October 2010

En route, SFO to PDX. Day 24 of My Month of Hundreds.

The weather was terrible driving to the airport from the coast this morning. Torrential rain kept up a steady beat on the roof and the water ran in rushing rivulets along the side of the road. Every so often Neysa would reach over to turn on the defroster, which helped a bit with the poor visibility. By the time we arrived and got out of the car my legs were knotted up with tension. It wasn’t too surprising that our flights were delayed, and the airport was a madhouse.  Louise and I said our goodbyes to Neysa, who was headed home to Denver.

Our flight was delayed for an hour, then two. People were lining the walkways and curled up in every corner, some with sleep masks over their eyes. Sandwich wrappers, newspaper and old coffee cups littered the floor. A palpable hum of discontent was in the air.

I took advantage of the free WiFi and read some of the comments on the blog and the Oregon Live website. Wow. I couldn’t have asked for a better partner in telling my story and was thrilled with the response to Nikole Hannah-Jones’ beautiful article. Thank you all for reading with such open hearts.

Coffee. I needed coffee. I also had a C-note in my pocket that needed to be set free. I had planned to give it away once we returned to Portland, but as it got later I changed my mind. There were so many disgruntled and frustrated people around; I would pick one and maybe make their day a little bit better.

There was an espresso stand a nice walk from our gate so I took off in that direction. I ordered a small vanilla latte and told the barista that I just wanted one pump of vanilla. He said the single pump would be on the house. This was thrilling but in the end it seemed like he charged me for it after all. I chuckled inside, thinking of all the times I have embarrassed my kids by arguing with a cashier over something just like this. They would have been proud; I didn’t say a word and I left a fat tip in the jar.

The coffee was really hot and I held it gingerly as I headed back to the gate where Louise was waiting. On the way, I passed one of those cell phone rapid charger machines. I’ve always wondered if those actually work or if they blow up your phone or what.

A burly guy in work clothes was just unplugging his phone from the machine. As he settled back into his seat, he was regarding his phone with a disgusted look on his face. I stepped over to him. “Do those things actually work?” I asked. “Not worth a damn!” he griped. “Look; I’ve got nuthin’!” He showed me the empty battery signal on his phone. “Damn it! Don’t waste your money!”

We both looked accusingly at the machine. He spotted, in tiny print, the 800 number for customer service. “I’m gonna call right now and kick some ass!” “Oh, look”, I pointed out. “It says here that the results will depend on your battery’s quality and capacity. You know they’re going to tell you that your battery quality is inferior.” There was something slightly lewd about the way this came out but he pretended not to notice (or maybe I imagined it). He snorted and said, “It sounds like you own this machine!”

I said, yeah, I own all of them and we both laughed. He had a rough openness that I found pretty irresistible. I started thinking about what it would be like to slip him the C-note.

We kept up an easy chatter and he said he was going to a Teamsters’ convention in Phoenix. He’s a welder for the railroad. “Ask me how long I’ve been doing that”, he said, with a twinkle in his eye. I walked right into it and asked “How long?” “All the livelong day! I love saying that!”

Then he asked me, “You know when you hear the clickety clack of the train?” “Yeah”, I said. “I love that sound.” “No! It’s not supposed to sound like that! I fix that!” He explained how a five degree temperature variation can cause a 3/8 inch something something and lead to a derailment. “Oh, you have a heavy load on your shoulders.” “Nah”, he admitted. “It’s really not as hard as it sounds.” I agreed that the same could be said about a lot of  jobs and told him I’m a physician.

Eventually I thanked him for his time and said I’d enjoyed talking with him. Then I told him about my project honoring my mom and he offered his condolences. He asked me lots and lots of questions and finally I just stuck the bill into his shirt pocket.

“You’re freaking me out! No way!” He offered to buy me a cup of coffee. I held up my coffee cup and said thanks anyway. Then he said, “I can’t take your money without even knowing your name.” We shook hands and introduced ourselves.

His name was Duane. He was an immensely curious and intelligent guy. I have no idea what he is going to do with the $100. It was almost beside the point today.

I’m home now and as I write this I can hear a train whistle in the distance. I’m too far away to tell if the tracks are going clickety clack, but not if Duane has anything to do with it.


Duane's low battery


Dillon Beach, California. Day 23 of My Month of Hundreds.

The day is socked in with fog, and the sky and water come together at the horizon in a gray blur. My friend Neysa’s grandfather and uncles built this amazing house in the 1960’s and the family uses it for weekend and vacation getaways. She spent much of her childhood here, playing on the beach with her sister and cousins. I always craved more family time than I had, and it sounds idyllic.

We wanted to go for a walk, despite the gray sky. There were a lot of people on the beach and even in the water – folks with their dogs, kids in shorts, and surfers with their boards bobbing into view in the distance. When we got outside we realized it was raining hard. The wind was whipping the rain into our faces and our glasses were soon shedding drops onto our cheeks. Neysa decided to take hers off and made her way blindly along the sand. “Is that a dog?” she asked at one point.

We were quickly completely drenched. As my pants got wetter they got heavier and heavier, and I kept having to hitch them up out of the sand. We thought of turning back a couple of times but Neysa had a destination in mind. She’s twenty years my junior and I was determined to keep up.

By the time we got to the boat launch the beach was pretty deserted except for a few stoic individuals fishing from the landing. We ducked into the bait shop to warm up for a few minutes.  I had the C-note in my pocket and checked to make sure it hadn’t gotten soaked.


Fishing at Lawson's Landing

A couple walked by with their dog. They all looked a bit bedraggled, which is I’m sure how I looked as well. I got curious and decided to see where they were headed. Neysa grabbed the camera and I dashed outside, following them into the trailer park.

Hot on the trail

When I had almost caught up with them I called out, “Excuse me!” The wind was wailing and I had to yell louder. They turned, startled, and let me catch up. “Nice day, isn’t it?” I asked. “I love it!” said the woman. We drove out here just to be in the weather. I just love when it’s like this.” They had come from Sacramento, about 100 miles away, to walk on the beach in the rain.

We were standing in the road and I started to explain what I was doing. “I’m honoring my mom by passing along a gift each day this month in her memory.” They were quiet. “This is a gift for you.” I held out the $100 bill.

“Oh, no! I couldn’t take that!” the woman said. “It’s a gift”, I encouraged. “You can do whatever you like with it.” After a pause she started to cry, took the money and gave me a big long hug. “I’m going to donate it to the SPCA. That’s how we got this little guy.” The dog was watching her adoringly.

“Are you sure?” she asked. I said I was. She wanted to know why I had chosen them today and I couldn’t really spell it out. “Something about the three of you just drew me in”, I explained. I said that they looked “interesting”. The man laughed and spoke for the first time. “That’s a lot nicer than what people usually say about how I look!”

With Mike, Heidi and Rocket

The woman said their names were Heidi and Mike, and Rocket the dog. We all shook hands and she hugged me again. She thanked me and said that she sometimes forgets that there are nice people in the world, which can seem like “a bleak place”.  Then she told me a story.

A few weeks ago she was in a parking lot loading up her groceries when her shopping cart rolled off, smashing into another car and causing some minor damage. She felt terrible about it and started to write a note to leave on the windshield. Before she could finish, the owner of the car came out of the store. Heidi explained what had happened and was surprised when the woman told her not to worry about it. “She said that when she was in college the same thing happened to her. The person whose car she hit told her not to worry about it, just to make sure that she passed along the kindness someday.”

That’s the thing about passing along a kindness. You never know when or where it will land.

I was unable to post yesterday but it wasn’t for lack of trying. We are at a friend’s beach house near Bodega Bay and I drove around in the foggy dark last night looking for an unsecured internet connection to upload my post. A few houses had lights on, and I could see people inside laughing and sharing a meal. I had my laptop on the seat next to me and drove very slowly, looking for the telltale sign of a network connection. It was so dark and so foggy that I thought I could easily drive right over the cliff, and I pretty quickly decided to abandon the effort and headed back to the beach house. This morning I am sitting at a small bakery with WiFi. Here’s yesterday’s story:

Janet at work

We left San Francisco this afternoon for a couple of days at a friend’s beach house near Bodega Bay. We stopped for groceries in Petaluma at Whole Foods and I could feel the C-note in my pocket. It didn’t seem too likely that I would find the recipient for my 22nd hundred in the store, so I was planning to stroll through the parking lot and adjacent area after we finished shopping.

I was a bit hungry, so I stopped for a couple of the samples that were being offered. Some kind of tofu dip, then dried gogi berries and mulberries. These were getting a hard sell: “they’re organic, sustainably grown, fairly traded, and full of vitamin C and reservatrol! Everything you would want in a mulberry!” I wasn’t disappointed, as I’ve never thought much about mulberries. But they were chewy and pretty tasteless.

A woman was passing out cups of fat ravioli, green and red. People were gobbling them up, which is sometimes a good sign. I stepped up to the table and the woman turned her bright eyes on me. “You’re here!” she said. “What?” “I was waiting for you to come!” she told me. I was startled. “Really? Why?” “Oh, I don’t know”, she said. “I just wanted to say that. But I can tell you are a very open person.”

She handed me my ravioli with a smile. I thanked her and then stood there for a minute. We were looking at each other, just kind of soaking each other in. Something clicked in my head and I said, “Guess what. I’m going to blow your mind in a minute.” “Oh! I can’t wait!” she said.

I stepped off to the side and ate my ravioli while she helped a couple of other people.  She looked expectantly back at me and I got closer. I started to tell her my story and she offered her condolences. When I put the $100 bill in her hand, she gave out a yelp. “Oh, my god! What a blessing!” She gave me a hug, saying into my ear, “I’m so sorry for your loss. I really am.”

She told me her name was Janet and she’s a dancer.  She said she just (just) lost a part-time job and is doing the sample thing till she finds another way to make ends meet. She said the money would help a lot. “You just did the right thing at the right time”, she said.

Janet said I could take her picture and she wanted to know all about the blog. She hugged me again and said into my ear, “I can’t wait to learn more about your mom.”

Gina would love that part! Amazing, simply amazing.

Beautiful Janet

Experienced. Reliable. Reasonable Rates

Day 21 of my Month of Hundreds. San Francisco, USA.

Our business meeting today included a “poverty simulation”, during which everyone was assigned a role and had to proceed through a simulated month. I was a young mother with two teenage children. My husband had just walked out on us and I had no jobs, skills or savings. The rent was due as well as the utility and car payments. Various (pretend) social services were set up around the room. Even though it was a simulation, I was a nervous wreck the entire time. I couldn’t get to the food stamp office before it closed, and my application for cash assistance was accepted but nothing would come of it for 30 days. Long lines, lots of forms to fill out, variably helpful staff people, and unwelcome surprises (such as the car breaking down) were the order of the day.

It was pretty powerful for everyone, and I saw a few of my colleagues in tears. We were all humbled by a tiny taste of  the reality that so many people live with every day. I could see what a difference $100 might make.

At the end of the day I went out for a short walk; not much time before the evening activities and I had some money to give away! I found myself drawn into the window displays: Saks Fifth Avenue, Prada, Hermes, Breve, Tiffany, Neiman Marcus, Juicy Couture… It was an effort to keep my attention focused on the stream of people going by. What a lot of want and need in such a world of plenty.

I came upon a street cleaner maneuvering his cart down the sidewalk. I said hello and slowed down to match his stride. A skateboarder zoomed by us and the street cleaner shared his observations about the dangers of skateboarding and the lax enforcement of the laws prohibiting such behavior. We chatted till we got to the curb. “Have a nice day, ma’am”, he said.

I crossed the street and kind of lingered on the other side. I looked back to see if the street cleaner was coming, although I didn’t have my typical confidence that I was making the “right” choice. There he came, simultaneously pushing and pulling the unwieldy cart at his side. When he reached me I asked to speak with him for a moment. “Are you busy?”, I asked. “I’m working two routes”, he warned. I launched into my spiel and he listened carefully, nodding and saying “okay” for encouragement. When I gave him the $100 bill he said, “Oh, thank you. Thank you very much.” Then he pulled out his wallet and started rifling through it.

“I always keep one. I know it’s in here”, he said. “I want to give you my card. You know, just in case you ever need anything. You probably don’t need money but you might need something else.” He found the card and handed it to me. It said his name was Shomari and advertised Custodial Services. Experienced. Reliable. Reasonable Rates. “Turn it over”, he said.

I looked at the back. “SPIRITUAL MESSAGE FOR LIFE: Galatians 5:22”. I asked him about the scripture and he said he couldn’t remember it word for word but it was something about being One in God’s love. I thanked him and we shook hands.

I googled the passage when I got back to the hotel. “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, and gentleness.” Amen to that.

Day 20 of my Month of Hundreds. Counting down now. I’m not liking that; I really don’t want this month to end.

Over the last 20 days I’ve definitely refined my process and gotten more efficient in selecting the day’s recipient once I decide to do the deed. It’s a little hard to describe what I’m looking for. I know that everyone has a story and most people could put $100 to good use. I get a sense about a person, that somehow I can connect with them and make a bit of an impact.

Even though I’ve lived in San Francisco it’s been a while and I forgot what it feels like downtown. So many people! I spent all day in a windowless conference room, so just getting outside was exhilarating. I had the $100 bill in my pocket and I started to walk.

As I walked I studied the passersby. There were a lot of folks around. Small clusters of workers on breaks, men in suits rushing by, panhandlers. A woman at the corner had a sign that said “Why am I sitting here? Because I don’t have any cents. Do you?”

After a couple of blocks I passed what at first I thought was a candy store. Pretty colors and bright lights! I looked again and saw the sign saying Brow Bar and realized it was some kind of makeup place (I have since educated myself somewhat utilizing the powers of Google, but I must say this kind of thing is about as foreign to me as an ammunition depot).  This gorgeous young guy was inside; I caught his eye and he flashed me a brilliant smile.


I went in and was greeted by a young woman at the door. “Can I help you?” I pushed right by, saying “I need to talk to that guy over there.” It felt urgent; I could hardly wait to get to him. He was standing at a counter with a bunch of makeup brushes and didn’t seem surprised to see me. “Hi!”, he said. I asked if I was interrupting him. “It’s okay”, he shrugged. “I’m just cleaning these brushes.”

We chatted for a minute and I told him I was visiting from Portland. “Oh! I love Oregon!”, he said. I started to tell him about my project and he listened intently. When I told him my mom had died he was very sympathetic. I said I wanted to pass along a gift and he smiled. “What is this?” Then I gave him the C-note.

He thanked me over and over. He gave me a big hug and told me his name was Danny. He had a lot of questions about what I was doing and why, and why I had chosen him. Then he told me that he had been mugged last night and struggled not to cry. “This is amazing, really. With all the bad things that happen, it really helps to remember that there are good people in the world.” He hugged me again.

Danny’s a really sweet, special young man. I think he’s one of those angels in disguise. I’ve already said that I don’t really believe in God, but I’ll be praying that he stays safe. And happy.

A reporter interested in my Month of Hundreds tagged along as I rode the MAX out to the airport for my trip to San Francisco.  I tried to go about business as usual but was a little self-conscious. A photographer came along as well and he was lurking politely in the distance. I got on the train with my suitcases and took a look around. The C-note was in my pocket.

I slid into an empty seat and pulled my bags close. A young man (a kid, really) was in the next seat. He looked at me and shook his head. “Rough day”, he said.  “Rough day?” I repeated. “What happened?” “I got kicked out of residential treatment”, he explained. “Just for talking to a girl.” He told me he’d been in treatment for 51 days and wasn’t quite sure what to do now. He said he was trying to get home to Washington somewhere, and something about calling this girl or a friend of hers. I had a little trouble following the story and could feel his confusion and worry.  Again he said it was a rough day and he stood up to get off at the next stop. “Take care of yourself!” I urged.

After the guy got off I wanted a change of scenery and moved to the other end of the car. A striking woman briefly met my gaze as I maneuvered my way down the aisle. I stood by the door as we got to the next stop and a few people went and came. The woman got my attention. “There’re seats up here”, she said. “You want to sit down?” “Thanks”, I answered with a smile “I haven’t decided yet.” A few seconds went by. “I’ll help you with your bags”, the woman offered.

I made a move toward the empty seats. She reached over and pulled my suitcase up into the aisle next to her and I sat down across the way. “Thanks a lot.” I asked her where she was headed and she said she was going home. She’d been to traffic court to pay a ticket that her son had incurred while driving her car. “So, he’ll be paying me back. Hopefully.”

“Actually”, I said, “Do you mind if I sit next to you for a minute?” “Uh. Ok.” I caught sight of the photographer a few rows up ahead as I got closer and started telling her about my project. I said I wanted to pass a gift along to her and handed over the $100 bill. “Wow, I can’t take this! I can’t take your money.” She saw the photographer and got alarmed. “What is this? Is this for real? What’s going on?” The reporter came over and started to explain. “It’s legit. Really.” The woman eventually relaxed and told us her name was Angelah. With an H. She said she felt guilty taking the money but that it couldn’t come at a better time. She’s a single mom with four kids and she’s going to school for her nursing certificate. She thanked me a bunch of times before getting off at Gateway.

Our flight was delayed for almost an hour for a “ground freeze” while Airforce Two (Vice President Biden on board) was loaded and launched. The guy sitting next to me was on his way to Honolulu. By the time we landed he had about ten minutes till the doors would close on his next flight. The flight attendant made an announcement letting everyone know. When the cabin doors opened, everyone stayed in their seats and cheered while the guy sprinted down the aisle and onto the jetway. I just know he made it.

I’m heading out of town tomorrow for a few days and have been a little preoccupied with how I’m going to do with my giveaways. In a different city and culture, will I still be able to follow my instincts? Granted, it’s not like I’m going to Djibouti, but San Francisco is a different world.

I had to stop at the store after work today. I got out of the car and was crossing the parking lot when I saw a woman struggling with her empty shopping cart. I always hate taking the cart back to the repository after loading my groceries in the car, so I decided to be really nice and offer to take her cart back for her. I was feeling kind of pleased with myself, thinking how this project is making me into such a nice person. Then I couldn’t find the place where you put the carts and I started to get annoyed. Ah! No wonder! Some idiot had parked right in front of it, blocking the whole thing. A couple of other shoppers were kind of circling around, trying to figure out how to put their carts away. Jeez. Some people!

It was getting dark but I could see well enough to realize that the offending vehicle looked vaguely familiar. Wait. Is that…? Doh! I was the one who was blocking everyone from putting their carts away. Wow. I hate that.

I fixed the problem as quickly as I could and headed into the store. I had the C-note in my pocket and just cruised the aisles for a while. There were a lot of people inside, mostly in ones and twos. I walked slowly and (I imagined) nonchalantly past the produce, the crackers, the peanut butter and the salad dressing. Heading into the frozen food aisle I saw a young woman pushing a little girl in a stroller. She was wearing tiny shorts that barely covered her bottom and said “Senior” across the back. High school? Possible, but she looked older. With the two of them was a slightly rounder version of the young woman. She had stopped pushing their shopping cart and was looking at the ice cream. “Klondike bars?”, I heard her ask. The cart was piled with chips, soda and frozen chicken. Something drew me to them.

“Excuse me”, I said to the woman with the cart. “Can I talk with you for a minute?” “Okaaayy”, she said, visibly dubious. She maneuvered her cart around in front of her so it was between the two of us. “What’s it about?” “Is this your family?”, I asked. “Yes”, she said. “These are my daughters.” She looked concerned, and mildly frightened. I saw the two girls watching me. “They’re beautiful”, I offered. I smiled, trying to put them all at ease. The older girl grinned at me and did a gracious little curtsey. I told the mom what I was doing and that I wanted to pass along a gift. Her face went slack and I handed her the $100 bill.

The woman’s hand flew up to her mouth and she burst into tears. In one fluid motion she came out from behind her shopping cart and gave me a huge hug. “God is so good!” She was crying hard. There was a story here, and lots of hurt. Her older daughter was crying, too. Then the woman said, “Your mother must have been a beautiful person.” “Yes”, I agreed. “She was.”

That was it. We didn’t talk long before I went on my way. The two women were still standing there with tears in their eyes when I turned into the next aisle.

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