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

October 27. Day 27 of My Month of Hundreds.

I really need some time to sit and think about all that has happened and where I go from here. I DO NOT KNOW. What does all this mean? How has it changed me? Have I accomplished what I set out to do? Where DO I go from here?

I feel the end of the month looming. No one is holding a gun to my head saying I have to stop as of November 1 (“this is a stick-up: stop giving away money!”). But having a finite perimeter around the project helps me measure its impact. At least, I imagine it does. Some things seem less certain than ever.

Five more C-notes. Five more giveaways. I have to remind myself not to try too hard to “pick the right person”; what I have been doing has worked just fine. But I do find myself focusing more now on people who appear to be really in need.

After my morning clinic I headed back into town by way of the bakery to pick up a treat for a meeting. Driving by the Dollar Store on NE Halsey I noticed a man selling the Street Roots newspaper on the little mall there. He was tall and thin, with a strikingly upright posture. His off-white burlap pants at one point may have lent a sporty and carefree tropical look to the wearer, but now they were too dirty and just a little too short to be stylish.

After work I found myself drawn back to that same area and drifted into the Dollar Store. I used to shop there all the time for baskets-full of ibuprofen and aspirin to give away at the free clinic. Now we’re all grown up and the staff orders that stuff.

It being almost Halloween, the place was a treasure trove of cheap plastic items. I spent a few minutes looking at a vast collection of plastic swords and daggers in all shapes and sizes; my boys would have loved those when they were little. There were even some Christmas things on display and I heard a woman calling out “Happy New Year! Happy New Year!” as she showed some party hats to her friend.

I got a little tingly feeling like my next recipient was close at hand. I saw a middle-aged guy pushing an empty cart; he was looking sharp in jeans and highly polished black shoes and I found myself wondering what he was shopping for. A woman pushing a stroller caught my eye. I got closer and saw a tiny infant swaddled in pink. I liked the idea of giving a gift to a new mother, but she pulled out her phone to make a call and the opportunity passed.

A pretty woman with long braids was speaking softly in Spanish to her little girl. The child wanted a balloon and the woman let out a little sigh. “Okay. Let’s go get you one.” I followed them to the front of the store, looking for the right moment. Then I looked out the window and saw him.

The guy with the Street Roots papers was still standing there. He had a small wrapped bundle of newspapers in his hand and was tossing it into the air, flipping it around, catching it behind his back. He had some serious grace and skill and I watched, captivated.

I went outside and walked up to him. “Hi.” “Good day”, he said, very proper. I told him I had seen him a few hours earlier and was surprised that he was still there at the end of the day. “This is my primary activity”, he explained. I noticed his broken down shoes and the absence of socks. I asked him how he came to be selling the newspaper. His story spilled out.

“Well, I used to be a regular person. Had a job. Just like you.” He told me he had lost his job at age 21 and then couldn’t pay his rent and ended up in a shelter and on the street. “I was there for ten years.” He shook his head, as if he could hardly believe this himself. “I’ve seen everything you could possibly imagine out there on the street. I’ve seen people born, grow up, get old and DIE. Now, I just try to stay out of trouble. It’s hard not to find trouble when you’re on the street. Trouble finds you.” He told me his name was Frank.

Right about then the guy with the jeans and polished shoes came out of the Dollar Store and handed my friend a Hershey’s bar. “Hey, thanks”, Frank said. He told me he’s living with some friends now and he’s doing good, but still can’t find work beyond the Street Roots gig. He was sweet and polite and I thought back to Colin from Day 4.

I started telling Frank about my project and he listened intently. I handed him the $100 bill and he stared at it for a minute, lips pursed. “Oooo”, he said. “Thank you!” He slipped the bill quickly into his pocket, then shook my hand. I asked if he knew what he might do with it. “That’s easy”, he said. “Pay the rent.”

I told Frank he seemed like a really smart guy and I wished him the best. He was interested in the blog and let me take his picture. He’s really handsome, this doesn’t do him justice.

Frank, a Regular Person

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.

The Grant HS Generals

It was a pretty dreary day here in Portland, with lots of drizzle. Bank robbery, teen suicides and gang violence dominate the news.

As I came out of our neighborhood grocery store this evening, a handsome young African American man in a football jersey from our local high school quietly asked for my attention. He was selling a discount coupon book and he showed me the book and all the local businesses where you could use it. “Jiffy Lube is a really popular one. You get $10 off.”

I gave the kid what in retrospect seems like a real grilling, and he indulged me politely.  What were they going to do with the money? He said they give it to their coach. Why do they give it to the coach? Well, the coach knows what the team needs and makes sure they get stuff. What kind of stuff? Well, like every two years they get new jerseys. And every Friday they have a team meal. The school doesn’t pay for any of that so they have to raise the money. What kind of food do they eat at the meal? Spaghetti. And healthy stuff. Fruit and carrots and stuff.

He said his name was Cleon and he’s a senior. He’s going to college next year but hasn’t yet decided where. Maybe North Carolina, or University of Oregon. He’s had scholarship offers at smaller schools and he’s keeping his options open. He was bright-eyed, serious and wearing just a hint of cologne.

I told Cleon I wasn’t going to buy a coupon book but that I wanted to give him something, just for him. “It’s not for your coach, it’s for you and you can do whatever you want with it.” I handed him the $100 bill and he stared at it. “Oh! Thank you, Ma’am!” He slipped it in the pocket of his shorts. “Thank you! That’s very generous of you, ma’am! Thank you very much! Thank you!”

I told him I could tell that he was going places and wished him the best of luck. “Oh, I will, ma’am! Thank you, ma’am!” I couldn’t resist pointing out: “Good things happen all the time, you know.” “Yeah”, he said. “This just made me think of that.”