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.

Mama! A white lady just gave me $100!

October 26. Day 26 of My Month of Hundreds.

Five years ago I had another amazing adventure and helped a local pastor start a free health clinic for uninsured adults in North Portland. Through the generous support of the community and our volunteers we’ve been able to provide services to thousands of neighborhood residents. A couple of times a year I go out with the paid staff for Happy Hour to celebrate their hard work. Today was the day.

There’s a place we like a few blocks away from the clinic and the five of us headed over there shortly after five. A bus stop and a gas station sit across the street, and I often see a fair collection of characters in the vicinity. I had my eyes peeled and the C-note in my pocket.

Just as we went in a woman hurried past. Everything about her look and posture said, “don’t bother me”. It was all the invitation I needed.

“I’ll be right back,” I said to the group. “Somebody order me a drink”. I got outside just in time to see the woman duck into a store about halfway up the block. As I closed in I could see that she had gone into the liquor store.

I had second thoughts and then remembered the cold beer that was waiting for me back at the restaurant. So… it was okay for me to look forward to a drink at the end of the day but not this lady? Because she looked poor? Seriously? The chatter in my head is insistent, even when I would swear I know better.

The woman was standing at the front of the small store viewing the wares, which were all behind bars. I walked up behind her. “Hi, how you doing?” I said. She turned and I got my first real look at her. I noticed her long eyelashes and sad countenance. “I’m blessed. You?” I thought for a second. “Yeah, I guess I could say the same.”

She went back to looking at the bottles. “Can I talk to you for a minute?” The woman turned to me again. “Yeah? What?” I took a different approach than my usual; not sure why. “I’m Jill. What’s your name?” Her eyes widened. “I’m not gonna tell you! You might be the poh-lice!” Then she laughed.

I launched into my story and told her my mom had died not too long ago. She fixed me with a steady silent gaze. I told her I had a gift to share and gave her the $100 bill. She gasped and her hands flew up, covering her eyes. She started to sob and grabbed me in a bear hug. “Oh, my God! I don’t have any food! Jesus!” Then she told me her name was Deanna.

She was crying hard by now and was talking fast about how she had been praying for help. “I’m gonna call my Mama! She won’t believe this!” She pulled out her phone.

“Mama! You know how I’ve been praying?? A white lady just gave me a hundred dollars! Jesus! I swear it!” She pushed the phone at me. “Talk to her! Tell her it’s true!”

I took her phone and heard a voice murmuring on the other end. I couldn’t make out the words. “Hello? It’s true what she said. Have a good night.”

I don’t really remember what happened next. Somehow we said goodbye and I carried on with my happy hour.

I’m heading out of town tomorrow for a few days and have been a little preoccupied with how I’m going to do with my giveaways. In a different city and culture, will I still be able to follow my instincts? Granted, it’s not like I’m going to Djibouti, but San Francisco is a different world.

I had to stop at the store after work today. I got out of the car and was crossing the parking lot when I saw a woman struggling with her empty shopping cart. I always hate taking the cart back to the repository after loading my groceries in the car, so I decided to be really nice and offer to take her cart back for her. I was feeling kind of pleased with myself, thinking how this project is making me into such a nice person. Then I couldn’t find the place where you put the carts and I started to get annoyed. Ah! No wonder! Some idiot had parked right in front of it, blocking the whole thing. A couple of other shoppers were kind of circling around, trying to figure out how to put their carts away. Jeez. Some people!

It was getting dark but I could see well enough to realize that the offending vehicle looked vaguely familiar. Wait. Is that…? Doh! I was the one who was blocking everyone from putting their carts away. Wow. I hate that.

I fixed the problem as quickly as I could and headed into the store. I had the C-note in my pocket and just cruised the aisles for a while. There were a lot of people inside, mostly in ones and twos. I walked slowly and (I imagined) nonchalantly past the produce, the crackers, the peanut butter and the salad dressing. Heading into the frozen food aisle I saw a young woman pushing a little girl in a stroller. She was wearing tiny shorts that barely covered her bottom and said “Senior” across the back. High school? Possible, but she looked older. With the two of them was a slightly rounder version of the young woman. She had stopped pushing their shopping cart and was looking at the ice cream. “Klondike bars?”, I heard her ask. The cart was piled with chips, soda and frozen chicken. Something drew me to them.

“Excuse me”, I said to the woman with the cart. “Can I talk with you for a minute?” “Okaaayy”, she said, visibly dubious. She maneuvered her cart around in front of her so it was between the two of us. “What’s it about?” “Is this your family?”, I asked. “Yes”, she said. “These are my daughters.” She looked concerned, and mildly frightened. I saw the two girls watching me. “They’re beautiful”, I offered. I smiled, trying to put them all at ease. The older girl grinned at me and did a gracious little curtsey. I told the mom what I was doing and that I wanted to pass along a gift. Her face went slack and I handed her the $100 bill.

The woman’s hand flew up to her mouth and she burst into tears. In one fluid motion she came out from behind her shopping cart and gave me a huge hug. “God is so good!” She was crying hard. There was a story here, and lots of hurt. Her older daughter was crying, too. Then the woman said, “Your mother must have been a beautiful person.” “Yes”, I agreed. “She was.”

That was it. We didn’t talk long before I went on my way. The two women were still standing there with tears in their eyes when I turned into the next aisle.

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.

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.

My wallet felt heavier than usual as I walked around today, and I couldn’t stop thinking about the $100 bill that was tucked inside. I thought about how it might be better to have two fifties instead and I considered stopping at the bank. Then I remembered how I had asked specifically for hundreds when I took out my first “stash” earlier in the week, and how the teller had to make a special trip to the back for them. I decided to skip the bank, but will probably get some smaller bills next time.

This had already been happening to some extent the past couple of weeks, but today I really felt that I looked at everybody differently. I felt very warmly toward everyone I saw, and imagined how it might make their day to get this unexpected gift. I looked a lot more people in the eye, and smiled more. Most everyone smiled back.

As I was driving back to my office from a meeting this afternoon, I saw all kinds of people out and about. I realized that I am going to have a hard time on the days I don’t get out of my car or office, and I was thinking about how isolating it is to drive everywhere. Then I saw a man at an intersection sitting on a bicycle. It didn’t come to consciousness at the time, but I think he reminded me of James. Even from a block away I could see that the bike was slightly too small and had seen better days. Once across, he started down the street with a purposefulness I found appealing.

Traffic on Mississippi Ave at lunchtime being what it is, he got away and I decided to turn down the next block to see if I could catch him. There he was, the knees of his long legs popping rhythmically into view over the handlebars. I pulled up beside him, lowered the window and said, “Excuse me!”, having decided that if he gave me a nasty look or didn’t stop I would move on. He stopped right away, and quietly said “yes?”, looking me right in the eye. I jumped out of the car and handed him a wadded up bill, saying, “this is for you”.  That wasn’t what I had planned to say at all, but I felt pretty awkward and flustered. He smiled a wonderful but alarmingly toothless smile and said “Thank you! Thank you!” Then he looked down and said “Oh! I thought… Oh! Thank you!” I said “You’re welcome!” then (quite uncharacteristically) “God Bless You!”. I jumped back in my car and took off. I was able to see him heading down the street and I saw him kiss his fingers and then reach into the air in a gesture of gratitude.

I wish I had been more composed and taken a minute to talk. Tomorrow I am going to do my best to not “drop and run”.

Thank you for all the wonderful comments and stories.