Dear Readers: I am continuing my journey of giving away 100 $100 bills to strangers in 2011 and have moved my blog to a new website. Please come visit, and re-subscribe to continue receiving notification of new posts. Thank you, Jill

Cheryl's Hundred

The other day, a mere couple of blocks from home in my affluent neighborhood, I was shocked to see two people curled up in a doorway. So covered in blankets and rags, they almost escaped my notice. Every week there are new people trolling the streets, their shopping carts piled high with recyclables. What kind of country are we becoming, really?

I have moments of cynicism when I wonder how much good any one of us can do, when it feels like the world is broken beyond repair. What will it take to make our world better? What is required of us as human beings? How do we rise to the challenge, day after day after day?

I struggle with my own brokenness as well. Miserliness was etched into my DNA long before I had anything to say about it. It’s not a fatal mutation; I see that now. And it needn’t keep me from living a full and generous life, although that will always be hard work.

I have found a way to make a difference. For me. For now. Every time I surprise a stranger with a gift, I look them in the eye and promise wordlessly to shoulder a tiny fraction of their burden. Whatever they’ll give me for $100. Sometimes I get more than I paid for, which I normally would consider a real bargain.

In 2011, I’ll be giving away 100 C-notes.

I love Christmas, I really do. I love that all the stores are closed and there isn’t anywhere to go. I love that the phone probably won’t ring. In the unlikely event the doorbell chimes, it will be a crafty friend with cookies or other homemade goodies.

I understand the deep significance of the holiday for those who celebrate it and mean no disrespect. As a Jew, Christmas for me means a nice day off and sometimes Chinese food and a movie. We never celebrated Christmas when I was a child and I have never hung an ornament. I  think the lights are pretty but I would probably be one of those people that left them up all year round out of sheer laziness.

There’s a book I’ve had my eye on at Powell’s: Rambam’s Ladder, A Meditation on Generosity and Why it is Necessary to Give, by Julie Salamon. A few months into this adventure, I still have a lot to learn about generosity and giving. I forgot that I would not be the only person happy to get out of the house today. The streets downtown were teeming, and people had that wistful post-holiday daze about them.

As I approached Powell’s, I saw a young woman crouched over on the traffic island across the street. I couldn’t really make it out, but it looked like she had some paper or a drawing pad on her lap. People were streaming by in all directions. No one looked at her and she didn’t look up. I decided to try my luck at finding a parking place and then see if she was still there.

A spot opened up halfway down the block, which was amazing. After I parked I went back to the corner. There she was, still hunkered down practically into a ball. People and cars passed without seeming to notice her. I stood watching and it seemed to take forever for the light to change.

She’s the dark bundle at the bottom left

When I finally got across the street, I went over and tried to peek over her shoulder to see what was on the yellow paper in her lap. I was hoping to see an artist’s rendition of the surrounding landscape. Instead, I caught a glimpse of a few words. My heart sank.

“Hey, how ya doing?” I asked. “Oh, I’m okay,” she said cheerlessly. “What’s the matter?” I asked her. “Oh, I’m just trying to make this sign with this dumb pen.” She straightened up just enough for me to see what was in her lap: a sign with block letters that said “Lost My Job. Couldn’t Pay Rent.” She held the ballpoint pen out and said she was trying to fill in the outline of the letters to make it more visible. “It’s taking forever with this.”

It was cold outside and starting to drizzle. The young woman looked 17, maybe 18. I asked her what was going on and she told me that she had lost her job as a house cleaner and had split up with her boyfriend. She couldn’t afford the rent for their small apartment on her own and got kicked out. She told me that the women’s shelters were only for pregnant women or domestic violence victims, and she had nowhere to go. I was somewhat surprised to hear myself say, “How about you let me get you something hot to drink?” There was a pause and then she said, “Okay. If you want to. Actually, I don’t want to give up this spot. I just got here and someone else will take this spot if I leave. A lot of people walk by here.”

“C’mon,” I urged. “Let’s go inside for a bit. Maybe we can get you a better pen in the bookstore.” It really wasn’t hard to convince her. She got up and we crossed the street together. It crossed my mind that I hoped she wasn’t always so trusting. The bookstore was absolutely packed, a madhouse. On our way to the café we passed one of the information desks and I saw a Sharpie sitting on the counter. “Do you sell pens like this here?” I asked. No, they didn’t, but the employee offered to let us use it while we were in the store. “Just make sure you bring it back.”

I asked her name; it was Lauren. When we got to the café I told her to pick out whatever she wanted to eat. They were out of sandwiches but there were pastries in the case, and bagels. “Maybe I’ll get a scone. What do you think looks good?” she asked me. She settled on a lemon scone and hot chocolate. I sent her to find a seat while I waited in the long line to pay.

I wasn’t sure I would even be able to find her again. It was crowded and I had barely seen her face. But there she was: a small woman sitting by the window, hunched over her paper. I asked for extra whipped cream on her hot chocolate and I got one without. She was saving the seat next to me with her bag. As she moved it to make room she said, “I had a real nice backpack but I gave it to my friend. He really needed it.”

We sat together and her story came rolling out as she worked on her sign. She was 21 and had been doing okay until her hours got cut back at work. Her mother lives nearby, in Beaverton, but recently remarried “someone weird”. She’s not welcome in their home and doesn’t even know their address. Her Dad lives in San Francisco. She was hoping to get the money together to take the bus to California; in addition to her Dad she has other family and friends there. “At least I’d have some options.”

She was wearing a lightweight black coat over a blue sweatshirt, the dirty cuffs sticking out and partially covering over her hands. I tried not to stare, noticing dirty nails and chipped dark blue nail polish. She was intent on her task. “If I say ‘Looking for a room’ do you think they’ll know what that means? It’s a lot easier than writing ‘Looking for a place to stay’. I said I thought that sounded fine, flashing back to sitting with my kids while they did their homework.

There were two women sitting next to me, a stack of GRE study manuals on the counter in front of them. Their lighthearted banter stood in heartbreaking contrast to Lauren’s grim narrative. “25 Math Concepts You Absolutely Must Know. Okay, check this out. The area of a triangle, the volume of a cylinder. ‘The complete arc of a circle is 360º.’ Hey, I knew that one!”

The women were laughing about how much smarter they used to be when they were in high school. Lauren was telling me that her new stepfather didn’t want to see her for at least two years, and then only if she was in school or steadily employed. “It’s not like I want to throw my life away.” She continued slowly filling in the letters on the sign. I asked her what she did yesterday, on Christmas. “Nothing. I really didn’t do anything,” she said sadly.

I finished my hot chocolate and watched through the window as people passed by. If they had glanced our way, they might have seen a gray-haired lady holding an empty cup, and a young woman bent purposefully over a piece of paper.

I decided it was time to go and told Lauren I was going to take off. I had a C-note folded up in my pocket and I held it out to her. “I hope this helps out a little. Take care of yourself.” “Oh, thank you! Are you sure?” she asked. “Yeah,” I said. “Look at it.” She opened the bill and let out a gasp. “Are you sure?” she asked again. For the first time, she looked at me full on, relief flooding her features. Her eyes sparkled with intelligence and a flash of optimism. I saw how pretty she was behind the piercings, dirty hair and guardedness.

“I think I’m just going to go right to the bus station and see if I have enough for a ticket to San Francisco. I could be there tomorrow!” She reached out and pulled me into a hug, saying “No one has ever helped me out like this before.”  I told her she was smart and beautiful and I just knew things would work out for her.

On the way out, I passed by the employee who had lent us the pen. “She’ll bring it back soon,” I promised. He shrugged. “We’ll see.” “I’m sure she will,” I insisted. Now I think maybe she held onto it as a reminder of the strange and wonderful thing that happened today. I kind of hope she did.

A gift of a fresh loaf of homemade bread got today off to a perfect start. The morning’s blue sky gradually surrendered to the usual gray. It was cold and windy but not raining, so I decided to walk to the library. I’m reading a terrific book right now, called Keep the Change by Steve Dublanica. It’s all about tipping, generosity and human connection. I know what my #1 New Year’s resolution will be. Maybe you can guess.

I had a couple of books to pick up and also a C-note to give away. I’d been carrying it around all week. On the way to the library, I passed my favorite bakery and looked longingly inside. No time for self-indulgence. I was on a mission.

Sam’s (Good Food and Drink) is on the next corner, and I glanced inside. I’ve only been inside once; it’s a real old fashioned bar and grill. It was about lunchtime, and the place was pretty busy. There was a woman sitting at a table by the window, reading a book. She had a cup of black coffee in front of her. I wondered what it would be like to slide into a chair across from her, but I kept going.

Billiards too

I took a peek in the laundromat before heading to the library. That could be a sad place to spend a Sunday and I liked the idea of brightening someone’s day. A woman and her daughter were talking quietly. I heard the girl say, “Maybe we’ll just do less drying time.” My ears perked up. Could it be they didn’t have enough money to finish their wash? How horrible would that be to have to lug home half-dry clothes?

The mother went out to smoke a cigarette and I sidled up to the girl. “Laundry day, hunh?” “Yeah, our washer is broken,” she said. “And the dryer here takes forever.” Through the window I could see her mom out front, keeping an eye on the situation while she finished her smoke. I kept a polite distance from the girl, who looked about 10. She was pointedly avoiding my gaze. “You’re right to be careful about talking to strangers.” She looked down at her shoes and started muttering, “Stranger danger, stranger danger.” It was really creepy.

I went outside and talked with the girl’s mom for a minute so she would know I wasn’t up to trouble. Part of me wanted to show them that strangers can be wonderful, but I worried that my actions would be misinterpreted. The enthusiasm drained away and I took off.

On the way home I passed by Sam’s again and the woman with the book was still there. I decided to go in. The door weighs a ton and, arms full of books, I had to struggle to get it open. I stepped into the dark entryway. The dimly lit bar to my left was empty. On the other side, light was flooding in through the windows and the occupied tables were abuzz with animated conversation. The woman was sitting by herself, her book open in front of her and her coffee cup almost empty.

The door to Sam's. Not exactly welcoming. But warm inside.

I walked over to her table and asked the woman if I could talk with her for a minute. “Sure,” she said. I noticed that the book was in large print. I sat down across from her as a waitress came over and put down a knife and fork in front of me. “Can I get you something to drink?” she asked. “Oh, no thanks. I’m just going to sit for a minute,” I explained. The woman was watching me, unfazed.

I introduced myself and said a few dumb things about the weather. Then I told her that I had a gift for her for the holidays, that I figured she could use it. I slid the folded up bill across the table. “Oh, no,” she said. Her eyes filled with tears. “Why would you do that?” I explained that I was honoring my mother and trying to rid myself of some wrong-headed ideas about money. And hoping to help some people at the same time.  I asked her name.

She said her name was Sharon. I could see she was struggling to keep her emotions in check and wasn’t going to share any more. The bill was still on the table, her hand on top of it. As I got up she said, “Just know it makes a really big difference. Merry Christmas. And God bless you.”

When I got outside I tried to catch Sharon’s eye, but the waitress came along just then and put a plate of food down on the table. I saw Sharon smile at her, then she tucked the bill into her purse.

Thread, thread, thread. 30% off!

We’re on to a new quilting project, which always means there’s something we need from Fabric Depot. Louise is a quilting genius. She is prolific and indefatigable. I like to help out from time to time; I can sew a pretty straight line with the sewing machine and I have a decent eye for pattern and color combinations. I joke that ours is the only sweatshop that serves lattes.

If you’ve never been to Fabric Depot, I can’t begin to do it justice. For starters, it’s the size of the Convention Center. People come from all over just to shop there. BUSLOADS of them! When they have a big sale (which happens a lot) the parking lot fills up and busses line the periphery. If you are a quilter, seamstress, needleworker or otherwise crafty person – well, then you would feel right at home at Fabric Depot, like a kid in the planet’s biggest candy store.

Me? It makes me feel mildly ill. Lured by the promise of a meal out afterward or some other treat, I go with Louise sometimes. We like doing things together. I even get a little excited beforehand, thinking “this time it will be fun!”  By the time we walk in, I realize it won’t be long before I am looking longingly at the husbands in the “waiting room”. They sit on worn straight-back chairs and watch football while their wives scour the aisles.

For the hard-core Fabric Depot shoppers

Miles of fabric

 

We had a long list and each set off in opposite directions. I was quickly distracted by the crazy cartoon character fleece, rows and rows of lamé, sequins, buttons, and the rulers for all the different ways quilters need to measure an inch.

The people were pretty interesting, too. I would say that those who shop at Fabric Depot are a pretty focused bunch. You don’t just stumble in there; it’s a bit out if the way and, if you don’t have a plan, you could easily get lost or overwhelmed. Even pass out. Or pass away.

This was my state of mind as I wandered, somewhat unproductively. I saw a lot of women in pairs. Mothers and daughters selecting fabric for curtains or slipcovers. One woman had her cart piled high and was just finishing a phone call. Disgusted, she turned to the young woman with her and said, “Well, that makes it easy! She doesn’t like this kind of fabric!”  There were a few men accompanying their wives, pushing shopping carts with a stoic determination.

One guy stood out like a sore thumb. He was fondling fabrics in the Minky section and had a peaceful, contented air about him. Minky fabric is a genius invention of softness. Last time I shopped for a baby gift there were Minky blankets in the standard pastel colors. Now every color and pattern imaginable is out there. Babies everywhere are getting wrapped in this stuff, and it just seems they have a better shot at happiness as a result. It’s totally irresistible, and I found myself joining the guy. “Wow, these are really soft,” I said.

So soft...

“Are you making something?” I asked him. He smiled. “Yeah, I’m making a bed for my dog.” A mastiff, it turns out. I had strong opinions about which colors and patterns would be most appropriate and I didn’t mind sharing them. We fell into a comfortable exchange, and he told me about an invention for which he is making a prototype. It’s a really great idea, so I’m not going to give it away.

He said his name was Tyler and he told me some more about his invention and his business plan, which includes donating part of any profit back to the community. He said he got this idea after buying a pair of Tom’s Shoes. “You know about these?” he asked me, holding his foot up. “They give one pair away for every pair someone buys. I want to do something like that. So many businesses make money by selling stuff, but they don’t do anything for people. I don’t think that’s right. I want to do something that makes a difference. You Get, We Give. Like that.”

How could I not fall for this guy? “Here,” I said, pulling a folded up C-note from my pocket. “I think your plan’s great. I hope this will help you out a tiny bit.” “Thank you!” he said. “You didn’t have to do that!” Then I asked if I could take his picture and put it on my blog. “Sure,” he said. “What’s your blog about?” I told him it was about giving away $100 bills. “You gave me a HUNDRED DOLLARS??” He looked at the bill for the first time. “Wow, that’s amazing! Thank you so much!”

 

Tyler makes his choice. He seems partial to green.

He had a lot of questions about what I was doing and I found myself telling him some of my story. He got it right away, “Wow, that must be so heartening, to do that. That’s really cool.”

Tyler picked out an understated and dignified olive green, despite my suggestion that his mastiff might appreciate getting to express his feminine side. He gave me a big hug before we parted ways. This young man will go far.

Louise and I finished our shopping. I admit, I did spend the last 15 minutes plunked down in the waiting area while she had all the fabric cut. She took me out for seafood and beer afterwards. It was lovely, just like being in Baja.

 

Seafood at Puerto Marquez

I was thinking about Gloria from Day 13 today, how she said you never know what gifts or burdens other people are carrying. That seems especially true this time of year. Yesterday’s story about Secret Santas in Charlotte, NC really tickled me. 100 people got surprised with $100!

And a lot of people who appear to be happy – or feel like they should be – simply aren’t. As a Jew, I have always been baffled by the whole Santa Claus concept. So, I am certainly no expert. But it seems like all that jolliness must be exhausting. Not to mention all the shopping, decorating, and entertaining. Oy.

I got out for a walk today and was thinking about some of the comments I’ve gotten on the blog. I was thinking about what it means to connect with others and what makes it so difficult. And what it means to make the world better and how that happens. All kinds of heady stuff. I wanted to see if Carrie was at her post near the Goodwill. I wanted to check on her and, at the same time, it was very cold out and I knew it would break my heart to see her sitting on the corner wrapped in her dirty blanket.

Carrie wasn’t there. Goodwill was hopping, though. Every aisle was crowded with shoppers. Two women were browsing through the blouses, holding up one after the other. “This is CUTE. You should try this on. Wait, Lauren Golf? Is this for golf?” A man looking at the kitchenware got a call on his cellphone. “Hi. Oh, I don’t know. I usually hold it up there for, like, five seconds. Four or five.” I pretended to look at the mugs for sale; I really wanted to know what he was talking about but he ended the call and I got no more clues.

I caught sight of a large woman in a tattered orange windbreaker and a colorful headscarf. She was carrying a plastic shopping bag through which I could see a 4-pack of toilet paper. She was heading out and we ended up almost bumping into each other on our way through the door. There was a kind of stoic resolve in the way she set off down the street that pulled at my heart, and I found myself walking beside her.

“How you doing today?” I asked her. “Oh, I’m alright,” she said, somewhat wearily. We made some more small talk and then I took the plunge. I don’t really know why, but I told her I was practicing to be a secret Santa! And that I was Jewish. “Well, that’s a little strange,” she said. But she gave me an encouraging smile so I carried on. I handed her the folded up bill and she took it gratefully, avoiding looking at it. “Oh, thank you so much!”

I said how it seems most everyone can use a little help these days. She had just moved back after being away for a few years and said she needed some stuff for her place, pots and pans and things. I encouraged her to look at the bill and she took a little peek. “Oh, praise the Lord!” she cried out. I said maybe she would do something nice for herself, at least with some of the money.

“The way I do it,” she said, “is I make a list. Of all that I need. That’s how I do it.” I asked what was on her list and she said “Oh, I need a new coat. And some boots. I have layers on here. See this? This coat isn’t warm at all.” I said that sounded like a good idea. “Do you know where I can get a coat?” she asked me. “I’ve only been to, like, the Dollar Store and the grocery store. And the Goodwill.” We were a few blocks from the shopping mall and could see Marshall’s from where we were standing.

“Well, you could go to the mall,” I suggested. “Maybe someplace like Sears.” “I should go there right now,” she said. “While I still have the money.” I asked if I could walk with her a ways and she said she was happy for the company. She wasn’t in a rush to get back to her apartment. Why? I asked. Well, if she’s alone at home all she wants to do is eat. She’s trying to be healthier, walk more and eat less snacks. I asked her name and she said she’s called Thelma.

She seemed somehow uncertain and I asked if she would like me to help her find a coat. She said she would really like that, since she didn’t know too much about shopping at the mall. On the way she told me about her four kids and 17 grandkids, and how she’s on disability for arthritis and fibromyalgia. She volunteers three days a week at a school helping third graders with their reading.

Finding a coat took a while. The first three stores we went to didn’t have anything in Thelma’s size. A couple of times she suggested “you just pick one out for me.” I could feel her flagging a bit, and the crowds were getting to both of us. I hoped we could find something at Macy’s but knew it would probably bust her budget.

There was one rack of plus-size coats at Macy’s, including some nice warm hooded ones like she said she wanted. She tried on a red one and then the same thing in purple. “You pick. Which one should I get?” I said I liked the red one on her. She looked at the price tag. It was $99.98, more than she had ever spent on any item of clothing. “Well, that’ll be my whole… well, that’s okay. I’m so happy to have it!” I snatched the coat from her hands and started for the register. “I want you to keep that money. I’ll get this.”

She was so appreciative. She asked me what I do –  “you know, when you’re not out following people!” I told her I was a doctor and we talked for a while more. We were getting ready to say goodbye and I told her I was hoping to see her out walking in her warm coat. “No excuse now!” I joked. She gave me a big Thelma hug. “Oh, you’ll see me sometime,” she said with a smile. Then, “I’m not going to call you Santa Claus. You know what you are? You’re a blessing.”

My closet is full of coats for every season

I stumbled across this article today. “Secret Santas” in Charlotte, NC are giving away $10,000 (of their own money) in $100 bills. They’ve been doing it for the past few years around the holidays. Be sure to look at the full slideshow of pictures. The comments people have made are interesting, too.

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