He was about 13, coming towards me on the downtown footpath. I could see he intended to say something, so I prepared to tell him the time, or where the nearest public loo was.
But he was after something different. "Can you give me a few bucks for my bus fare home?" I blinked, heard myself say "No, mate. Sorry." He wasn't resentful or abusive. He wasn't anything. He turned away and began scanning for someone else.
I walked on, feeling a bit shocked. You just don't get this sort of thing outside a comfortable, conservative provincial town's shopping mall. Had I got him wrong? Was he genuinely in need?
Then I noticed a bloke about my age, heading my way. He was about to be intercepted by a different 13-year-old. I saw the request, the surprise, the refusal.
As the bloke reached me, I enquired. Yes, he'd been asked for a bus fare. No, he hadn't given it; didn't believe the request. He'd never had it happen here before. Not a good look, eh?
Definitely not a good look. It was predatory, mercenary, abject yet potentially threatening. I'm reasonably tall, and it was a well-peopled public place. A solitary, old/fragile person in a secluded corner would very likely have felt intimidated.
And, I repeat, it was a shock. Generations of Kiwis have come back from abroad saying how distressing it is to see kids begging, and thank God it doesn't happen here. Now it does.
In fact, it's been happening here for a while. You're probably wondering why I'm sounding so startled. Well, ours is not usually that sort of town.
Was it just kids having a dare? I don't think so. It felt calculating, focused. There were no high spirits involved. Was it any different from decades back when we trekked around November streets with a trolley, calling "Penny for the Guy?" I believe it was. We were quite open about our aim, and we used the money as claimed. This was dishonest as well as invasive.
I'm not concerned here with the causes of such behaviour. That merits thoughtful, knowledgeable analysis, and I have neither qualifications nor space for it. What I am concerned with is what I should do, about this time and any time it happens in the future.
I should tell the shopping mall's security? I have. I should tell the police? I will. Hang on ... I now have.
I should confront the kid with the inappropriateness of his behaviour? I probably won't. I suspect the two I saw are veterans of confrontation: that any attempt at it on my part would quickly escalate into abuse or even violence, and would negate any chance of communication.
I should invite other suggestions? I am, here.
And I've decided that if I'm asked again for any bus fares, I'll say "Yeah, sure. Where does your bus leave from? We'll go there now, and I'll pay the driver for you." I hope it'll perplex the recipient, maybe embarrass him. I hope it'll make make him wary of approaching other adults.
And I hope also it'll affirm that what he's doing is definitely not a good look.
David Hill is a Taranaki writer.