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.

Thread, thread, thread. 30% off!

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 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.

Thanks for all your lovely comments. I am amazed and truly humbled by the far-reaching impact this project has had. Please keep letting me know about your own ways of “paying it forward.”

It is weird to walk around without the mission of giving away $100 each day. I’ve been smiling a lot but otherwise keeping pretty much to myself as I go about my business. What will it take for me to reach out to a stranger? What do I have to offer?

As people heard about my project, I got a few direct requests for assistance. Some people assumed I have fabulous wealth and am looking for ideas on how to spend it (neither is true). One particular request captured my heart.

My son Aaron posted a link to the blog on his Facebook page. Richard, one of his college friends, is in Cameroon serving in the Peace Corps. Richard posted a comment on Aaron’s wall asking for help for a nursery owner he is working with. Basically he said that $100 could rescue the whole growing season for this guy.

I know that there are lots of wonderful organizations doing great work all across the world. I love micro-enterprise and I love bringing education to girls (and other living creatures). I was impressed by Richard’s pluck and intrepidity, and I loved the connection through Aaron. We wired $100 and asked Aaron to pass it along to his friend. We got this response from Richard (he even included a link in case we wanted to learn more about air-layering):

I’m just writing to express my sincere thanks for the donation of one hundred dollars that you’re sending via Aaron to me here in Cameroon. My tree nursery friend was elated to hear that he would be able to repair his air-layering propagator. It’s really good news for him, because he is just starting to cut down his air-layered tree branches, and without the propagator to assist in them budding, they would all die. Additionally, the gift will also have some far-reaching consequences. I’m putting together a school reforestation program for a variety of schools in my area where we will plant improved varieties of fruit trees and N-fixing leguminous trees. Because his air layering propagator will work now, we were able to add his local school to the project, so the 300 students there will be getting 200 new fruit trees in their school come April as a result of your donation. Again, thanks so much for your kindness. Happy trails.

A Jewish woman born in the 1920’s Berlin fled to England during the war and ended up in the US. She raised a family and lived a long life. She worked until she was almost 80 and left a small retirement fund to her daughter. The woman taught her daughter to be frugal and gave her the tools to be generous and open-hearted. Thanks to this woman, some people in Cameroon will be enjoying fruit and shade for years to come. That’s amazing.

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!”.

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!

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?