Not the actual bus

Some might be surprised to learn that I am a real cheapskate. Like, one of the worst. I don’t totally blame myself and I make a big effort to abandon my contemptible habits. That’s part of what this month of $100 giveaways is about for me.

As I was growing up, my mother took her role as the family economist very seriously in a world she perceived to be full of people trying to take advantage by charging too much. Anything not store brand, on sale, day old or sold in a discount store was automatically “extravagant”, too expensive and off limits.

I didn’t know it then, but our family’s financial situation did not actually warrant this perspective. My father was a professional with a steady job and we lived in a nice home in the suburbs. And now, as a physician, there is no rational reason for me to be the cheapskate that I am. I guess that is the nature of being a cheapskate. I have noticed that most people have an easier time parting with their money than I do, even when they have less of it. While I consider myself basically frugal (and I think I do have a few sound ideas about money), the reflexive and relentless pursuit of a bargain comes from some deeply scarred place in my soul where times are truly tough.

All this to explain why I usually park 10 blocks from my office, where there are no parking meters, rather than pay $5 for parking. Paying for something that you can get for free is downright stupid and basically inexcusable where I come from.

As I was leaving the office today I realized I had time to do a quick errand downtown and revisit my random giveaway plan from yesterday. Starting my trek back to the car, I saw the bus approaching and decided to jump on for the short ride. (I have a discounted transit pass available through my employer – I would never pay $2.00 to ride 10 blocks). There were a whole bunch of people at the stop. I was lost in my own little world and didn’t take in much, except for one very cute little boy of about two standing with his hands on his hips as his dad struggled to collapse his stroller.

The bus pulled up, the door opened and everyone just stood there, which seemed really strange. Okay, maybe they were waiting for a different bus or just a bunch of losers. After a split second I marched through the crowd and started up the steps. The driver immediately put his hand out as if stopping traffic and shouted, “Hold on!” Bomb scare? What? Then I noticed a tiny woman in a wheelchair on the sidewalk and realized that everyone else had been patiently waiting for the ramp to come down so she could board first. DUH. What an idiot!

I made damn sure I was the very last person to get on and squeezed into a slot up front since I was only going a few stops. The bus was packed and the driver kept imploring everyone to “move back, please step back, move on back. Please move back.” It took forever and I could see his patience draining away. When we finally got moving I told him I hadn’t been paying attention and felt like a fool for not noticing the woman in the chair. “Oh, don’t worry about it!”, he soothed. “It’s the end of the day. For some.”

Riders kept signaling for a stop and then changing their mind. One guy started to get off, then decided to get back on and could no longer find a place to stand. We swept right by the the next stop, and the people waiting were gesturing with disbelief and frustration. I was pressed up against the back of the driver’s seat and kept catching his eye in the rear view mirror. He was keeping his cool, but clearly exasperated. “Maybe this day should be over for me!” he said, with a pained chuckle. He said his shift had just started. I imagined this kind, young handsome guy getting home late at night to his family, his kids asleep as he goes to give them a kiss.  It really bothered me that his day was off to such a rough start.

As the bus pulled up to the next stop, I reached into my pocket for the $100 bill. I folded it up real small. I sidled up to the driver and slipped it into his hand, saying “I hope you have a good day after all”. He exhaled with a grunt and I could feel a question rising up behind me as I skipped down the steps and out onto the sidewalk.

Every day of October I will give $100 to someone I encounter during the course of my routine. I got the idea after receiving a check as beneficiary of my mother’s retirement fund. A number of people have asked me to explain more why I am doing this and, particularly, how it honors my mother.

My mother, Gina, died in May at age 89. She was born in Berlin to a wealthy Jewish couple who spoke French at home and travelled extensively. As a teenager in the late 1930’s her parents sent her to supposed safety in England, where she moved in with a family of strangers. She spent the war years in London as an enemy alien and joined the British Army’s search and rescue efforts. Because of her small size and athleticism she was teamed with a dog and sent into the rubble of bombed out buildings to locate survivors. Through a series of miracles (the details of which I could never extract from her), my mother was reunited with her parents in New York City in the 1940’s. Although her education was interrupted and she never finished high school, Gina perfected her English by reading Dickens, eventually spoke without a trace of a foreign accent, and became a nationally recognized expert on the education of gifted children.

Despite my mom’s privileged background, years of displacement and trauma resulted in a scarcity mentality that permeated our family’s emotional life and left me with scars of my own. My father was successful in the Ginsberg family gas station business and, later, as a Legal Aid attorney. That didn’t keep my mother from scrimping and saving with single-minded fervor, budgeting a single dollar for meat to feed our family of four, then holding back half of the meal as “leftovers” for the next day. Until I was old enough to recognize my mother’s shortcomings along with the trappings of middle class suburban life, I thought we were dirt poor.

My father had a heart attack and died suddenly when I was 17, a few months before I was to start my freshman year at Barnard College. Believing financial ruin was just around the corner, my mother told me I was on my own; without my dad’s income there was no money to pay for my education. A serious rupture in our relationship developed when she refused to provide information to the financial aid office, jeopardizing my ability to start school. With the help of the college I became emancipated, took out loans and started classes through a work-study program.

My mother remarried, developed a successful career and lived very comfortably. Yet, she remained convinced until she died that her future held peril and financial uncertainty. As for me – practicing many of the frugal habits she taught me, I worked hard and eventually paid off all my student loans. Some sore spots persisted in our relationship although we spoke almost every day and, finally, found genuine sweetness with each other.

I have to admit that my mother would think this a silly exercise, at best. I tried countless times to convince her that she could afford to be generous with herself, her grandchildren and in support of causes she cared about. But she was always puzzled by the notion of giving money away, and would certainly never have handed cash to a stranger. From her perspective, she had earned everything she had and there was no need to share.

So, why am I giving away a month of hundreds? In part, I want to prove to myself that I can do something a little crazy and unexpected and that life will go on (and – possibly – even improve). I want to be more conscious of the people around me and to challenge my notions of worthy-ness. I believe I honor my mother in striving to be my best self.  And I hope to honor and preserve the person she might have become (had history been more kind) by performing random acts of generosity and sweetness in her name.