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.

A reporter interested in my Month of Hundreds tagged along as I rode the MAX out to the airport for my trip to San Francisco.  I tried to go about business as usual but was a little self-conscious. A photographer came along as well and he was lurking politely in the distance. I got on the train with my suitcases and took a look around. The C-note was in my pocket.

I slid into an empty seat and pulled my bags close. A young man (a kid, really) was in the next seat. He looked at me and shook his head. “Rough day”, he said.  “Rough day?” I repeated. “What happened?” “I got kicked out of residential treatment”, he explained. “Just for talking to a girl.” He told me he’d been in treatment for 51 days and wasn’t quite sure what to do now. He said he was trying to get home to Washington somewhere, and something about calling this girl or a friend of hers. I had a little trouble following the story and could feel his confusion and worry.  Again he said it was a rough day and he stood up to get off at the next stop. “Take care of yourself!” I urged.

After the guy got off I wanted a change of scenery and moved to the other end of the car. A striking woman briefly met my gaze as I maneuvered my way down the aisle. I stood by the door as we got to the next stop and a few people went and came. The woman got my attention. “There’re seats up here”, she said. “You want to sit down?” “Thanks”, I answered with a smile “I haven’t decided yet.” A few seconds went by. “I’ll help you with your bags”, the woman offered.

I made a move toward the empty seats. She reached over and pulled my suitcase up into the aisle next to her and I sat down across the way. “Thanks a lot.” I asked her where she was headed and she said she was going home. She’d been to traffic court to pay a ticket that her son had incurred while driving her car. “So, he’ll be paying me back. Hopefully.”

“Actually”, I said, “Do you mind if I sit next to you for a minute?” “Uh. Ok.” I caught sight of the photographer a few rows up ahead as I got closer and started telling her about my project. I said I wanted to pass a gift along to her and handed over the $100 bill. “Wow, I can’t take this! I can’t take your money.” She saw the photographer and got alarmed. “What is this? Is this for real? What’s going on?” The reporter came over and started to explain. “It’s legit. Really.” The woman eventually relaxed and told us her name was Angelah. With an H. She said she felt guilty taking the money but that it couldn’t come at a better time. She’s a single mom with four kids and she’s going to school for her nursing certificate. She thanked me a bunch of times before getting off at Gateway.

Our flight was delayed for almost an hour for a “ground freeze” while Airforce Two (Vice President Biden on board) was loaded and launched. The guy sitting next to me was on his way to Honolulu. By the time we landed he had about ten minutes till the doors would close on his next flight. The flight attendant made an announcement letting everyone know. When the cabin doors opened, everyone stayed in their seats and cheered while the guy sprinted down the aisle and onto the jetway. I just know he made it.


Lone Fir Cemetery

I’ve always loved cemeteries, and used to spend a lot of time visiting them and wandering from grave to grave, thinking about the impact each person makes on their world. When I was a kid growing up in the New Jersey suburbs there was an old cemetery nearby we called “The Ghostly Graves”. It was a 15-20 minute walk through the woods, and I spent many days reading all the inscriptions on the markers and then lying on my back in the adjacent meadow.

I’ve kind of gotten out of the habit of visiting cemeteries. Although I’ve lived in Portland over 15 years I’ve never visited Lone Fir, our oldest pioneer cemetery with burials dating back to 1846. Heading home from an errand this morning I drove along one side of the cemetery and it crossed my mind to go in. It was a glorious sunny day and everything looked beautiful.

It took me a while to find the entrance, which was clear around the other side a few blocks away. I parked down the street and stepped through the gate, taking it all in. I imagined maybe I’d see someone mourning at a graveside and would brighten their day with the 14th Hundred. There were a couple of maintenance guys riding on lawnmowers but it was otherwise very quiet. A couple of people jogged past, and a woman walked by pushing a stroller. I saw a few people with sketchbooks and a guy in a bicycle helmet sitting on the grass having a snack.

Thanks anyway

Thanks anyway

In the distance, I thought I saw a figure curled up on one of the benches. Maybe this is why I’m here, I thought. I walked closer. It appeared to be a woman, asleep. There was a paper bag next to the bench that was partway open. I leaned down and took a peek inside. Instead of the bottle I was expecting, there was an apple and a box of coconut water. “Excuse me.”

“Excuse me”, I said again. One eye popped open and the woman turned her face up a bit. I could see that she was young and had some pretty serious piercings but not much else. “Are you okay?”, I asked. “Yeah”, she said. “I’m… okay”. Not too convincing. “Do you need anything?” “No. But thanks anyway.” Very polite. I stood there for a minute and she said, “Look. I’m just really tired. I’m taking a break from work and I just want to sleep.” “Where do you work?”, I asked. “Downtown”. Hmmm. We were nowhere near downtown. “Sit up for a sec, I have something I want to give you.” Her eyes were closed again. “No, thanks.”

Should I try harder?  I felt pretty torn about it, like maybe I was missing a big opportunity. Maybe a little hurt, too, that my gift had been turned down. I walked away.

The cemetery really is beautiful, and there are lots of interesting headstone designs and inscriptions. One style of newer headstone that seems to be popular among members of a certain community includes very large and lifelike photos of the deceased on the gravestone. It’s quite unsettling. There was a mix of real and artificial flowers on the graves, and one covered with Halloween decorations and a hand lettered sign that said “Dad”.

I kept walking and saw a woman up ahead bent before an easel. I walked closer and said hello. She kept painting. I watched for a few seconds, then said “Do you mind?”. “Help yourself”, she shrugged. “For a minute”. I watched her dip her brush into the paint – first green, then blue. She dabbed the color onto the canvas. I looked at the scene in front of us, then back at the painting.

Cheryl's painting“Actually, do you mind if I interrupt you for a minute?” She stiffened. “What’s up?” I told her about my project and handed her the $100 bill. She looked at me for the first time. “Are you kidding me!?? Are you kidding me??” She must have said it a half dozen times.

I was kind of chuckling inside, thinking about Gloria yesterday and how grumpy she was at first. I thought back to the woman on the bench.

The painter told me her name was Cheryl and it was her first time painting at Lone Fir. She had been inspired to do it after reading about the cemetery founders in a historical comic book put out by the Dill Pickle Club. She wanted to know if I lived in the neighborhood and how I came to be there today. She gave me a big hug and said she would do something good with the money.

We talked for a while and I told Cheryl about the blog. She said she would dedicate the Lone Fir painting to me and Gina. As we said goodbye, she said “Bless you, that’s all I can say. And I never say that!”

As I walked back to my car I looked for the young woman in black. The bench was empty.

Cheryl's sketch and the 14th Hundred

I briefly considered giving $10 each to ten people today, in honor of 10.10.10, but decided to stick to my plan. So far, no one has balked at the $100 bill. I’ll need to replenish my supply this week.

The President’s Day sales inspired me to consider a major purchase – a couple of new pillows – and I decided to make a trip to the nearby mall this afternoon. I drove right by Goodwill on the way, and there was a parking place out front. I was feeling lucky, so I pulled up and headed in. I have found some really nice things at Goodwill, although it’s hit and miss.

October makes for kind of a weird scene in there, with all the second-hand costumes and decorations. There were well-dressed college types shopping for Halloween, as well as the regulars picking through the sweaters and work clothes. I’m not really a regular but I know my way around the place and within a few minutes I had found a few nice blazers to try on.

The dressing room doors each have a punch-code combination and you have to wait for one of the staff to come and open it unless someone inside holds the door for you on their way out. I was standing and waiting alongside a rather rough-looking middle-aged woman and a young boy of six or seven. The dressing rooms are adjacent to a bunch of the Halloween stuff, so he was looking through that and kept asking the woman to buy things for him. She said she would buy him one of those orange plastic pumpkins that you can take trick-or-treating. He found something else he wanted and the woman said, “Let’s just pick one thing a day instead of a whole bunch of things.”  The boy kept up a polite chatter, pointing out things he liked. The woman, clearly impatient, said, “Don’t ask for anything else here. I’m just getting you that pumpkin. I don’t know what you are going to ask for at the next store.” “I know it’s something you don’t want me to have”, said the boy. “And how do you know that?” “Because I already ask-ed you for it and you said no”. “Then why are you asking me for it again?” The boy was holding the plastic pumpkin and looking around. “Because maybe you will say yes a different time.”

It seemed like an innocent enough conversation but there was an ominous undertone that put me on edge. I felt sorry for this boy. I imagined that he was regularly subjected to the tyranny of the woman’s impatience and borderline hostility. Someone came out of the dressing room and held the door open for the woman. “You go ahead,” she said to me. “I’m waiting for my daughter.” Trying my stuff on just took a few minutes and I came back out just as the daughter came out of the next room. She was the right age to be the boy’s mother, but I wasn’t expecting the multi-color dreadlocks and facial piercings. The door slammed shut behind her. “Why’d you close the door?”, accused her mother. “Now we have to get someone to open it again.” She sent the boy crawling under the door to open it from the inside.

I was standing in the checkout line when the young woman with the dreadlocks came up behind me with her selections. I had been hoping she was shopping for Halloween costumes but she had a long sweater-dress folded over her arm, and a pair of shoes in her hand. “I like your boots”, she said shyly to the cashier. Her mother took the little boy outside to wait in the car.

I felt pulled to help this young woman and her boy, although there was something distasteful about the family dynamic. I finished paying and stepped outside, where I saw the boy and his grandmother heading to their car. I was still thinking about what to do when the young woman came hurrying out of the store and swept right by me, eyes downcast.

I let her go. I felt kind of crummy about it, but told myself the older woman would probably have gotten her hands on the money somehow. Or she would have punished the daughter for having it. Weird to just get a feeling like that.

Once at the mall, I knew exactly what I wanted to do. First, I picked out my pillows (buy 1, get 1 free). Then I went up to the food court. I saw a small man in a uniform sweeping the floor. He was at least 60 and was wearing a cap that said “Mexico”. I said hello and he stopped, standing up straight and looking me in the eye.  “Alberto”, he said, smiling and revealing a broken front tooth. We talked for quite a while and then I told him, in my rusty Spanish, about my project. I gave him the $100 bill and he tucked it in his pocket. “Muchas gracias!” He said he worked very hard but was always coming up short and having to borrow money from his brother. He was grateful but didn’t seem particularly surprised. Maybe where Alberto comes from the idea of a gringa handing out $100 bills is not that strange.

If you look right at the center of the photo, you can see him in the background.

Alberto, in the background

Friday will be the start of my Month of Hundreds, during which I will give $100 away each day to a stranger. I’m thinking a lot about what may unfold, and expecting the unexpected. I was truly surprised, however, by what a friend of mine did today. She heard about the project, has been following the blog and today gave me an envelope with a $100 bill inside. Wait a minute: I’m supposed to be the one giving away the money here! I am not sure what to do with the $100; I may start a day early or give two $100’s on a given day. Or go a day longer. Maybe I am feeling a bit of what some of my recipients may feel: grateful and supported, as well as acutely aware of the power of the gift and the need to use it or pass it on in a meaningful way. Lots to think about! What would you do with a C-note?

I looked at a lot of people today, wondering about that $100. Would I give it to the sweet kid who pumped my gas? He was really busy and I was just another gray-haired lady but he indulged me with a genuine moment of connection. What about the young woman eating her (rosemary peanut brittle) ice cream in front of Ruby Jewel? What about the harried man in business attire rushing down the street, seemingly to a job? Or maybe a job interview? Or to pick up the last unemployment check?

I really appreciate all the comments on my first post. I actually expected a lot more controversy and even some negative reactions.  At least a few people must think it is a dumb idea to give away money in such a “non-strategic” way. Some call it “hit and run charity”, or even “dangerous compassion”. I’ve got a foot in that camp myself, being the planner/strategizer that I am by nature. Part of me hopes that the 31 $100 recipients will somehow find each other and together start a non-profit micro-lending enterprise. Now THAT would make a difference!

More about all of this in the days to come. I will be sharing links and resources so if you have read something thought-provoking about money and/or giving, please let me know! (thanks to those of you who have done so already)