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.

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We’re on to a new quilting project, which always means there’s something we need from Fabric Depot. Louise is a quilting genius. She is prolific and indefatigable. I like to help out from time to time; I can sew a pretty straight line with the sewing machine and I have a decent eye for pattern and color combinations. I joke that ours is the only sweatshop that serves lattes.

If you’ve never been to Fabric Depot, I can’t begin to do it justice. For starters, it’s the size of the Convention Center. People come from all over just to shop there. BUSLOADS of them! When they have a big sale (which happens a lot) the parking lot fills up and busses line the periphery. If you are a quilter, seamstress, needleworker or otherwise crafty person – well, then you would feel right at home at Fabric Depot, like a kid in the planet’s biggest candy store.

Me? It makes me feel mildly ill. Lured by the promise of a meal out afterward or some other treat, I go with Louise sometimes. We like doing things together. I even get a little excited beforehand, thinking “this time it will be fun!”  By the time we walk in, I realize it won’t be long before I am looking longingly at the husbands in the “waiting room”. They sit on worn straight-back chairs and watch football while their wives scour the aisles.

For the hard-core Fabric Depot shoppers

Miles of fabric

 

We had a long list and each set off in opposite directions. I was quickly distracted by the crazy cartoon character fleece, rows and rows of lamé, sequins, buttons, and the rulers for all the different ways quilters need to measure an inch.

The people were pretty interesting, too. I would say that those who shop at Fabric Depot are a pretty focused bunch. You don’t just stumble in there; it’s a bit out if the way and, if you don’t have a plan, you could easily get lost or overwhelmed. Even pass out. Or pass away.

This was my state of mind as I wandered, somewhat unproductively. I saw a lot of women in pairs. Mothers and daughters selecting fabric for curtains or slipcovers. One woman had her cart piled high and was just finishing a phone call. Disgusted, she turned to the young woman with her and said, “Well, that makes it easy! She doesn’t like this kind of fabric!”  There were a few men accompanying their wives, pushing shopping carts with a stoic determination.

One guy stood out like a sore thumb. He was fondling fabrics in the Minky section and had a peaceful, contented air about him. Minky fabric is a genius invention of softness. Last time I shopped for a baby gift there were Minky blankets in the standard pastel colors. Now every color and pattern imaginable is out there. Babies everywhere are getting wrapped in this stuff, and it just seems they have a better shot at happiness as a result. It’s totally irresistible, and I found myself joining the guy. “Wow, these are really soft,” I said.

So soft...

“Are you making something?” I asked him. He smiled. “Yeah, I’m making a bed for my dog.” A mastiff, it turns out. I had strong opinions about which colors and patterns would be most appropriate and I didn’t mind sharing them. We fell into a comfortable exchange, and he told me about an invention for which he is making a prototype. It’s a really great idea, so I’m not going to give it away.

He said his name was Tyler and he told me some more about his invention and his business plan, which includes donating part of any profit back to the community. He said he got this idea after buying a pair of Tom’s Shoes. “You know about these?” he asked me, holding his foot up. “They give one pair away for every pair someone buys. I want to do something like that. So many businesses make money by selling stuff, but they don’t do anything for people. I don’t think that’s right. I want to do something that makes a difference. You Get, We Give. Like that.”

How could I not fall for this guy? “Here,” I said, pulling a folded up C-note from my pocket. “I think your plan’s great. I hope this will help you out a tiny bit.” “Thank you!” he said. “You didn’t have to do that!” Then I asked if I could take his picture and put it on my blog. “Sure,” he said. “What’s your blog about?” I told him it was about giving away $100 bills. “You gave me a HUNDRED DOLLARS??” He looked at the bill for the first time. “Wow, that’s amazing! Thank you so much!”

 

Tyler makes his choice. He seems partial to green.

He had a lot of questions about what I was doing and I found myself telling him some of my story. He got it right away, “Wow, that must be so heartening, to do that. That’s really cool.”

Tyler picked out an understated and dignified olive green, despite my suggestion that his mastiff might appreciate getting to express his feminine side. He gave me a big hug before we parted ways. This young man will go far.

Louise and I finished our shopping. I admit, I did spend the last 15 minutes plunked down in the waiting area while she had all the fabric cut. She took me out for seafood and beer afterwards. It was lovely, just like being in Baja.

 

Seafood at Puerto Marquez

I stumbled across this article today. “Secret Santas” in Charlotte, NC are giving away $10,000 (of their own money) in $100 bills. They’ve been doing it for the past few years around the holidays. Be sure to look at the full slideshow of pictures. The comments people have made are interesting, too.

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

October 17th. My 17th hundred. Halloween decorations peppering the neighborhood remind me how soon the month will be over. Already I can say that this process has been a success. I am changed – more aware, more open hearted, and in general more generous.  I have heard from others that they have been inspired, and I have seen a look of  surprise, joy and relief on the faces of over a dozen strangers.

We went to see the movie RED today. Great fun, as anything featuring Helen Mirren and Mary Louise Parker would have to be! John Malkovich, Morgan Freeman, Bruce Willis and the Russian guys weren’t bad either. While we were at the mall I saw Alberto, who got a C-note on the 10th. I kept my distance.

As we were leaving the parking lot a driver gestured politely, yielding the right of way. I made note of his old car and two young kids in the back seat. I abruptly circled back and spotted the back of the car just as the three of them were getting out. I pulled over and jumped out, chasing them across the street.

“Excuse me!” The man turned and smiled, holding the door of Barnes and Noble open for me. I went in, then thanked him for being so polite in the parking lot. “Oh, it’s nothing”, he said. “We all have to do what we can, you know, take care of each other on the road.”  The kids were watching quietly. I gave the brief version of my spiel and handed Dad the $100.

“Are you sure?”, he asked. “Are you sure?” I told him I was. “I chased you down, didn’t I?” He laughed and asked my name, then introduced himself and his two children, ages 4 and 9. He shook my hand and said he’s a teacher at Head Start. And that he would do something nice for the kids with the money. The 9 year old boy was grinning from ear to ear. I was happy for him to see this strange white lady do something nice for his Dad.

It’s striking how consistently people have a ready explanation for their kindness as if they, too, are just looking for opportunities to reach out with a generous gesture.

Should we give till it hurts? No, I don’t think so. We want less hurting in the world, not more – that’s the whole idea. But part of me wants to ask: if it doesn’t hurt, how do I know I am doing it right?

An article in this week’s Chronicle of Philanthropy profiles a mathematics professor at Northern Virginia Community College who works two additional jobs so he can earn enough money to give away half of his $100,000 income each year. He can barely afford his taxes and mortgage. Watching the accompanying video, entitled “Giving Until it Hurts”, really got me thinking.

I am so fortunate to be able to give what I consider a meaningful amount without sacrificing my own financial well-being. But what if that weren’t the case? Could I still “afford” to be generous? Would I be? If I just give away what I have that’s “extra”, what does that say about my generosity? Could I give more this year? Today?

Some of the most generous people I know have nothing to spare but they give anyway. I have seen patients stuff a bill or two in the donation jar at the free clinic when I know they just lost their job. One grateful patient says he always thinks of us first whenever he earns a little money, and regularly sends us checks for $50. He lives in a rundown house on next to nothing and is one of our major donors. I don’t think it hurts. I think he feels great about it.

Maybe by saying “give till it hurts” we really mean “give till you feel it”. That’s a lot of what my Month of Hundreds is about: paying more attention to who and what is going on around me; being more present and more conscious. Starting Friday I’ll be giving away $100 a day!

Philanthropy: the desire to promote the welfare of others, expressed especially by the generous donation of money to good causes.


Every day in October I am going to give away $100 cash to someone I encounter during the course of my day. Starting October 1 I will tell the story of each day’s “giveaway”. In the meantime I am hoping these random thoughts will continue to spark discussion of issues around money and giving.

Do you have to be a millionaire to be a philanthropist? What does it mean to be generous? If you are following this blog, chances are you are generous, a giver of money and therefore a philanthropist. Right? Do you see yourself that way? There was an interesting article in our local newspaper today about the shifting demographics and priorities of philanthropists in our community and it got me thinking.

I started seeing myself as a philanthropist about ten years ago when we began a yearly ritual of sitting down during Chanukah to make some family decisions about our giving for the year. Choosing a target percentage of our income (between 7% and 10%, depending on circumstances), we add up everything we have donated since the beginning of the year and what we still have to give. We always have an overinflated idea of how much we have actually given up to that point. Everyone has a chance to advocate for their “cause” and the kids always had a say in the process when they were at home (which is how it turns out we are on the mailing list of “Save the Tigers”).

Giving in this way allows me to make a statement about the kind of world I want to live in. It gives me a sense of meaning and consistency. I want to live in a world where people get the help they need when they are sick, so we give to a number of free clinics. No one goes hungry in this world, so we give to local food pantries. People should be shielded from the impact of natural disasters, so (not knowing what else to do) we write a check to Haiti Relief. I want to honor and encourage my friends and family, so I support their good work. In my dream world everyone has an equal opportunity to be healthy and prosperous, so we give in a way that I hope levels the playing field a tiny bit. I want my world to be filled with beautiful things but these days that kind of feels like a luxury. Sometimes someone I know well needs help and I realize how meaningless it would be to direct all my giving to strangers and turn away from my neighbor. But maybe I give less than I should, and maybe I do it somewhat reluctantly.

So, what am I saying with this month of hundreds about the kind of world I want to live in? I want to live in a world where wonderful and unexpected things happen and where things don’t always have to make perfect sense. In this world, a small gift can change a life. In this world, no one is invisible and my eyes are wide open.