Choosing


I was doctoring out in Gresham today, as I am most Wednesday mornings. I finished up late and it was almost 2:00 by the time I got back to Portland. I was famished and all I could think about was getting something to eat. I parked and walked over to the Burgerville just down the block from the office. As I was getting ready to pay, the cashier said, “That’ll be $5.29… Unless you want the senior discount.” Heck, yeah, I want it!! Turns out, at our local burger chain here in Oregon you can get a 10% senior discount starting at age 50! I had no idea. I was so tickled with saving 52¢ that I almost forgot I had $100 to give away.

I was heading back to the office with my sandwich when I saw two youngish white guys on the corner standing chest to chest and yelling at each other. One of them had apparently bumped into the other guy by accident. They looked so utterly ridiculous that, at first, I thought they were fooling around. Chins raised and lips curled, they were up on their toes and inching ever closer with their puffed-out chests. I saw a small group of people from work that I recognized. They had been taking a cigarette break across the street and now were watching the scene unfold.

Suddenly a mildly scruffy-looking middle-aged African American man walked up to the two guys and wedged himself between them. We all watched, mesmerized. Somehow he pushed them apart, holding each one at arm’s length. “Hey!” he said, “Look up there!” He pointed to the blue sky. “It’s a beautiful day! It’s much too nice to be fighting! You guys need to just walk away.”

Amazingly, they did. One of the two guys was still muttering and cursing but the tension was gone and they took off in opposite directions. The scruffy guy came across the street to where the small group was standing, and I got there about that same time. “Dang”, said one of my co-workers. “I was hoping to see a fight!” “Oh, no”, said the peacemaker. “You don’t want that! You carry that negativity around with you all day! Why would you want to ruin a beautiful day like this?”

I really liked this guy and watched as he talked with her for a few minutes. When he started to walk away, I stepped up next to him and matched his stride. After we were out of earshot of the others I thanked him for stepping in and sparing all of us an uglier scene. He shrugged. “We shouldn’t fight, that’s all. No need to be fighting. We just need to get along or move on”.

I introduced myself and he said his name was Tony. Then I told him about honoring my mom and that I had something I wanted to give him. He laughed. “Ha! Is it a piece of advice?” “No, here.” I put the bill in his hand. “What?! Seriously? No! You can’t give me this! I won’t take it, even if I do kinda need it.” I told him he could do whatever he wanted with it and he admitted that he really did need about $50.

Tony was a real talker, and kept up a pretty steady flow about his family and his life philosophy. We realized we were the same age and he told me about his two sisters and his fiancee, all of whom had died within a single year. Every so often he would interrupt himself and burst out with something like, “No! Why are you doing this?! Your mama wouldn’t want you just giving money away!” and “I thought you were gonna ask me out! I was trying to think what I was gonna say!”. Then he said, “This is the best thing that ever happened to me!  In my life! No strings attached! Just giving away money!”

I loved that guy. He was brave and gentle and radiated intelligence and earnestness. I really hope he keeps the money for himself, but I have the feeling he’s going to share.

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When you’re looking for the right person to give $100 to, things look different – and everything is more memorable. I could hardly concentrate in exercise class this morning because I was so distracted by the ankles of the woman in front of me, each of which was tattooed with a very large skull and crossbones.

I saw a man rush into the open bay of an auto body shop with a large bouquet of flowers. That was interesting. Lots of little kids doing weird kid things like riding their tiny bicycles around in circles on the sidewalk. I came up behind a woman limping painfully along on bad knees. She was talking on her cellphone and I heard her say, “I don’t have much but I like to help out when I can.”

My eyes were scanning as I was on my way to the library. A woman and pre-teenish boy came out the library door and turned the corner. The boy was carrying a large bag full of books, swinging it in a mildly aggressive way. He had a hard look in his eyes, like maybe he was having a bad day. Like maybe he wanted to stop at McDonald’s and his mom said no, it’s almost dinner time. I hoped it wasn’t worse than that. The woman seemed just a little too old, but I figured she must be his mother. Suddenly I really wanted the boy to see something nice happen to her. I followed them down the street and caught up with them at their minivan.

“Excuse me!”, I started off.  The boy got into the van and closed the door. His mom turned to me with a questioning look and I launched into my little spiel, warning her what I was going to say might sound a little strange. I told her what I was doing and why. “Yes”, she said. “That does sound odd.” When I handed her the bill she protested: “Oh, no! You can’t give me that!” She tried to push the bill back into my hand and I stopped her. “It’s a gift. You can do whatever you want with it.” She looked puzzled for just a split second, then she got it. “Oh! I’ll pass it on! We’re fine. We don’t need it. But I’ll pass it on to someone who does.” Then she said, “Your mother must be proud of you. Thank you”, and she gave me a big hug.

I saw the boy watching us with practiced nonchalance from the front seat of the van. As the woman climbed in I turned and went on my way.

Day 4 of 31 October days. October, my Month of Hundreds.

I spent almost the whole day in either a building or my car, and I was starting to wonder how I was going to pull off my $100 give. This afternoon I drove down Stark Street into Gresham. That is one sad trek past pawn shops, trailer parks, boarded up motels, strip malls, strip joints and used car lots. There were people about, but I didn’t want to just whip over to the curb, screech to a halt and jump out with the dough. I was looking to make a connection.

I really didn’t need to go into Grocery Outlet but, when I got back to Portland, I drove right by it and found myself pulling around into the parking lot. It’s kind of a fascinating place, with a noteworthy mix of brand name products and oddball knockoffs. I wandered around for a while, looking at all the stuff on the shelves. I watched two cute Spanish-speaking kids with their parents, who were cheerfully making a selection from the ground meat area.

Then I saw a tall, lean, young man with a ponytail puff of curly hair. He was headed away from me down the aisle and I slipped into the next aisle thinking I might bump into him. I saw him turn the corner and head in my direction. The carefree yet earnest way he carried himself reminded me a little of my older son, Aaron. He was clearly stocking up on some necessities, and I watched him put a bunch of cans from a low shelf into his cart.

I waited until no one else was nearby and then walked over to him. I said hello and he gave me a broad smile. He kept smiling as I launched into my pitch: “This might sound a little strange…”. “OK”, he said, “I’m prepared.” “Are you sure?”, I asked. “I think so!”, he said, the faintest shadow of concern flickering across his face. I told him what I was doing and handed him the $100 bill.

“Wow!”, he said. “This is so weird. I mean, this is amazing! I can’t believe this! Wow!” He told me he had just moved into a new place, was looking for a job and was really short on cash. He said he felt like he had just entered a parallel universe. Then he stuck his hand out and said, “Hi. My name is Colin.” He wanted to know more about me and what I was doing and said I could take his picture and put it on the blog. I showed him the picture and we both laughed at the “FRESH MEAT” sign in the background. He asked if he could give me a hug. Then he said, “I wish you much good fortune and blessings”. That was very sweet and kind of funny, because it was just what I was hoping for for him.

Day 3 of my Month of Hundreds. If not for the demands of this project, I might not have left the house today. But duty called, and also we were getting low on coffee.  Louise and I decided to walk down to Peet’s on Broadway, less than a mile away.

As we meandered through our well-kept neighborhood I couldn’t help but consider every person who walked or drove by. Lots of young families, strollers, men in cars. I realized how uncomfortable it would feel to approach someone appearing to be well-to-do; would they be insulted by my gesture? What does that mean?

I considered a woman sitting at the bus stop, her young daughter poking in the dirt next to the bench. A studious-appearing young man sitting outside Peet’s caught my eye, then the voice in my head reminded me that it’s the smokers who tend to sit outside. I thought how stupid my prejudice against smokers is, and kept walking. Louise and I got our coffee and then realized we were both starving.

We got burritos next door and sat down. There was a small crowd watching a football game in the bar but otherwise the place was empty. I was just starting to eat when I saw a young family walking by. A tall, thin woman in a colorful headscarf, a man and their two sons ages five and seven or so. Ethiopian? I wondered. Then I noticed the way both boys were holding onto their father’s large right hand. “I’ll be right back!”, I told Louise and bolted out the door. I didn’t want to seem to be sneaking up behind them so I walked quickly past and then turned around. I stood there as they walked closer, and could hear the woman speaking softly to the children. I worried that maybe they didn’t speak English.

“Excuse me”, I said. They stopped and I saw how beautiful the woman was. “This might sound a little strange”. She smiled, just a little. “I’m giving some gifts in honor of my mother, who died a few months ago”. “Oh, I am sorry!”, said the woman, and the man said, “I am sorry.” I pressed the folded up bill into the woman’s hand. “I would like you to have this”. I could tell she didn’t want to look at it too openly but she snuck a glance and said “Oh! Thank you! We’ll go school shopping!” She looked down at the older boy, who was squeezed shyly against his father’s side. “Say thank you!”, she said.  She gave me a big hug and then said, again, “I am sorry about your mother.”

The woman was clearly grateful but didn’t seem surprised. I like to imagine that, in their world, wonderful and unexpected things happen routinely. How lovely for those boys to grow up with a mother who takes the kindness of strangers in stride.

Louise and I picked 60 pounds of apples last week, and the sauce was starting to bubble on the stove. I realized I needed more canning jars (where do they all go??) and made a trip to Fred Meyer. Typical for a Saturday morning, it was bustling.

I slowly made my way along the aisles and listened as the chatter in my head picked up. Did I want to give to a smoker? Would I never give to a smoker? Someone with THAT much beer in their cart? Isn’t that high-octane beer?  That woman making a selection from the olive bar must have plenty of discretionary income, right? I found myself making all kinds of assumptions about the young families (white, well-dressed kids snacking on organic fruit rolls: they’re doing just fine).

One youngish mother caught my eye but then I noticed that her cart was full of chips and soda and I kept moving. I said hello to the woman passing out samples of cake to a small crowd and realized I wanted a little bit of privacy for myself and the recipient.

I found the jars I needed and got into the checkout line. It was moving slowly. The woman with the high-octane beer got into the line behind me and I sadly noted that the only other item in her cart was white bread.

Then I noticed the woman staffing the Playland area, where parents can drop their kids off while they shop. A large, cheerful middle-aged woman, she was talking to everyone who walked by in between checking on the two kids who were there. With all the smiling and laughing she was doing, it looked like she didn’t have a care in the world.

You never know, I reminded myself. I got to the cash register just as I saw a mom pick up one of the kids at Playland. The cashier asked me, “Did you find everything you were looking for?” and I wondered what he would say if I told him I was looking for someone to give $100 to. I finished checking out and went over to the Playland counter.

The woman said hello, gave me a big smile and looked down over the counter. “Do we have a little one here?”, she asked. “No”, I said, “I just wanted to talk to you for a minute.” “Okay”, she said. Then I launched into the spiel I’d been practicing in the checkout line: “This might sound kind of strange.” “Okaaaayyy”, she said, and her eyes opened just a little wider. “I’m giving some gifts in honor of my mother and I would really like you to have this.” I handed her the $100 bill and gave her a big smile and started to edge away. “Wait a minute! You’re giving some gifts?” She looked puzzled and then looked down at what was in her hand and said, “Oh, my god. Give me your hand! I’m gonna cry.” She took my hand and we both got teary-eyed. I told her again that I was honoring my mother; that she had died not long ago and had left me an unexpected gift. “So you’re just passing it on and blessing others. Wow. Wow. You don’t know, you just don’t even know.” Then she told me that she didn’t have a single dollar in her wallet. She and her husband had both been paid the day before and had spent every last penny on their bills. “I drove here on fumes. I was just thinking how I had to call my mama and ask to borrow $10. Thank you so much!” She held onto my hand for what seemed like a long time and we just looked at each other.

I don’t even remember walking to the car, but I sat there for a while feeling flooded with gratitude.

My applesauce is finished. It tastes especially sweet.

My wallet felt heavier than usual as I walked around today, and I couldn’t stop thinking about the $100 bill that was tucked inside. I thought about how it might be better to have two fifties instead and I considered stopping at the bank. Then I remembered how I had asked specifically for hundreds when I took out my first “stash” earlier in the week, and how the teller had to make a special trip to the back for them. I decided to skip the bank, but will probably get some smaller bills next time.

This had already been happening to some extent the past couple of weeks, but today I really felt that I looked at everybody differently. I felt very warmly toward everyone I saw, and imagined how it might make their day to get this unexpected gift. I looked a lot more people in the eye, and smiled more. Most everyone smiled back.

As I was driving back to my office from a meeting this afternoon, I saw all kinds of people out and about. I realized that I am going to have a hard time on the days I don’t get out of my car or office, and I was thinking about how isolating it is to drive everywhere. Then I saw a man at an intersection sitting on a bicycle. It didn’t come to consciousness at the time, but I think he reminded me of James. Even from a block away I could see that the bike was slightly too small and had seen better days. Once across, he started down the street with a purposefulness I found appealing.

Traffic on Mississippi Ave at lunchtime being what it is, he got away and I decided to turn down the next block to see if I could catch him. There he was, the knees of his long legs popping rhythmically into view over the handlebars. I pulled up beside him, lowered the window and said, “Excuse me!”, having decided that if he gave me a nasty look or didn’t stop I would move on. He stopped right away, and quietly said “yes?”, looking me right in the eye. I jumped out of the car and handed him a wadded up bill, saying, “this is for you”.  That wasn’t what I had planned to say at all, but I felt pretty awkward and flustered. He smiled a wonderful but alarmingly toothless smile and said “Thank you! Thank you!” Then he looked down and said “Oh! I thought… Oh! Thank you!” I said “You’re welcome!” then (quite uncharacteristically) “God Bless You!”. I jumped back in my car and took off. I was able to see him heading down the street and I saw him kiss his fingers and then reach into the air in a gesture of gratitude.

I wish I had been more composed and taken a minute to talk. Tomorrow I am going to do my best to not “drop and run”.

Thank you for all the wonderful comments and stories.

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