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.

Experienced. Reliable. Reasonable Rates

Day 21 of my Month of Hundreds. San Francisco, USA.

Our business meeting today included a “poverty simulation”, during which everyone was assigned a role and had to proceed through a simulated month. I was a young mother with two teenage children. My husband had just walked out on us and I had no jobs, skills or savings. The rent was due as well as the utility and car payments. Various (pretend) social services were set up around the room. Even though it was a simulation, I was a nervous wreck the entire time. I couldn’t get to the food stamp office before it closed, and my application for cash assistance was accepted but nothing would come of it for 30 days. Long lines, lots of forms to fill out, variably helpful staff people, and unwelcome surprises (such as the car breaking down) were the order of the day.

It was pretty powerful for everyone, and I saw a few of my colleagues in tears. We were all humbled by a tiny taste of  the reality that so many people live with every day. I could see what a difference $100 might make.

At the end of the day I went out for a short walk; not much time before the evening activities and I had some money to give away! I found myself drawn into the window displays: Saks Fifth Avenue, Prada, Hermes, Breve, Tiffany, Neiman Marcus, Juicy Couture… It was an effort to keep my attention focused on the stream of people going by. What a lot of want and need in such a world of plenty.

I came upon a street cleaner maneuvering his cart down the sidewalk. I said hello and slowed down to match his stride. A skateboarder zoomed by us and the street cleaner shared his observations about the dangers of skateboarding and the lax enforcement of the laws prohibiting such behavior. We chatted till we got to the curb. “Have a nice day, ma’am”, he said.

I crossed the street and kind of lingered on the other side. I looked back to see if the street cleaner was coming, although I didn’t have my typical confidence that I was making the “right” choice. There he came, simultaneously pushing and pulling the unwieldy cart at his side. When he reached me I asked to speak with him for a moment. “Are you busy?”, I asked. “I’m working two routes”, he warned. I launched into my spiel and he listened carefully, nodding and saying “okay” for encouragement. When I gave him the $100 bill he said, “Oh, thank you. Thank you very much.” Then he pulled out his wallet and started rifling through it.

“I always keep one. I know it’s in here”, he said. “I want to give you my card. You know, just in case you ever need anything. You probably don’t need money but you might need something else.” He found the card and handed it to me. It said his name was Shomari and advertised Custodial Services. Experienced. Reliable. Reasonable Rates. “Turn it over”, he said.

I looked at the back. “SPIRITUAL MESSAGE FOR LIFE: Galatians 5:22”. I asked him about the scripture and he said he couldn’t remember it word for word but it was something about being One in God’s love. I thanked him and we shook hands.

I googled the passage when I got back to the hotel. “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, and gentleness.” Amen to that.

Louise and I picked 60 pounds of apples last week, and the sauce was starting to bubble on the stove. I realized I needed more canning jars (where do they all go??) and made a trip to Fred Meyer. Typical for a Saturday morning, it was bustling.

I slowly made my way along the aisles and listened as the chatter in my head picked up. Did I want to give to a smoker? Would I never give to a smoker? Someone with THAT much beer in their cart? Isn’t that high-octane beer?  That woman making a selection from the olive bar must have plenty of discretionary income, right? I found myself making all kinds of assumptions about the young families (white, well-dressed kids snacking on organic fruit rolls: they’re doing just fine).

One youngish mother caught my eye but then I noticed that her cart was full of chips and soda and I kept moving. I said hello to the woman passing out samples of cake to a small crowd and realized I wanted a little bit of privacy for myself and the recipient.

I found the jars I needed and got into the checkout line. It was moving slowly. The woman with the high-octane beer got into the line behind me and I sadly noted that the only other item in her cart was white bread.

Then I noticed the woman staffing the Playland area, where parents can drop their kids off while they shop. A large, cheerful middle-aged woman, she was talking to everyone who walked by in between checking on the two kids who were there. With all the smiling and laughing she was doing, it looked like she didn’t have a care in the world.

You never know, I reminded myself. I got to the cash register just as I saw a mom pick up one of the kids at Playland. The cashier asked me, “Did you find everything you were looking for?” and I wondered what he would say if I told him I was looking for someone to give $100 to. I finished checking out and went over to the Playland counter.

The woman said hello, gave me a big smile and looked down over the counter. “Do we have a little one here?”, she asked. “No”, I said, “I just wanted to talk to you for a minute.” “Okay”, she said. Then I launched into the spiel I’d been practicing in the checkout line: “This might sound kind of strange.” “Okaaaayyy”, she said, and her eyes opened just a little wider. “I’m giving some gifts in honor of my mother and I would really like you to have this.” I handed her the $100 bill and gave her a big smile and started to edge away. “Wait a minute! You’re giving some gifts?” She looked puzzled and then looked down at what was in her hand and said, “Oh, my god. Give me your hand! I’m gonna cry.” She took my hand and we both got teary-eyed. I told her again that I was honoring my mother; that she had died not long ago and had left me an unexpected gift. “So you’re just passing it on and blessing others. Wow. Wow. You don’t know, you just don’t even know.” Then she told me that she didn’t have a single dollar in her wallet. She and her husband had both been paid the day before and had spent every last penny on their bills. “I drove here on fumes. I was just thinking how I had to call my mama and ask to borrow $10. Thank you so much!” She held onto my hand for what seemed like a long time and we just looked at each other.

I don’t even remember walking to the car, but I sat there for a while feeling flooded with gratitude.

My applesauce is finished. It tastes especially sweet.

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!”.

Starting October 1, I will give $100 to a stranger every day for the month. I have some ideas about how I will go about this, but it is still taking shape in my mind and I hope I’ll open to shifting as I go.

I recognize we can never anticipate (and certainly not control) all the consequences of even our best-intended actions. I am bothered by the possibility that I could kill someone with my kindness. What if a heroin user overdoses as the result of a $100 windfall?

On the other hand, how many countless times have I consciously turned away from an obvious need?  How many people have I walked blindly past, when even a couple of bucks might have made all the difference?

Have you given a gift (monetary or otherwise) and found out that it did much more good than you had hoped? Or harm that you never anticipated? Keep the stories coming!