Ask Miriam | Should I Give Liquor Store Directions to a Drunk?


Dear Miriam,

On my way to work this morning (so, before 9 a.m.), I passed an obviously intoxicated man who stopped me, very politely, to ask for directions to the nearest liquor store. What should I have done?


Complicated Intersection

Dear Intersection,

I was hoping someone was going to ask me a Purim-related question today, but in the absence of having a reason to write about costumes and hamentaschen, I’m glad I at least get to write about drunkenness.

Seriously, though, this week is one of the biggest for public drinking in Jewish life (it’s a close contest with Simchat Torah) and, as such, having to address public drinking in the public sphere is both good preparation for Wednesday night and a good opportunity to think about communal responsibilities.

In general, I love giving directions to strangers because it gives me a fairly hands-off way to be helpful in a way that has pretty immediate positive impact on someone. Whenever I’ve moved to a new city, the first time I’ve been asked for directions made me feel like I finally belonged. (I was once asked for directions in Greece, but the only rationale I can imagine is that the other person was just as clueless as I was.)

That being said, unless the question is, “Where is the nearest emergency room?” you can always say, “I’m not sure,” either because you actually don’t know, you don’t have the time to  respond adequately or because sometimes talking to strangers isn’t what you want to be doing.

In your case today, though, the question is whether the person ought to know how to get where he wanted to go. Certainly, bars and liquor stores have signs (and laws) indicating that they won’t serve visibly intoxicated people. In that vein, I would encourage you not to give money to a drunk person standing outside a liquor store (and perhaps to offer food instead). But giving directions is different, mostly because it was information rather than material goods being requested.

Telling him how to get there would be fine. Telling him you’re not sure would be totally acceptable. Asking if he needed other help would be both caring and possibly embarrassing to him. Doing whatever felt like it would end the interaction the soonest is also completely reasonable.

If he appeared otherwise ill or distressed, if he was aggressive or made you feel unsafe or if you felt sure he was homeless, your options would have included walking away more quickly without responding, calling 911, or calling Project HOME’s homeless outreach hotline (215-232-1984). As it stands, whatever you did was surely appropriate and reasonable, and if you didn’t like it after the fact, be prepared with a different approach for next time.

Looking toward Wednesday night, now is a good time to consider how you’ll respond if you see a friend or fellow congregant drinking irresponsibly. While one of the mitzvot (commandments) for Purim is to give gifts of food to your friends, another is to give gifts of money to poor people. Even though you don’t know much about this particular man’s situation who you encountered this morning, a contribution to an organization that helps people in need is never not a good idea.

Be well, and happy Purim,



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