Aftermath


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 read an entire (library) book over the long weekend, which was wonderful in itself. The book made a big impression on me, and at times left me feeling pretty low. It’s a story you may be familiar with, but I hadn’t heard it before and can’t remember now how I found out about it. I even have a feeling someone reading the blog suggested it.

The book is called Breaking Night: A Memoir of Forgiveness, Survival and My Journey From Homeless to Harvard. It’s written by a young woman named Liz Murray who grew up in the Bronx with two drug-addicted parents. From the age of four she watched her parents shoot up in their squalid apartment, waited anxiously for them to come home from scoring drugs, and survived on bread with mayonnaise as they blew their monthly welfare check in a few days of bingeing and left the cupboards bare. Liz stopped going to school and evaded caseworkers with tenacity and creativity. By the time she was fifteen she was living on her own, carrying everything she owned in a backpack and surviving on what food she could beg from friends, or steal.

The story has an uplifting ending. This remarkable young woman has not only come to terms with her childhood, forgiven her parents, and made much of herself but now devotes her life to helping others realize their potential regardless of their circumstances.

One of the things that struck me most about Liz’s story was how invisible she was. For years she slept in stairwells or subways at night or in friends’ empty apartments during the day while their parents were at work. After a stint in “placement” she was terrified of being sent back into the system so never let on how dire her circumstances really were.

I was out for a walk along Broadway today and saw a young woman sitting on a corner. She was wearing filthy clothes and had a kerchief around her head and a dirty blanket around her shoulders. In her lap was a cardboard sign that said “Please help. $18 will get me a room at the Joyce.” I thought of the book, and of all the people who looked the other way while Liz Murray endured stunning neglect and thieved her way through her American childhood.

A hallway at the Joyce Hotel. Photo from hostelz.com, a hostel review site. Reviews of the Joyce are not for the faint of heart.

There was a dog curled on an old sleeping bag a few yards away, a bag of kibble propped up nearby. I smiled at the young woman and said hello but kept walking, unsure. After a few steps I turned around. The woman spoke. “She’s okay, if you’re worried about the dog. She won’t hurt you.” I went back and stood near the woman. Her green eyes were clear, her face marked by fatigue. Her straight white teeth hinted at the fact that maybe, at some point, someone had cared about her.

Her name was Carrie. We started to talk and she told me she’d been living on the streets for about a year, ever since she lost her job at a residential treatment center in Yakima. She grew up in Portland so, jobless, she headed back towards home. Her car died during the trip and she arrived penniless. Usually she sleeps under a bridge, but occasionally she collects enough coins to pay for a night in a four bed “hostel” room at the Joyce Hotel. She shivered under her blanket.

The paper cup held some pennies and other coins. It seems pretty cheeky in retrospect, but I asked her if she was using and I believed her when she proudly said she’d been clean for four years.

I reached into my pocket for the C-note I’d tucked in there earlier. “I don’t want to put this in your cup.” I said. “Here.” I held out the folded bill and she wrapped her hand around it and pulled it onto her lap. “Thanks a lot,” she said, smiling at me. A few seconds passed. “Did you look at it?” I asked her. “No,” she said and opened her hand just a speck, hiding it with her sign.

“Oh, my god! Thank you so much!” She started unfolding her legs in what seemed like slow motion and then her tiny self was standing in front of me. I towered over her, something that doesn’t happen often. “Can I give you a hug?” she asked. “No one’s ever done something like this for me before.”

She gave me a big hug and then I wasn’t really sure what to say.  I told her I was very sorry for what she was going through and to take care of herself. “And,” I added, “remember that there’s goodness and kindness in the world.” With a mildly hopeful smile, she said she would.

Portland has the highest proportion of homeless in the nation. This photo is from commonground.org.

Earlier tonight I took the garbage out, including the remains of our Thanksgiving feast and a discarded pair of shoes no longer comfortable. Empty wine bottles from our festivities fill the recycling bin. I got chilled in the few minutes it took me to empty the trash into the bins and roll them to the curb. I came in to a warm house smelling of fresh-baked cookies.

How can I forget, even for a moment, that I am profoundly and deeply blessed? But I do.

Mr. Brown's Shoeshine Stand

I decided at the end of my Month of Hundreds that I would aim to give away $100 every week through the end of the year. Something about having that C-note in my pocket makes me more aware of what is going on around me; it’s just a fact.

I spent the weekend in Boston, where Elijah is attending college. We had a great visit and talked, among other things, about my verifiable history as a cheapskate. He told me how the Oregonian reporter had called and asked if he could give her some examples of my cheapness.  He apparently had no problem coming up with a slew, and reminded me about the time I drove around the block waiting for the guys at Jiffy Lube to put out their “$10 Off” sign. Stuff like that. I am very glad to see that my kids are both sensible and generous without having absorbed any of my bizarre relationship to money.

The streets were positively teeming with people; scads of tourists as well as lots of folks who looked pretty down on their luck. It was chilly out, though nothing like it will be in a month or two. I saw people curled up in doorways, huddled in sleeping bags and sometimes under a sheet of cardboard.

On Saturday morning I went to get coffee at Borders and was doing some browsing when I noticed a well dressed man sitting in a comfy chair. He was sitting up straight with his eyes closed and appeared to be sound asleep. I watched him out of the corner of my eye as I thumbed through a book about the back roads of Ireland.

After a few minutes a store employee approached. He didn’t say a word, just grabbed the back of the guy’s chair and lifted it up. Then he let it bounce, hard. “Hey! Get up!” he barked. The sleeper’s eyes opened; he was now dazed yet alert.  The employee told him to leave, then stood there staring him down.

I found this scene very upsetting and impulsively stepped to the guy’s side. “Have you read this book?” I asked him. I guess I wanted the employee to know whose side I would be on if it came down to it.  The sleeper looked at me somewhat blankly and said, “No, I haven’t read that one.” Then he stood up and left.

I went to tell the employee what I thought of the situation and found him standing behind the counter. I understand that they don’t want the store used as a hotel, but the guy wasn’t bothering anyone and I didn’t see the need to be rude and disrespectful. He told me they had been trying to wake the guy up for a while (really?) and were about to call an ambulance. “And”, he preached, “These people generally don’t want an ambulance called.” I put the books I had selected back and left without buying anything.

When I got to the airport today I still had the C-note in my pocket. I had plenty of time and a long flight ahead. It felt good to stretch my legs so I wandered around for a bit. I passed a shoe shine stand and was offered a shine. My suede boots were not a good candidate but I stopped to chat for a while. The shoe shine man asked me where I was going and told me he was headed for Berlin tomorrow; he’s lived there on and off since he married a German woman in 1977. His wife doesn’t like living in the US, although they tried to make a go of it. He has a second job with the airlines so he flies for free and goes back and forth every few months.

My mother was from Berlin, I told him. “You’re German, then! That’s what I tell my kids! Don’t deny your heritage! Just because you’re American doesn’t mean you’re not German, too!” He told me his name was “Brown, like the color.” A man came to get his shoes shined and Mr. Brown turned away and got to work.

I walked around a little more and thought a lot about Mr. Brown. He was going to Berlin? Tomorrow? It seemed such an unlikely coincidence. And he didn’t strike me as an international traveler. But there I go again with my assumptions.

Berlin is the city from which my mother fled as a young woman and never returned.  The city where her wealthy parents had their business and all their property confiscated by the Nazis. I’ve never visited and never wanted to. Berlin seems… scary somehow.

I turned back and went to find Mr. Brown. I told him I had a favor to ask him. A bit warily, he said sure, what was it? I explained about my mother’s family and that they had been largely ruined by the Nazis. How my mother had left some of her fear planted deep within me. And that she had died not long ago. He nodded with understanding and watched me carefully.

I handed him the C-note. “It would mean a lot to me if you would take this with you to Berlin and do something good with it.” His eyes lit up. “Oh, wow! Yes, ma’am! Yes, I certainly will!” He wanted some ideas for what I had in mind so we talked about some possibilities. “There’s no homeless there, you know,” he reminded me.  “Germany has got it going on; they know how to run a country!” Then he said, “OK, I get it! You’re blessing me and I’ll put a blessing on someone over there.” Then, “I’ll be thinking about you the whole time!”

I thanked him and we shook hands. He pulled a guy over to snap our photo then laughed at how small I looked. “At least I have a nice smile,” he said. He gave me all his phone numbers. In case I want to talk some time. And I really should make it over there. Berlin is a beautiful city, he said. With beautiful people.

As I walked away I heard him sing out, “Shoe shine! Shine ’em up! Shoe shine!”

Mr. Brown, I’ll be thinking about you, too.

Me and Mr. Brown

Thanks for all your lovely comments. I am amazed and truly humbled by the far-reaching impact this project has had. Please keep letting me know about your own ways of “paying it forward.”

It is weird to walk around without the mission of giving away $100 each day. I’ve been smiling a lot but otherwise keeping pretty much to myself as I go about my business. What will it take for me to reach out to a stranger? What do I have to offer?

As people heard about my project, I got a few direct requests for assistance. Some people assumed I have fabulous wealth and am looking for ideas on how to spend it (neither is true). One particular request captured my heart.

My son Aaron posted a link to the blog on his Facebook page. Richard, one of his college friends, is in Cameroon serving in the Peace Corps. Richard posted a comment on Aaron’s wall asking for help for a nursery owner he is working with. Basically he said that $100 could rescue the whole growing season for this guy.

I know that there are lots of wonderful organizations doing great work all across the world. I love micro-enterprise and I love bringing education to girls (and other living creatures). I was impressed by Richard’s pluck and intrepidity, and I loved the connection through Aaron. We wired $100 and asked Aaron to pass it along to his friend. We got this response from Richard (he even included a link in case we wanted to learn more about air-layering):

I’m just writing to express my sincere thanks for the donation of one hundred dollars that you’re sending via Aaron to me here in Cameroon. My tree nursery friend was elated to hear that he would be able to repair his air-layering propagator. It’s really good news for him, because he is just starting to cut down his air-layered tree branches, and without the propagator to assist in them budding, they would all die. Additionally, the gift will also have some far-reaching consequences. I’m putting together a school reforestation program for a variety of schools in my area where we will plant improved varieties of fruit trees and N-fixing leguminous trees. Because his air layering propagator will work now, we were able to add his local school to the project, so the 300 students there will be getting 200 new fruit trees in their school come April as a result of your donation. Again, thanks so much for your kindness. Happy trails.

A Jewish woman born in the 1920’s Berlin fled to England during the war and ended up in the US. She raised a family and lived a long life. She worked until she was almost 80 and left a small retirement fund to her daughter. The woman taught her daughter to be frugal and gave her the tools to be generous and open-hearted. Thanks to this woman, some people in Cameroon will be enjoying fruit and shade for years to come. That’s amazing.