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.

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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 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.

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.

Danny

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.

It was a day for miracles today. 33 men, trapped 2000 feet underground for 70 days, rescued without a hitch! I kept checking in on the news, and heard some of the family members on the radio driving back from my morning clinic.

At the end of the work day, I was heading to my car when I had the urge to turn back and peek in the window of Denny’s. I decided that if I saw someone sitting alone at a table I would go in and ask to sit down with them.

The place seemed deserted and I checked the sign to see if they were even open. Yup, till 1 AM. Then I saw that there was one table occupied, with two African American women sitting by the window holding hands. Their eyes were downcast and they looked serious. And maybe sad. Something pulled me inside.

I stepped right past the “Please Wait To Be Seated” sign and walked toward the women. One of them pushed the shreds of her leftover pancakes into a box to take home. They both watched me suspiciously. “Excuse me. Hi. Can I talk to you for a minute?” “About what?The woman glared at me and kind of rolled her eyes. I launched into a quick version of my story, thinking it might soften her to hear that my mama had died. It seemed to, maybe a little. I sat down at the next table and said I wanted to pass along a gift to them, reaching over to put the $100 bill on the table.

“Thank you, Jesus! Thank you!”, cried the woman with the pancakes. “Thank you, Mother and Father. Thank you for this!” They each grabbed one of my hands and started to cry. Then they told me their story.

One of the women (I’ll call her “Gloria” but it’s not her real name) got hurt at work, needed surgery, and was going to be off the job for months. She had been sitting in Denny’s for three hours, making phone calls to her insurance company and trying to figure out how she was going to pay her bills. She was going through a real bad time. The other woman (“Mary”) knew Gloria a little from way back and saw her sitting there. She felt like Gloria needed someone to pray for her, so she went in and sat down. She ordered pancakes. They held hands and prayed that Gloria would have her money worries lifted.

“Were you in here? You was watching us?”, asked Mary. I told her no, I was walking by and felt pulled to come in. “Oh, my God!” She said. “Thank you, Jesus!”

Gloria was pretty quiet this whole time but she was squeezing my hand real hard. She apologized for “coming on strong” at first. “I shouldn’t have been like that”, she told me. “I’ve said it a million times: ‘Be careful because you may be entertaining angels unaware.’ That’s from the scripture.” I asked her what that meant to her and she said you never know what gifts or burdens another person is carrying.

Mary was shy but had a lot to say. She wanted me to know that her prayers have worked miracles before. “Psalm 91 says, ‘I will order his angels to protect you wherever you go.’ That’s a beautiful one. I love that whole scripture.” She said she had been on her knees praying for the last two weeks. “I’ve prayed to God to heal this recession! Not just for me, for everybody. And to heal pain. And blindness. And don’t let The Man take my social security! Don’t let the rich be greedy!” “Mmm hmm”, said Gloria.

We talked for a long time and it was hard to say goodbye. Gloria told me she loved me. “You are a blessing. Thank you”, she said. They both gave me a big hug.

I can’t explain what pulled me into Denny’s. I don’t really believe in God. But I do believe in angels, and I am so thankful for the two I met today.