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 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.

A gift of a fresh loaf of homemade bread got today off to a perfect start. The morning’s blue sky gradually surrendered to the usual gray. It was cold and windy but not raining, so I decided to walk to the library. I’m reading a terrific book right now, called Keep the Change by Steve Dublanica. It’s all about tipping, generosity and human connection. I know what my #1 New Year’s resolution will be. Maybe you can guess.

I had a couple of books to pick up and also a C-note to give away. I’d been carrying it around all week. On the way to the library, I passed my favorite bakery and looked longingly inside. No time for self-indulgence. I was on a mission.

Sam’s (Good Food and Drink) is on the next corner, and I glanced inside. I’ve only been inside once; it’s a real old fashioned bar and grill. It was about lunchtime, and the place was pretty busy. There was a woman sitting at a table by the window, reading a book. She had a cup of black coffee in front of her. I wondered what it would be like to slide into a chair across from her, but I kept going.

Billiards too

I took a peek in the laundromat before heading to the library. That could be a sad place to spend a Sunday and I liked the idea of brightening someone’s day. A woman and her daughter were talking quietly. I heard the girl say, “Maybe we’ll just do less drying time.” My ears perked up. Could it be they didn’t have enough money to finish their wash? How horrible would that be to have to lug home half-dry clothes?

The mother went out to smoke a cigarette and I sidled up to the girl. “Laundry day, hunh?” “Yeah, our washer is broken,” she said. “And the dryer here takes forever.” Through the window I could see her mom out front, keeping an eye on the situation while she finished her smoke. I kept a polite distance from the girl, who looked about 10. She was pointedly avoiding my gaze. “You’re right to be careful about talking to strangers.” She looked down at her shoes and started muttering, “Stranger danger, stranger danger.” It was really creepy.

I went outside and talked with the girl’s mom for a minute so she would know I wasn’t up to trouble. Part of me wanted to show them that strangers can be wonderful, but I worried that my actions would be misinterpreted. The enthusiasm drained away and I took off.

On the way home I passed by Sam’s again and the woman with the book was still there. I decided to go in. The door weighs a ton and, arms full of books, I had to struggle to get it open. I stepped into the dark entryway. The dimly lit bar to my left was empty. On the other side, light was flooding in through the windows and the occupied tables were abuzz with animated conversation. The woman was sitting by herself, her book open in front of her and her coffee cup almost empty.

The door to Sam's. Not exactly welcoming. But warm inside.

I walked over to her table and asked the woman if I could talk with her for a minute. “Sure,” she said. I noticed that the book was in large print. I sat down across from her as a waitress came over and put down a knife and fork in front of me. “Can I get you something to drink?” she asked. “Oh, no thanks. I’m just going to sit for a minute,” I explained. The woman was watching me, unfazed.

I introduced myself and said a few dumb things about the weather. Then I told her that I had a gift for her for the holidays, that I figured she could use it. I slid the folded up bill across the table. “Oh, no,” she said. Her eyes filled with tears. “Why would you do that?” I explained that I was honoring my mother and trying to rid myself of some wrong-headed ideas about money. And hoping to help some people at the same time.  I asked her name.

She said her name was Sharon. I could see she was struggling to keep her emotions in check and wasn’t going to share any more. The bill was still on the table, her hand on top of it. As I got up she said, “Just know it makes a really big difference. Merry Christmas. And God bless you.”

When I got outside I tried to catch Sharon’s eye, but the waitress came along just then and put a plate of food down on the table. I saw Sharon smile at her, then she tucked the bill into her purse.

I was thinking about Gloria from Day 13 today, how she said you never know what gifts or burdens other people are carrying. That seems especially true this time of year. Yesterday’s story about Secret Santas in Charlotte, NC really tickled me. 100 people got surprised with $100!

And a lot of people who appear to be happy – or feel like they should be – simply aren’t. As a Jew, I have always been baffled by the whole Santa Claus concept. So, I am certainly no expert. But it seems like all that jolliness must be exhausting. Not to mention all the shopping, decorating, and entertaining. Oy.

I got out for a walk today and was thinking about some of the comments I’ve gotten on the blog. I was thinking about what it means to connect with others and what makes it so difficult. And what it means to make the world better and how that happens. All kinds of heady stuff. I wanted to see if Carrie was at her post near the Goodwill. I wanted to check on her and, at the same time, it was very cold out and I knew it would break my heart to see her sitting on the corner wrapped in her dirty blanket.

Carrie wasn’t there. Goodwill was hopping, though. Every aisle was crowded with shoppers. Two women were browsing through the blouses, holding up one after the other. “This is CUTE. You should try this on. Wait, Lauren Golf? Is this for golf?” A man looking at the kitchenware got a call on his cellphone. “Hi. Oh, I don’t know. I usually hold it up there for, like, five seconds. Four or five.” I pretended to look at the mugs for sale; I really wanted to know what he was talking about but he ended the call and I got no more clues.

I caught sight of a large woman in a tattered orange windbreaker and a colorful headscarf. She was carrying a plastic shopping bag through which I could see a 4-pack of toilet paper. She was heading out and we ended up almost bumping into each other on our way through the door. There was a kind of stoic resolve in the way she set off down the street that pulled at my heart, and I found myself walking beside her.

“How you doing today?” I asked her. “Oh, I’m alright,” she said, somewhat wearily. We made some more small talk and then I took the plunge. I don’t really know why, but I told her I was practicing to be a secret Santa! And that I was Jewish. “Well, that’s a little strange,” she said. But she gave me an encouraging smile so I carried on. I handed her the folded up bill and she took it gratefully, avoiding looking at it. “Oh, thank you so much!”

I said how it seems most everyone can use a little help these days. She had just moved back after being away for a few years and said she needed some stuff for her place, pots and pans and things. I encouraged her to look at the bill and she took a little peek. “Oh, praise the Lord!” she cried out. I said maybe she would do something nice for herself, at least with some of the money.

“The way I do it,” she said, “is I make a list. Of all that I need. That’s how I do it.” I asked what was on her list and she said “Oh, I need a new coat. And some boots. I have layers on here. See this? This coat isn’t warm at all.” I said that sounded like a good idea. “Do you know where I can get a coat?” she asked me. “I’ve only been to, like, the Dollar Store and the grocery store. And the Goodwill.” We were a few blocks from the shopping mall and could see Marshall’s from where we were standing.

“Well, you could go to the mall,” I suggested. “Maybe someplace like Sears.” “I should go there right now,” she said. “While I still have the money.” I asked if I could walk with her a ways and she said she was happy for the company. She wasn’t in a rush to get back to her apartment. Why? I asked. Well, if she’s alone at home all she wants to do is eat. She’s trying to be healthier, walk more and eat less snacks. I asked her name and she said she’s called Thelma.

She seemed somehow uncertain and I asked if she would like me to help her find a coat. She said she would really like that, since she didn’t know too much about shopping at the mall. On the way she told me about her four kids and 17 grandkids, and how she’s on disability for arthritis and fibromyalgia. She volunteers three days a week at a school helping third graders with their reading.

Finding a coat took a while. The first three stores we went to didn’t have anything in Thelma’s size. A couple of times she suggested “you just pick one out for me.” I could feel her flagging a bit, and the crowds were getting to both of us. I hoped we could find something at Macy’s but knew it would probably bust her budget.

There was one rack of plus-size coats at Macy’s, including some nice warm hooded ones like she said she wanted. She tried on a red one and then the same thing in purple. “You pick. Which one should I get?” I said I liked the red one on her. She looked at the price tag. It was $99.98, more than she had ever spent on any item of clothing. “Well, that’ll be my whole… well, that’s okay. I’m so happy to have it!” I snatched the coat from her hands and started for the register. “I want you to keep that money. I’ll get this.”

She was so appreciative. She asked me what I do –  “you know, when you’re not out following people!” I told her I was a doctor and we talked for a while more. We were getting ready to say goodbye and I told her I was hoping to see her out walking in her warm coat. “No excuse now!” I joked. She gave me a big Thelma hug. “Oh, you’ll see me sometime,” she said with a smile. Then, “I’m not going to call you Santa Claus. You know what you are? You’re a blessing.”

My closet is full of coats for every season

This afternoon I headed out to do a bit of shopping in preparation for Thanksgiving. I only had a couple of things to pick up so decided to bundle up and walk the mile or so to the store.

I was at Safeway down on Broadway near the Dollar Tree with a C-note in my pocket. After I paid, I saw a man standing in front of the lottery ticket dispenser. He was rifling through his wallet. “You ever have any luck?” I asked. “Yeah, every once in a while,” he said. “One time I hit one for forty eight thousand! Forty eight thousand five hundred and twenty.” “Wow! What’d you do with the money?” I asked him. “Oh, I have five children and 100 grandchildren,” he said, rather bitterly. “That’s where most of that went.” I wished him luck and headed out.

It had started to rain by the time I left the store. I thought of Frank from Day 27 and listened for his harmonica as I crossed the walkway. I would have loved to see him but hoped he was at home, warm and dry, rather than outside selling his newspapers. I was dressed for the weather but still felt the sting of the windblown drizzle on my cheeks. The sky was white as chalk.

I stopped for a minute under the Dollar Tree awning. No Frank. I was trying to decide whether I would wait for the bus or set off walking home. I had a scarf around my head and was all bundled up in an old coat. Just another gray-haired lady trying to stay warm. A handsome young store employee was standing inside. He gestured for me to come in, then opened the door and held it wide. “Come on in!” he encouraged. “It’s awful chilly outside!”

Tyrone

I didn’t need anything from the Dollar Store, but couldn’t resist the warm invitation. His name tag said “Tyrone”. I stepped inside the store and teased him a little. “I didn’t really want to come in. but I couldn’t resist you!” He laughed and said that Dollar Tree was paying him to be a greeter. “Can you believe it?! A greeter! At Dollar Tree!” He said he loved to surprise people with friendliness and respect. Especially if they have problems, and if they just need to talk.

We settled into a comfortable exchange and he told me had been in Portland for 18 months. He had been running with the wrong crowd in Pasadena and one day realized he had to turn things around. He left his old life behind and arrived in downtown Portland on the Greyhound, penniless. Everywhere he turned, people reached out to help him. He got a shelter bed, then a job, then another job, then an apartment.

A steady stream of customers came through the door. One woman had a couple of plastic bags in her hands. “Excuse me, ma’am. You have to put your bags into the locker while you shop.” “Does it cost money?” she asked. Tyrone responded in his easy-going manner. “You put a quarter in to lock it, and you’ll get your quarter back when you return the key. And, if you don’t have a quarter, I’m here. I’ll keep an eye on it.”

One man came in and shook Tyrone’s hand like an old friend. He stopped a few more people carrying bags and politely asked them to use the lockers. He told me he is so grateful for his present life that he sometimes breaks down and cries while he is preparing his lunch for work. “I can’t help it! My life is just so good now.”

He said someone told him once that you can make any situation better by putting love into it and he is starting to think that’s true. “I wish I’d learned these lessons earlier. You just gotta do the next right thing. Simple. That’s all.”

I asked Tyrone if he would get in trouble if I gave him something. “Yeah, maybe. I don’t know. I think they worry more about money, like they don’t want us to be taking no tips. Really? Tips? Ha!” His good-humored laugh took any sting out of the words. I told him I wanted to give him something, but it wasn’t a tip, it was just a gift for the holidays.

“It’s legit,” I said. “But I don’t want to get you in trouble.” I gave him the C-note and he slipped it into his pocket. “Oh, thank you so much.” He turned away, fighting back emotion. “Look,” I said.”If anyone asks about it, they can check it out. I’ll write down my name.”

I showed him some pictures on my iPod and he asked if I could email him a photo of the two of us. He called a woman over and put his arm around me as she held the camera up to her eye.

He wrote down his email address and I said I would send him the picture. I patted at my hair, laughing about a chunk that I could see sticking up in the photo. “It’s down now,” he said, smiling. We shook hands.

I stepped back outside into the drizzle. Somehow, it didn’t feel cold at all. The guy I had seen at the lottery ticket machine was at the bus stop. “Any luck?” I asked. “Nope, not today,” he said. “Maybe next time,” I offered. “Yeah. Maybe next time.”

That's Tyrone and me

I guess I was just born nosy, because I can’t ever remember a time when I didn’t like grilling people with questions. Maybe it’s simple curiosity, but I seem to have a greater tendency and need to pry than most. This serves me well in my work as a physician, which is really all about stories and getting to the bottom of things.

Having the intention of giving away $100 really opened up this part of me; I became like a question machine. It was a natural part of the giving process but moreso a by-product of feeling more aware and connected. I am simply amazed at how willing people are to share personal information with a total stranger.

That’s what happened today. I was back at good old Fred Meyer, along with most everyone in the neighborhood. There was a C-note tucked in my pocket. I had stuff to pick up from all over the store, so I covered some ground. I saw the cashier woman from Day 31 and was happy to see that she seemed to be in a better mood. I said hello to a few people I knew as I worked my way through my list.

New can opener: check. Bag clips: check. Spotted a coupon for “buy two gadgets and get one free”. Third gadget: check.

I was inexplicably browsing through the oral health supplies when I spotted a young girl with a white cane. She appeared to be about 14 and was holding on to a slightly older kid’s arm. Every so often he would stop and she would feel her way along the shelves. “What is this?” I heard her ask. “It’s candy. And gum and stuff.”

Seems like I went around the store in circles a few times but I finally grabbed my last item, a bottle of canola oil. A few yards down was the blind girl. She was standing in front of the packaged pudding, the boy standing somewhat protectively at her side. A woman was behind them, giving her directions. “Look to the… I mean, feel to the left. No, I mean the right. That’s Jello.” “It’s already cooked?” asked the girl.

The woman had a shopping cart full of packaged food. She was in her 60s, had a soft round face and short spiky hair. She saw me looking at her and smiled. She took a few lurching steps and I noticed that one of her legs was about four inches shorter than the other. The kids came over and they all conferred quietly. A large man joined them and I realized he was part of the family too.

I stood there and pretended to compare the prices of brown sugar. Lots of people were coming and going. Finally the five of us were alone in the aisle and I wheeled my cart next to theirs. I said hello to the woman, who fixed me with a friendly and open gaze.  “Is this your family?” I asked her. “Yes, we drove up from Medford.” She cocked her head toward the girl. “She’s going to the School for the Blind. So we’re getting stuff to get her cupboards set up. You know, stuff she doesn’t have to cook very much. It’ll be the first time she’s been on her own.” I looked at the small girl standing next to me. “How old are you?” I asked. “I’m eighteen,” she said, her eyelids fluttering.

We stood there chatting for a while as if we were old friends. I felt the cocoon of love, pride and concern that was surrounding this brave girl. I flashed back to the emotion of dropping my own son off at college not long ago.

“I’d like you to have this. For good luck.” I tucked the bill into the woman’s hand. She looked at it and then at me. “Are you sure? Are you sure??” I smiled and said I was. The woman reached out and pulled me into a big hug. She pressed her soft cheek against mine in a tender and surprisingly intimate gesture. Then she whispered into my ear, “Thank you. I’ll give it to my granddaughter.” She left a damp spot on my cheek when she finally pulled away.

“What is it, Grandma?” asked the girl. “It’s some money, sweetie.” The woman thanked me, her eyes glistening. I  said goodbye and turned to go. I’ll never be sure what she meant but as I pushed off toward the checkout stand I heard the girl say, “Grandma? I told you I could see with my heart.”

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