexico a few years ago. There were suspicions that some “Silicon Valley people” were somehow involved. (BBC Radio 4 Today, 21 February 2014).

The latest "random acts of kindness" sensation was the Hidden Cash Guy, who led many a local resident on "scavenger hunts" through clues via the Twitter handle @HiddenCash to envelopes (or Pez dispensers, or Angry Birds toys) stuffed with on average $50-100. These had been left mostly in public parks across San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York and New Haven, Connecticut and numerous other cities throughout 2015, after which they ceased. Hidden Cash Guy was outed as real estate investor Jason Buzi, together an associate. (Huffington Post, 10 June 2014).

Random acts of kindness today seem, well, a little less random. A contemporary example is Kindness Week, in which primary school children are encouraged by their teachers to do "random" acts of kindness, along the lines of dropping off biscuits in decorated boxes in doorsteps around their village. Benhall Primary School in Suffolk was one of many institutions exhibiting such behaviour with the blessing of their deputy headteacher in March of 2015. (East Anglian Daily Times 10 March 2015.)

But wait! People may not randomly throw cash around in the street anymore, but subversive giving’s alive and well, thanks to the wonders of web platform-based crowdfunding. Recent high-profile examples include successful industrial tribunal cases brought by "precarious workers" including cycle couriers, university cleaners and Deliveroo workers organised as the Independent Workers of Great Britain. Previously way beyond their budget, their legal actions are now crowdfunded within hours of launching. Giving out money in the street seems to have been replaced by the much more subversive practice of mass donations that give a two-fingered salute to authority by supporting underdogs in otherwise impossible struggles.

© Matt Salusbury