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.

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When you’re looking for the right person to give $100 to, things look different – and everything is more memorable. I could hardly concentrate in exercise class this morning because I was so distracted by the ankles of the woman in front of me, each of which was tattooed with a very large skull and crossbones.

I saw a man rush into the open bay of an auto body shop with a large bouquet of flowers. That was interesting. Lots of little kids doing weird kid things like riding their tiny bicycles around in circles on the sidewalk. I came up behind a woman limping painfully along on bad knees. She was talking on her cellphone and I heard her say, “I don’t have much but I like to help out when I can.”

My eyes were scanning as I was on my way to the library. A woman and pre-teenish boy came out the library door and turned the corner. The boy was carrying a large bag full of books, swinging it in a mildly aggressive way. He had a hard look in his eyes, like maybe he was having a bad day. Like maybe he wanted to stop at McDonald’s and his mom said no, it’s almost dinner time. I hoped it wasn’t worse than that. The woman seemed just a little too old, but I figured she must be his mother. Suddenly I really wanted the boy to see something nice happen to her. I followed them down the street and caught up with them at their minivan.

“Excuse me!”, I started off.  The boy got into the van and closed the door. His mom turned to me with a questioning look and I launched into my little spiel, warning her what I was going to say might sound a little strange. I told her what I was doing and why. “Yes”, she said. “That does sound odd.” When I handed her the bill she protested: “Oh, no! You can’t give me that!” She tried to push the bill back into my hand and I stopped her. “It’s a gift. You can do whatever you want with it.” She looked puzzled for just a split second, then she got it. “Oh! I’ll pass it on! We’re fine. We don’t need it. But I’ll pass it on to someone who does.” Then she said, “Your mother must be proud of you. Thank you”, and she gave me a big hug.

I saw the boy watching us with practiced nonchalance from the front seat of the van. As the woman climbed in I turned and went on my way.

Day 3 of my Month of Hundreds. If not for the demands of this project, I might not have left the house today. But duty called, and also we were getting low on coffee.  Louise and I decided to walk down to Peet’s on Broadway, less than a mile away.

As we meandered through our well-kept neighborhood I couldn’t help but consider every person who walked or drove by. Lots of young families, strollers, men in cars. I realized how uncomfortable it would feel to approach someone appearing to be well-to-do; would they be insulted by my gesture? What does that mean?

I considered a woman sitting at the bus stop, her young daughter poking in the dirt next to the bench. A studious-appearing young man sitting outside Peet’s caught my eye, then the voice in my head reminded me that it’s the smokers who tend to sit outside. I thought how stupid my prejudice against smokers is, and kept walking. Louise and I got our coffee and then realized we were both starving.

We got burritos next door and sat down. There was a small crowd watching a football game in the bar but otherwise the place was empty. I was just starting to eat when I saw a young family walking by. A tall, thin woman in a colorful headscarf, a man and their two sons ages five and seven or so. Ethiopian? I wondered. Then I noticed the way both boys were holding onto their father’s large right hand. “I’ll be right back!”, I told Louise and bolted out the door. I didn’t want to seem to be sneaking up behind them so I walked quickly past and then turned around. I stood there as they walked closer, and could hear the woman speaking softly to the children. I worried that maybe they didn’t speak English.

“Excuse me”, I said. They stopped and I saw how beautiful the woman was. “This might sound a little strange”. She smiled, just a little. “I’m giving some gifts in honor of my mother, who died a few months ago”. “Oh, I am sorry!”, said the woman, and the man said, “I am sorry.” I pressed the folded up bill into the woman’s hand. “I would like you to have this”. I could tell she didn’t want to look at it too openly but she snuck a glance and said “Oh! Thank you! We’ll go school shopping!” She looked down at the older boy, who was squeezed shyly against his father’s side. “Say thank you!”, she said.  She gave me a big hug and then said, again, “I am sorry about your mother.”

The woman was clearly grateful but didn’t seem surprised. I like to imagine that, in their world, wonderful and unexpected things happen routinely. How lovely for those boys to grow up with a mother who takes the kindness of strangers in stride.

I wonder what James would do with $100.

We first met when he started coming around before garbage pick-up to gather cans and bottles. We would chat occasionally and I knew he was living on the street and struggling with health problems. Eventually we started saving our recyclables for him and he’d ring the door once a week or so to pick them up. A couple of times he said he needed money to buy insulin and I’d give him $10 or $20. One spring he showed up on a bicycle, pulling a lawn mower and looking for work. We paid him to mow our lawn a few times, but felt awkward (and surprised) when we discovered that he was storing the lawnmower in our backyard.

One night after dark James came to the door asking for money. He’d been drinking and was not his usual pleasant self. I told him I didn’t have anything for him and he became demanding and belligerent. Feeling vulnerable and somewhat hurt, I told him not to ring the bell after dark again.

James seemed to kind of vanish soon after that incident. Other men with shopping carts took his place on garbage night, and then they were gone too. These days a worn-down middle-aged couple makes the rounds most weeks, their cart piled precariously by the time they make it to our place.

Lately I’ve started seeing James in the neighborhood again. He’s lost weight, and more than a few teeth, but he’s got a lady friend now and seems pretty cheerful most of the time. It’s been a few years since we’ve talked, and when I smile and say hello, I can’t tell if he recognizes me.

I saw the two of them twice today, once on my way to work and again on the way home. In between, I spent a day at the office and attended a luncheon showcasing the great work my employer does in the community. I went to the bank and picked up my first supply of c-notes.

Sometime over the course of the day James and his lady friend had swapped their shopping carts for a couple of bicycles. There was a young woman with them as they rode slowly down the sidewalk. I could see the three of them talking, but couldn’t tell if they were just getting to the crosswalk at the same time or if they were together. The talking became more animated and I imagined that James maybe looked angry. I found myself wanting to hear what was being said and lowered my window as they crossed the street. The young woman turned the corner by herself, while James and his lady rolled on. When they were partway down the block they turned to look back at her and the young woman gave a small wave. Then I heard her say, “Bye, Grandma!”.

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.

Can $100 change a life? For the recipient? The giver?  That is some of what I am setting out to discover. Every day for the month of October, I’m going to give $100 to a stranger I encounter during the course of my routine.

I was recently pleasantly surprised to find that my mother had named me the beneficiary of a small retirement fund. More than usual, I’ve been thinking about money and the role it plays in my life. Although she was raised in an upper class German home, as a Holocaust survivor my mother lived forever with a deeply held conviction that life was defined by scarcity and want. She taught me to be frugal, and modest in my material desires.

I consider myself a generous person and make it a priority to give to causes I care about. Yet I always have questions: how much of an impact does my giving make? Won’t the need always be overwhelming? Should I spread out my gifts, or give more to fewer groups? Should I give anonymously?  Or only to strangers? I worry one day that I am not giving enough away, and the next that I might not have enough for myself and my family.

This project is about making a difference, starting with 31 people, and about exploring my money and giving issues. It is a way to honor my mother’s gift to me as well as the lessons I learned from her. I hope to spark some discussion and maybe even some generosity. Every day I’ll tell the story of the day’s $100 giveaway.

Starting now, I welcome your thoughts and comments.