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.

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.”

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.

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.