I read an entire (library) book over the long weekend, which was wonderful in itself. The book made a big impression on me, and at times left me feeling pretty low. It’s a story you may be familiar with, but I hadn’t heard it before and can’t remember now how I found out about it. I even have a feeling someone reading the blog suggested it.

The book is called Breaking Night: A Memoir of Forgiveness, Survival and My Journey From Homeless to Harvard. It’s written by a young woman named Liz Murray who grew up in the Bronx with two drug-addicted parents. From the age of four she watched her parents shoot up in their squalid apartment, waited anxiously for them to come home from scoring drugs, and survived on bread with mayonnaise as they blew their monthly welfare check in a few days of bingeing and left the cupboards bare. Liz stopped going to school and evaded caseworkers with tenacity and creativity. By the time she was fifteen she was living on her own, carrying everything she owned in a backpack and surviving on what food she could beg from friends, or steal.

The story has an uplifting ending. This remarkable young woman has not only come to terms with her childhood, forgiven her parents, and made much of herself but now devotes her life to helping others realize their potential regardless of their circumstances.

One of the things that struck me most about Liz’s story was how invisible she was. For years she slept in stairwells or subways at night or in friends’ empty apartments during the day while their parents were at work. After a stint in “placement” she was terrified of being sent back into the system so never let on how dire her circumstances really were.

I was out for a walk along Broadway today and saw a young woman sitting on a corner. She was wearing filthy clothes and had a kerchief around her head and a dirty blanket around her shoulders. In her lap was a cardboard sign that said “Please help. $18 will get me a room at the Joyce.” I thought of the book, and of all the people who looked the other way while Liz Murray endured stunning neglect and thieved her way through her American childhood.

A hallway at the Joyce Hotel. Photo from hostelz.com, a hostel review site. Reviews of the Joyce are not for the faint of heart.

There was a dog curled on an old sleeping bag a few yards away, a bag of kibble propped up nearby. I smiled at the young woman and said hello but kept walking, unsure. After a few steps I turned around. The woman spoke. “She’s okay, if you’re worried about the dog. She won’t hurt you.” I went back and stood near the woman. Her green eyes were clear, her face marked by fatigue. Her straight white teeth hinted at the fact that maybe, at some point, someone had cared about her.

Her name was Carrie. We started to talk and she told me she’d been living on the streets for about a year, ever since she lost her job at a residential treatment center in Yakima. She grew up in Portland so, jobless, she headed back towards home. Her car died during the trip and she arrived penniless. Usually she sleeps under a bridge, but occasionally she collects enough coins to pay for a night in a four bed “hostel” room at the Joyce Hotel. She shivered under her blanket.

The paper cup held some pennies and other coins. It seems pretty cheeky in retrospect, but I asked her if she was using and I believed her when she proudly said she’d been clean for four years.

I reached into my pocket for the C-note I’d tucked in there earlier. “I don’t want to put this in your cup.” I said. “Here.” I held out the folded bill and she wrapped her hand around it and pulled it onto her lap. “Thanks a lot,” she said, smiling at me. A few seconds passed. “Did you look at it?” I asked her. “No,” she said and opened her hand just a speck, hiding it with her sign.

“Oh, my god! Thank you so much!” She started unfolding her legs in what seemed like slow motion and then her tiny self was standing in front of me. I towered over her, something that doesn’t happen often. “Can I give you a hug?” she asked. “No one’s ever done something like this for me before.”

She gave me a big hug and then I wasn’t really sure what to say.  I told her I was very sorry for what she was going through and to take care of herself. “And,” I added, “remember that there’s goodness and kindness in the world.” With a mildly hopeful smile, she said she would.

Portland has the highest proportion of homeless in the nation. This photo is from commonground.org.

Earlier tonight I took the garbage out, including the remains of our Thanksgiving feast and a discarded pair of shoes no longer comfortable. Empty wine bottles from our festivities fill the recycling bin. I got chilled in the few minutes it took me to empty the trash into the bins and roll them to the curb. I came in to a warm house smelling of fresh-baked cookies.

How can I forget, even for a moment, that I am profoundly and deeply blessed? But I do.

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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

October 25th. Day 25 of My Month of Hundreds.

It was a kind of strange day today. The Sunday Oregonian article brought a lot of attention and traffic to the blog and I found myself having a mini anxiety attack. I loved all the comments on the article, and was very moved by people sharing their own stories, telling how they felt inspired, and really getting what I am doing. Even the negative comments were somehow comforting, as they mostly reflected things I have thought myself and have been expecting to hear from others. I want to respond to every comment and message and I will, eventually.

I’m also kind of freaking out that it is DAY TWENTY-FIVE. I have absolutely no idea what I am going to do come November 1, but I know there is no turning back. It breaks my heart to think about being “done” with this project. I want to keep going, even without the money piece. Sometimes it feels like it is about the money, and sometimes not. Mostly it feels like the C-note is a shorthand way of getting people’s attention and letting them know that they made an impact on me and I want to do the same. Strange.

It was a busy day and I put off my gift till it was starting to get dark. I had to do a few errands and thought the opportunity would arise at the library, or Rite-Aid or, surely, at the grocery store. Not today.

Walking by the laundromat I saw a woman with two pre-teen kids. They were all folding clothes, obviously a well-oiled team. I wasn’t sure but thought maybe the younger kid was wearing pajamas, and imagined that all the clothes they owned were in the piles on the counter. I sidled closer but felt the urge pass when I saw the three Starbucks cups lined up next to their folded clothes.

Leaving the grocery store I seemed to see affluence everywhere and was starting to panic that I wouldn’t find the right person tonight. It had gotten pretty dark. I got in my car and started slowly heading home, feeling rather defeated.

I was sitting at a red light behind a row of cars when I saw someone standing in a small halo of light at the bus stop.  I pulled the car over and jumped out.

It was a woman in a big puffy black coat and a hat pulled down over her eyebrows. She was surrounded by plastic shopping bags. “Hi”, I said. “You waiting for the bus?” (this was brilliant.) “Yeah”, she said. “I’m headed to the laundromat. I hope I’m going the right way.” She smiled, revealing two broken front teeth. “It’s just my second day here.” She told me that she had come from Atlanta over the weekend. “My life wasn’t going so good down there and my friend said she was moving here, so I decided to come too.”

She was friendly and didn’t really seem to think it strange that I had left my car a few feet away to talk with her. I told her about my mom and she said she was sorry. Then I gave her the C-note. “You serious? For real?” I said yes and she said, “Give me a hug! I’m gonna cry now.” She said her name was Cassidy and she normally wouldn’t take a handout but that she really needed the cash. “Technically, I don’t have anywhere to stay tonight. Thank you so much. I applied for a job today. If that comes through I’ll be okay.”

I told Cassidy that I hope our city treats her well and that things work out for her. As I got into the car she gave me a wave. As I drove off I looked back and saw her wiping her eyes.

What am I going to do?

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!”.