October 2010


The first thing I want to say is a very big “thank you” to everyone who has been reading and commenting. This journey really has been about me and for me, although I hoped maybe a few of my friends would take it to heart and be inspired to talk more about human connection and money, and maybe give a little bit extra away. I underestimated the power of Facebook (which led to the Oregonian article written by Nikole Hannah-Jones). And maybe, in these hard times, the power of some positive news. It has been moving, humbling and deeply satisfying to hear from people all over the country and as far away as Scotland that the stories have made an impact.

It’s the end of the month and I have thought a LOT about where things go from here. I need to take a breath and let the experiences of the past month settle. I still have lots of questions but I do have a few answers.

I have decided that I like giving this way. I will continue to support the causes I care about through reputable non-profit organizations. But I will go back to the bank next week for a small supply of C-notes and will keep them on hand. I will stay alert for opportunities to make a connection and, sometimes, that will include passing along a gift.

And, I will keep writing. My goal is at least a weekly post through the end of the year, when I will regroup.

After casting about for a plan befitting this momentous “last day”, I decided to head back to the place where it really all began: Fred Meyer (see Day 2: Not a Care in the World). That was the day I let the inner judgments start bubbling up to the surface and the first time I had a conversation with a giftee. I secretly hoped to see the woman from that day and find out how she was doing.

A lot of the store employees were in costume; I especially liked one wearing a clerical collar, long black robe and a gigantic cross around his neck. It was hard to tell the shoppers from the employees. I noticed one woman stocking a display of shoes; she had a grim expression and her regular Fred Meyer duds on.

I wandered around somewhat aimlessly for a while. I went over to check if any of my favorite bottles of wine were on sale. I stood for a long time studying the labels and promotions. There’s a deli and little seating area nearby, and I spotted a store employee sitting by herself. I considered going over to sit down, but she seemed to be pointedly ignoring my gaze. I had a good chuckle with myself imagining the woman thinking “Ooh, look at that lady. All she can think about is WINE. I hope she doesn’t come over here!”

I considered keeping the money as a way of prolonging the month of October indefinitely. I saw a young woman wearing slippers and almost followed her. An elderly woman went slowly and painfully by, leaning into her empty shopping cart. In the next aisle was a mother and young girl dressed convincingly as matching zombies, both their mouths painted into a long scar.

I picked out one small item and headed for the checkout line. At the cash register was the grim young woman I had seen at the shoe display. There were two people in front of me and the line moved quickly. When my turn came I said hi and the woman said flatly, “Did you find everything okay this evening?” “Oh, yeah,” I said, “But it’s only one o’clock! Have you been here for a really long time?” I wasn’t winning her over. “You have an Advantage Card?”

As we finished the transaction I tried a few more times to get the woman to smile, or at least look at me. No luck. There was no one else around, and finally I kind of leaned in and said quietly, “Hey, I’d like to give you something.” She glanced at me suspiciously, silent. I reached into my pocket, pulled out the $100 bill and held it out to her.

“I can’t take that,” she said, grim as ever. “Why not?” I wanted to know. “Store policy. I think.” “It’s not a tip. It’s a gift.” “I can’t take it. But thanks anyway.” She turned and walked away.

It was unsettling. Maybe I really wasn’t meant to part with this last hundred. I set out across the parking lot toward home, the woman’s bad humor weighing on me. On the way I passed the bottle return and then spotted a Salvation Army donation trailer. A couple of cars were parked nearby. The drivers had gotten out of their cars and were handing items to a stocky middle-aged man. A bag of clothes and an old computer monitor disappeared into the dark trailer.

After the cars took off I struck up a conversation with the guy. He told me he’d been working for Salvation Army for about two months, first in the Happy Valley store and now here. He said he came from Cuba nine years ago and had originally lived in Miami and then Georgia. He still has family in Cuba as well as all over the world – he counted off children, sisters and brothers, and said his mom had died not too long ago. He’s all by himself here.

Carlos

It always amazes me how much of their story people will share with a stranger, and I was grateful for the connection. I told the man that my mom had also died recently and what I was doing to honor her memory.

I handed him the C-note. His eyes flew open, then he kissed the bill and started praying in Spanish. His eyes welled up with tears. He reached out to shake my hand then changed his mind and gave me a big hug. “My name is Carlos. Thank you. You have no idea what this means to me right now.” He said he works three days a week and gets paid $8.50 an hour; it’s really not enough to get by and he was a hundred dollars short on his rent.

Carlos thanked me again and encouraged me to come by sometime and say hello. He works Sunday, Monday and Tuesday. He let me take his picture, but wanted to put his Salvation Army cap on first.

Michael and Baby

I was a couple of blocks from home, taking in the fact that I had given away the 31st hundred, when a man sitting on a low retaining wall stopped me. He had a tiny dog in his lap. “You know, I just don’t understand people sometimes.” He went on to tell me how a man had come by and started petting his dog. “This is a service dog. Everyone knows you can’t do that. You have to ask permission before you touch a dog!”

He took off the dog’s tiny blanket to show me that she was, indeed, a service dog wearing an official service dog uniform. The passerby had apparently apologized in what felt like a sarcastic manner and then cuffed the guy on the back of the head. It was a deeply offensive gesture.

He said his name was Michael and introduced me to his dog, Baby. “You can pet her if you want. She’s a sweetheart.” Michael told me how his wife had died of ovarian cancer and now the dog is all he has. “I’ve had seven heart attacks in five years. I’m on the street. If she senses something is wrong, she licks my face and then I go to the hospital.” The dog has saved his life on four occasions.

We talked for a while and then Michael looked at me hard. “I had to stop you,” he said, “because I just want to tell you that there is a purpose for everything.” I said goodbye and continued on my way home. I turned back to wave and he said, “Happy Halloween!”

I can still pick up a whiff of Carlos’s cologne on my jacket.

The grateful zombie

October 30! Day 30 of My Month of Hundreds.

My dread over the impending arrival of November has eased up; I am looking forward to having some time to reflect on this month and where I go from here.

Tomorrow feels like a big day. I’ll make the final gift of my Month of Hundreds and write more about my plans for the rest of the year.

A few things are clear: the month has been a great success; I am thrilled! One of my primary objectives has been fulfilled, and I feel much more…free. Free to smile at strangers, leave a generous tip, worry less about paying an extra 5¢ per gallon on gas, and hand out $100 bills! I can’t thank my mother enough for the gift that has made this possible.

As I went through my day today, I found myself doing some weird calculations in my head. Have I given to an equal amount of men and women? Age? What about older people? I haven’t really given to anyone OLD. People of color? Over-represented. I’m okay with that.

It felt like the week of Thanksgiving to judge from the crowds at the stores. People were a bit cranky. Kids in shopping carts were crying and begging. I saw a young boy of about two holding a little stuffed doll, whining at his mom, “Mama! Take it off! Take it off! Mama! Take it off!” He was tugging pitifully at the price tag that was attached to the doll. His mom was selecting spices in the bulk aisle; she turned and said to him, “No, honey. We’re not going to take it off, because we’re not buying that. We’re just borrowing it.” She turned back to her shopping just as the tag went flying. “I took it off, Mama. I took it off”, he said.

A few costumed shoppers were sprinkled through the aisles. The organic lollipops were flying off the shelves.

After my grocery shopping I went over to Walgreen’s. All the stores seem to smell the same, and walking through the door provokes an avalanche of memories. I shopped there weekly for supplies during my mom’s last year,  picking up the necessities then trolling the aisles for a treat that would make her smile or at least bring some light back to her eyes. Chocolate was always good, and she loved nuts until she started forgetting how to swallow.

There was a steady stream of shoppers. Halloween candy and costume supplies were in high demand. I stopped to chat with a few people, but didn’t really connect.

As I was walking out the door I saw a young woman rushing across the parking lot. She had a short skirt, seriously torn fishnet stockings and blood all over her neck and chest. Blue hair and a prim little blouse completed the look. She ran into the store and I followed her.

“Looks like you’re in a hurry,” I said. “Yeah,” she agreed. “I have to be in Salem by 6 to set up for a party!” She made a beeline for the costume supplies and grabbed a tube of fake blood. She didn’t seem to find it strange that I was following her and she kept up a friendly chatter. “A bunch of people are going to Eugene tonight. There might be a lot of traffic.”

I stepped out of the store and waited for her to come out. “Look, I know you’re in a hurry,” I said when she appeared, “but I just need a minute of your time. I have something I want to give you.”. “Okay,” she said, slowing down. “My truck is over this way,” she pointed as we walked together. “What do you want to give me?” She was tearing open the package of fake blood as she walked.

“You have to promise me you’ll drive safe,” the mother in me said. Then I handed her the C-note.

Why?” she yelped.”For real? This is for me?” I didn’t want to make her late and gave an abbreviated version of my story. “You’re doing it every day? Like a mitzvah?” I said yeah, it was just like a mitzvah.

She said her name was Karissa and reached out to give me a tearful hug. “Careful,” she said. “I don’t want to get blood all over you.” Then she jumped into her truck and pulled away, giving me a smile and a kind of shy wave.

I didn’t know zombies thought about mitzvahs. You learn something every day.

October 29. Day 29 of My Month of Hundreds.

Today would be my Dad’s 88th birthday. He was a year younger than Gina which was apparently not okay because she told everyone she was a year younger than she actually was.

My dad, Sidney Ginsberg, grew up in an extended Jewish family in Philadelphia and New York, had a thick Brooklyn accent, and loved to eat sardines and herring. In some ways he was an odd match for my cultured European mother. He served in the Army, then went to law school on the GI bill. But he didn’t work as a lawyer till later. For most of my childhood he worked in the family business, a garage and gas station in Hoboken, New Jersey. Hoboken in those days was very different from the chic community it is today; it was grungy and kind of scary. The garage got burglarized a few times; an alarm would go off and then our phone would ring in the middle of the night, sending my dad hurrying out into the dark.

He worked six days a week and always had grease under his fingernails. A series of de-greasing products made their way through our bathroom, each one promising (and failing) to remove the telltale signs of the working life. On Saturdays, my dad would often take me with him to the gas station. The guys would open the soda machine for me and let me take whatever I wanted. When I was old enough I got to help wash cars and pump gas. Sometimes I got a 25¢ tip. Nothing I have ever done since was more fun; I adored my dad and it seemed like everyone else did, too. He was playful, warm and quick with a joke.

On a NY beach, circa 1958

I did lots of “boy stuff” with my dad. I loved spending time with him at his workbench in the basement. I can’t remember anything that he ever built or even fixed, but he carried an aura of being a capable and handy guy and I wanted to be like that. He chopped wood in the backyard for our fireplace, pushed me around in the wheelbarrow and taught me how to use the axe.

Sometime in the late 1960s my dad went back to school and started working as an attorney for Legal Aid. He spoke fondly of his clients and considered them “underdogs” worth fighting for. At some point a grateful client started sending him a lottery ticket every week. He never found out who the client was but one time he got a winning ticket worth $50.

At his office and in the courtroom everyone referred to my father as “Tex”, because he was always wearing a cowboy hat. He shaved his head and only wore bow ties, which I found embarrassing at the time. Every year for his birthday I would get him a straight tie which he would wear once and then relegate to the back of his closet. As I got older I assumed the duty of his weekly “haircuts”, which consisted of using a clipper on the closest setting and shaving off what little hair he had. Sometimes I would leave a patch on the back in the shape of a triangle or square, especially if he had a PTA meeting to go to. I thought this was hilarious and he never got mad.

Attorney at law, circa 1970

On November 15, 1974 my dad said he wasn’t feeling well, laid down on the floor, and died. I was 17 and a senior in high school. My mother was shocked, and overwhelmed by the business aspects of managing the aftermath. She retreated deeply into her scarcity mentality. The family home became a sad and sorry place. As soon as I could, I got out on my own.

My dad would love this project. I think he pretty much would love everything about it. I wanted to honor him today with my gift, so I headed over to our local gas station. There’s a really sweet kid there who has pumped my gas before (in Oregon you don’t get to pump your own gas). I was hoping he might be there today.

Sure enough, as I pulled in I saw the mop of this young guy’s hair. He started filling my tank and was just finishing up with a couple of other cars. Pretty soon it was just the two of us. I got out of the car. I asked him how he was doing and he said he was good and what about me. I made a comment about how nice he always is and he smiled. “Have you always been like that?” I asked him. “Yeah”, he said. “Ever since my mother raised me. And my dad.” He’s 18 now. I said they must be proud of him and he said yeah, he thought so.

I told the kid I wanted to give him something and he said that was fine. I handed him the C-note and he stared. “You’re kidding, right? Are you serious? Is this for real?” I said it was and he said, “Dang! Thank you! Thank you so much!”

He was so happy and excited. I told him he might not realize how much of a difference he makes to people by being his sweet self. He said his name was Julian and asked me mine. “You’re pretty nice, too”, he said. “You just made my day!” Then he asked if he could give me a hug and wrapped his long arms around me. A car pulled in and he loped off to take care of business. He turned back and said, “Whenever I see you, I’m gonna say ‘Thank you, Jill!'” He waved at me, smiling, as I pulled out of the lot.

Yeah, I think Sidney “Tex” Ginsberg would have liked this a lot. Happy birthday, Dad.

Julian! So sweet.

October 28. Day 28 of My Month of Hundreds.

On the way home today I passed the neighborhood high school where a football game was in progress. I had the idea to scope out the area and got closer. It was basically a muddy mess.

A muddy mess

Family members were scattered along the bleachers. I spotted a couple of prospects sitting by themselves, but there really wasn’t any privacy. It started to rain.

I walked around the park but the foot traffic had dwindled. The high school track team was down in the mud doing pushups, then they clamored up the slippery hill and took off running. As I was standing watching them I heard a scraping crash and wondered if there had been an accident on 33rd Ave.

Heading over the rise I could see people gathering on the sidewalk. Two cars were parked at the curb; the car in the back had its rear bumper torn off and had obviously been rear-ended and pushed into the other car. A guy drove by in a sweet red Thunderbird. “Is this a hit and run?” Someone said yes. “You gotta call it in!”

Is this a hit and run?

Everyone seemed shook up but was otherwise ok. A woman was standing and watching, her dog and bicycle at her side. I asked if she saw what happened. “No, but I heard the crash and came to look. How can someone just drive away like that?” She shook her head and glanced at me. “It really makes you wonder about people, you know what I mean? It’s terrible; what’s the world coming to?”

I wanted to give her a shred of hope and I launched into my spiel. When I held out the $100 bill she just stared at it with her mouth open. Then she grabbed me in a big hug and said, “I read about you in the newspaper!” She said she was doing fine and didn’t need the money.

She told me that her husband had died but that she had a wonderful full life. She said she had loved the article. “I read it and thought ‘what a wonderful thing. Maybe I can do something like that someday.’ Now I will! I’ll keep it going!”

The woman told me her name was Barbara and introduced me to her dog. She said she could think of three people right away who could use the money. “I’ll keep the tradition going!”, she said. “I promise!” And then she was off.

Barbara and her dog India

October 27. Day 27 of My Month of Hundreds.

I really need some time to sit and think about all that has happened and where I go from here. I DO NOT KNOW. What does all this mean? How has it changed me? Have I accomplished what I set out to do? Where DO I go from here?

I feel the end of the month looming. No one is holding a gun to my head saying I have to stop as of November 1 (“this is a stick-up: stop giving away money!”). But having a finite perimeter around the project helps me measure its impact. At least, I imagine it does. Some things seem less certain than ever.

Five more C-notes. Five more giveaways. I have to remind myself not to try too hard to “pick the right person”; what I have been doing has worked just fine. But I do find myself focusing more now on people who appear to be really in need.

After my morning clinic I headed back into town by way of the bakery to pick up a treat for a meeting. Driving by the Dollar Store on NE Halsey I noticed a man selling the Street Roots newspaper on the little mall there. He was tall and thin, with a strikingly upright posture. His off-white burlap pants at one point may have lent a sporty and carefree tropical look to the wearer, but now they were too dirty and just a little too short to be stylish.

After work I found myself drawn back to that same area and drifted into the Dollar Store. I used to shop there all the time for baskets-full of ibuprofen and aspirin to give away at the free clinic. Now we’re all grown up and the staff orders that stuff.

It being almost Halloween, the place was a treasure trove of cheap plastic items. I spent a few minutes looking at a vast collection of plastic swords and daggers in all shapes and sizes; my boys would have loved those when they were little. There were even some Christmas things on display and I heard a woman calling out “Happy New Year! Happy New Year!” as she showed some party hats to her friend.

I got a little tingly feeling like my next recipient was close at hand. I saw a middle-aged guy pushing an empty cart; he was looking sharp in jeans and highly polished black shoes and I found myself wondering what he was shopping for. A woman pushing a stroller caught my eye. I got closer and saw a tiny infant swaddled in pink. I liked the idea of giving a gift to a new mother, but she pulled out her phone to make a call and the opportunity passed.

A pretty woman with long braids was speaking softly in Spanish to her little girl. The child wanted a balloon and the woman let out a little sigh. “Okay. Let’s go get you one.” I followed them to the front of the store, looking for the right moment. Then I looked out the window and saw him.

The guy with the Street Roots papers was still standing there. He had a small wrapped bundle of newspapers in his hand and was tossing it into the air, flipping it around, catching it behind his back. He had some serious grace and skill and I watched, captivated.

I went outside and walked up to him. “Hi.” “Good day”, he said, very proper. I told him I had seen him a few hours earlier and was surprised that he was still there at the end of the day. “This is my primary activity”, he explained. I noticed his broken down shoes and the absence of socks. I asked him how he came to be selling the newspaper. His story spilled out.

“Well, I used to be a regular person. Had a job. Just like you.” He told me he had lost his job at age 21 and then couldn’t pay his rent and ended up in a shelter and on the street. “I was there for ten years.” He shook his head, as if he could hardly believe this himself. “I’ve seen everything you could possibly imagine out there on the street. I’ve seen people born, grow up, get old and DIE. Now, I just try to stay out of trouble. It’s hard not to find trouble when you’re on the street. Trouble finds you.” He told me his name was Frank.

Right about then the guy with the jeans and polished shoes came out of the Dollar Store and handed my friend a Hershey’s bar. “Hey, thanks”, Frank said. He told me he’s living with some friends now and he’s doing good, but still can’t find work beyond the Street Roots gig. He was sweet and polite and I thought back to Colin from Day 4.

I started telling Frank about my project and he listened intently. I handed him the $100 bill and he stared at it for a minute, lips pursed. “Oooo”, he said. “Thank you!” He slipped the bill quickly into his pocket, then shook my hand. I asked if he knew what he might do with it. “That’s easy”, he said. “Pay the rent.”

I told Frank he seemed like a really smart guy and I wished him the best. He was interested in the blog and let me take his picture. He’s really handsome, this doesn’t do him justice.

Frank, a Regular Person

Mama! A white lady just gave me $100!

October 26. Day 26 of My Month of Hundreds.

Five years ago I had another amazing adventure and helped a local pastor start a free health clinic for uninsured adults in North Portland. Through the generous support of the community and our volunteers we’ve been able to provide services to thousands of neighborhood residents. A couple of times a year I go out with the paid staff for Happy Hour to celebrate their hard work. Today was the day.

There’s a place we like a few blocks away from the clinic and the five of us headed over there shortly after five. A bus stop and a gas station sit across the street, and I often see a fair collection of characters in the vicinity. I had my eyes peeled and the C-note in my pocket.

Just as we went in a woman hurried past. Everything about her look and posture said, “don’t bother me”. It was all the invitation I needed.

“I’ll be right back,” I said to the group. “Somebody order me a drink”. I got outside just in time to see the woman duck into a store about halfway up the block. As I closed in I could see that she had gone into the liquor store.

I had second thoughts and then remembered the cold beer that was waiting for me back at the restaurant. So… it was okay for me to look forward to a drink at the end of the day but not this lady? Because she looked poor? Seriously? The chatter in my head is insistent, even when I would swear I know better.

The woman was standing at the front of the small store viewing the wares, which were all behind bars. I walked up behind her. “Hi, how you doing?” I said. She turned and I got my first real look at her. I noticed her long eyelashes and sad countenance. “I’m blessed. You?” I thought for a second. “Yeah, I guess I could say the same.”

She went back to looking at the bottles. “Can I talk to you for a minute?” The woman turned to me again. “Yeah? What?” I took a different approach than my usual; not sure why. “I’m Jill. What’s your name?” Her eyes widened. “I’m not gonna tell you! You might be the poh-lice!” Then she laughed.

I launched into my story and told her my mom had died not too long ago. She fixed me with a steady silent gaze. I told her I had a gift to share and gave her the $100 bill. She gasped and her hands flew up, covering her eyes. She started to sob and grabbed me in a bear hug. “Oh, my God! I don’t have any food! Jesus!” Then she told me her name was Deanna.

She was crying hard by now and was talking fast about how she had been praying for help. “I’m gonna call my Mama! She won’t believe this!” She pulled out her phone.

“Mama! You know how I’ve been praying?? A white lady just gave me a hundred dollars! Jesus! I swear it!” She pushed the phone at me. “Talk to her! Tell her it’s true!”

I took her phone and heard a voice murmuring on the other end. I couldn’t make out the words. “Hello? It’s true what she said. Have a good night.”

I don’t really remember what happened next. Somehow we said goodbye and I carried on with my happy hour.

October 25th. Day 25 of My Month of Hundreds.

It was a kind of strange day today. The Sunday Oregonian article brought a lot of attention and traffic to the blog and I found myself having a mini anxiety attack. I loved all the comments on the article, and was very moved by people sharing their own stories, telling how they felt inspired, and really getting what I am doing. Even the negative comments were somehow comforting, as they mostly reflected things I have thought myself and have been expecting to hear from others. I want to respond to every comment and message and I will, eventually.

I’m also kind of freaking out that it is DAY TWENTY-FIVE. I have absolutely no idea what I am going to do come November 1, but I know there is no turning back. It breaks my heart to think about being “done” with this project. I want to keep going, even without the money piece. Sometimes it feels like it is about the money, and sometimes not. Mostly it feels like the C-note is a shorthand way of getting people’s attention and letting them know that they made an impact on me and I want to do the same. Strange.

It was a busy day and I put off my gift till it was starting to get dark. I had to do a few errands and thought the opportunity would arise at the library, or Rite-Aid or, surely, at the grocery store. Not today.

Walking by the laundromat I saw a woman with two pre-teen kids. They were all folding clothes, obviously a well-oiled team. I wasn’t sure but thought maybe the younger kid was wearing pajamas, and imagined that all the clothes they owned were in the piles on the counter. I sidled closer but felt the urge pass when I saw the three Starbucks cups lined up next to their folded clothes.

Leaving the grocery store I seemed to see affluence everywhere and was starting to panic that I wouldn’t find the right person tonight. It had gotten pretty dark. I got in my car and started slowly heading home, feeling rather defeated.

I was sitting at a red light behind a row of cars when I saw someone standing in a small halo of light at the bus stop.  I pulled the car over and jumped out.

It was a woman in a big puffy black coat and a hat pulled down over her eyebrows. She was surrounded by plastic shopping bags. “Hi”, I said. “You waiting for the bus?” (this was brilliant.) “Yeah”, she said. “I’m headed to the laundromat. I hope I’m going the right way.” She smiled, revealing two broken front teeth. “It’s just my second day here.” She told me that she had come from Atlanta over the weekend. “My life wasn’t going so good down there and my friend said she was moving here, so I decided to come too.”

She was friendly and didn’t really seem to think it strange that I had left my car a few feet away to talk with her. I told her about my mom and she said she was sorry. Then I gave her the C-note. “You serious? For real?” I said yes and she said, “Give me a hug! I’m gonna cry now.” She said her name was Cassidy and she normally wouldn’t take a handout but that she really needed the cash. “Technically, I don’t have anywhere to stay tonight. Thank you so much. I applied for a job today. If that comes through I’ll be okay.”

I told Cassidy that I hope our city treats her well and that things work out for her. As I got into the car she gave me a wave. As I drove off I looked back and saw her wiping her eyes.

What am I going to do?

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