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.

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The first thing I want to say is a very big “thank you” to everyone who has been reading and commenting. This journey really has been about me and for me, although I hoped maybe a few of my friends would take it to heart and be inspired to talk more about human connection and money, and maybe give a little bit extra away. I underestimated the power of Facebook (which led to the Oregonian article written by Nikole Hannah-Jones). And maybe, in these hard times, the power of some positive news. It has been moving, humbling and deeply satisfying to hear from people all over the country and as far away as Scotland that the stories have made an impact.

It’s the end of the month and I have thought a LOT about where things go from here. I need to take a breath and let the experiences of the past month settle. I still have lots of questions but I do have a few answers.

I have decided that I like giving this way. I will continue to support the causes I care about through reputable non-profit organizations. But I will go back to the bank next week for a small supply of C-notes and will keep them on hand. I will stay alert for opportunities to make a connection and, sometimes, that will include passing along a gift.

And, I will keep writing. My goal is at least a weekly post through the end of the year, when I will regroup.

After casting about for a plan befitting this momentous “last day”, I decided to head back to the place where it really all began: Fred Meyer (see Day 2: Not a Care in the World). That was the day I let the inner judgments start bubbling up to the surface and the first time I had a conversation with a giftee. I secretly hoped to see the woman from that day and find out how she was doing.

A lot of the store employees were in costume; I especially liked one wearing a clerical collar, long black robe and a gigantic cross around his neck. It was hard to tell the shoppers from the employees. I noticed one woman stocking a display of shoes; she had a grim expression and her regular Fred Meyer duds on.

I wandered around somewhat aimlessly for a while. I went over to check if any of my favorite bottles of wine were on sale. I stood for a long time studying the labels and promotions. There’s a deli and little seating area nearby, and I spotted a store employee sitting by herself. I considered going over to sit down, but she seemed to be pointedly ignoring my gaze. I had a good chuckle with myself imagining the woman thinking “Ooh, look at that lady. All she can think about is WINE. I hope she doesn’t come over here!”

I considered keeping the money as a way of prolonging the month of October indefinitely. I saw a young woman wearing slippers and almost followed her. An elderly woman went slowly and painfully by, leaning into her empty shopping cart. In the next aisle was a mother and young girl dressed convincingly as matching zombies, both their mouths painted into a long scar.

I picked out one small item and headed for the checkout line. At the cash register was the grim young woman I had seen at the shoe display. There were two people in front of me and the line moved quickly. When my turn came I said hi and the woman said flatly, “Did you find everything okay this evening?” “Oh, yeah,” I said, “But it’s only one o’clock! Have you been here for a really long time?” I wasn’t winning her over. “You have an Advantage Card?”

As we finished the transaction I tried a few more times to get the woman to smile, or at least look at me. No luck. There was no one else around, and finally I kind of leaned in and said quietly, “Hey, I’d like to give you something.” She glanced at me suspiciously, silent. I reached into my pocket, pulled out the $100 bill and held it out to her.

“I can’t take that,” she said, grim as ever. “Why not?” I wanted to know. “Store policy. I think.” “It’s not a tip. It’s a gift.” “I can’t take it. But thanks anyway.” She turned and walked away.

It was unsettling. Maybe I really wasn’t meant to part with this last hundred. I set out across the parking lot toward home, the woman’s bad humor weighing on me. On the way I passed the bottle return and then spotted a Salvation Army donation trailer. A couple of cars were parked nearby. The drivers had gotten out of their cars and were handing items to a stocky middle-aged man. A bag of clothes and an old computer monitor disappeared into the dark trailer.

After the cars took off I struck up a conversation with the guy. He told me he’d been working for Salvation Army for about two months, first in the Happy Valley store and now here. He said he came from Cuba nine years ago and had originally lived in Miami and then Georgia. He still has family in Cuba as well as all over the world – he counted off children, sisters and brothers, and said his mom had died not too long ago. He’s all by himself here.

Carlos

It always amazes me how much of their story people will share with a stranger, and I was grateful for the connection. I told the man that my mom had also died recently and what I was doing to honor her memory.

I handed him the C-note. His eyes flew open, then he kissed the bill and started praying in Spanish. His eyes welled up with tears. He reached out to shake my hand then changed his mind and gave me a big hug. “My name is Carlos. Thank you. You have no idea what this means to me right now.” He said he works three days a week and gets paid $8.50 an hour; it’s really not enough to get by and he was a hundred dollars short on his rent.

Carlos thanked me again and encouraged me to come by sometime and say hello. He works Sunday, Monday and Tuesday. He let me take his picture, but wanted to put his Salvation Army cap on first.

Michael and Baby

I was a couple of blocks from home, taking in the fact that I had given away the 31st hundred, when a man sitting on a low retaining wall stopped me. He had a tiny dog in his lap. “You know, I just don’t understand people sometimes.” He went on to tell me how a man had come by and started petting his dog. “This is a service dog. Everyone knows you can’t do that. You have to ask permission before you touch a dog!”

He took off the dog’s tiny blanket to show me that she was, indeed, a service dog wearing an official service dog uniform. The passerby had apparently apologized in what felt like a sarcastic manner and then cuffed the guy on the back of the head. It was a deeply offensive gesture.

He said his name was Michael and introduced me to his dog, Baby. “You can pet her if you want. She’s a sweetheart.” Michael told me how his wife had died of ovarian cancer and now the dog is all he has. “I’ve had seven heart attacks in five years. I’m on the street. If she senses something is wrong, she licks my face and then I go to the hospital.” The dog has saved his life on four occasions.

We talked for a while and then Michael looked at me hard. “I had to stop you,” he said, “because I just want to tell you that there is a purpose for everything.” I said goodbye and continued on my way home. I turned back to wave and he said, “Happy Halloween!”

I can still pick up a whiff of Carlos’s cologne on my jacket.

The grateful zombie

October 30! Day 30 of My Month of Hundreds.

My dread over the impending arrival of November has eased up; I am looking forward to having some time to reflect on this month and where I go from here.

Tomorrow feels like a big day. I’ll make the final gift of my Month of Hundreds and write more about my plans for the rest of the year.

A few things are clear: the month has been a great success; I am thrilled! One of my primary objectives has been fulfilled, and I feel much more…free. Free to smile at strangers, leave a generous tip, worry less about paying an extra 5¢ per gallon on gas, and hand out $100 bills! I can’t thank my mother enough for the gift that has made this possible.

As I went through my day today, I found myself doing some weird calculations in my head. Have I given to an equal amount of men and women? Age? What about older people? I haven’t really given to anyone OLD. People of color? Over-represented. I’m okay with that.

It felt like the week of Thanksgiving to judge from the crowds at the stores. People were a bit cranky. Kids in shopping carts were crying and begging. I saw a young boy of about two holding a little stuffed doll, whining at his mom, “Mama! Take it off! Take it off! Mama! Take it off!” He was tugging pitifully at the price tag that was attached to the doll. His mom was selecting spices in the bulk aisle; she turned and said to him, “No, honey. We’re not going to take it off, because we’re not buying that. We’re just borrowing it.” She turned back to her shopping just as the tag went flying. “I took it off, Mama. I took it off”, he said.

A few costumed shoppers were sprinkled through the aisles. The organic lollipops were flying off the shelves.

After my grocery shopping I went over to Walgreen’s. All the stores seem to smell the same, and walking through the door provokes an avalanche of memories. I shopped there weekly for supplies during my mom’s last year,  picking up the necessities then trolling the aisles for a treat that would make her smile or at least bring some light back to her eyes. Chocolate was always good, and she loved nuts until she started forgetting how to swallow.

There was a steady stream of shoppers. Halloween candy and costume supplies were in high demand. I stopped to chat with a few people, but didn’t really connect.

As I was walking out the door I saw a young woman rushing across the parking lot. She had a short skirt, seriously torn fishnet stockings and blood all over her neck and chest. Blue hair and a prim little blouse completed the look. She ran into the store and I followed her.

“Looks like you’re in a hurry,” I said. “Yeah,” she agreed. “I have to be in Salem by 6 to set up for a party!” She made a beeline for the costume supplies and grabbed a tube of fake blood. She didn’t seem to find it strange that I was following her and she kept up a friendly chatter. “A bunch of people are going to Eugene tonight. There might be a lot of traffic.”

I stepped out of the store and waited for her to come out. “Look, I know you’re in a hurry,” I said when she appeared, “but I just need a minute of your time. I have something I want to give you.”. “Okay,” she said, slowing down. “My truck is over this way,” she pointed as we walked together. “What do you want to give me?” She was tearing open the package of fake blood as she walked.

“You have to promise me you’ll drive safe,” the mother in me said. Then I handed her the C-note.

Why?” she yelped.”For real? This is for me?” I didn’t want to make her late and gave an abbreviated version of my story. “You’re doing it every day? Like a mitzvah?” I said yeah, it was just like a mitzvah.

She said her name was Karissa and reached out to give me a tearful hug. “Careful,” she said. “I don’t want to get blood all over you.” Then she jumped into her truck and pulled away, giving me a smile and a kind of shy wave.

I didn’t know zombies thought about mitzvahs. You learn something every day.

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

Tomorrow starts my Month of Hundreds, and my first day of 31 to give $100 to a stranger I meet during the course of the day. I’m feeling a little weary tonight, and a bit apprehensive. I worry that my intentions will be misunderstood by some as “showing off”, or that this whole thing is just a dumb idea altogether. I hope I can let go of trying to control the outcome and remain open to whatever unfolds. I’m excited to get started! Tomorrow will be interesting.

Philanthropy: the desire to promote the welfare of others, expressed especially by the generous donation of money to good causes.


Every day in October I am going to give away $100 cash to someone I encounter during the course of my day. Starting October 1 I will tell the story of each day’s “giveaway”. In the meantime I am hoping these random thoughts will continue to spark discussion of issues around money and giving.

Do you have to be a millionaire to be a philanthropist? What does it mean to be generous? If you are following this blog, chances are you are generous, a giver of money and therefore a philanthropist. Right? Do you see yourself that way? There was an interesting article in our local newspaper today about the shifting demographics and priorities of philanthropists in our community and it got me thinking.

I started seeing myself as a philanthropist about ten years ago when we began a yearly ritual of sitting down during Chanukah to make some family decisions about our giving for the year. Choosing a target percentage of our income (between 7% and 10%, depending on circumstances), we add up everything we have donated since the beginning of the year and what we still have to give. We always have an overinflated idea of how much we have actually given up to that point. Everyone has a chance to advocate for their “cause” and the kids always had a say in the process when they were at home (which is how it turns out we are on the mailing list of “Save the Tigers”).

Giving in this way allows me to make a statement about the kind of world I want to live in. It gives me a sense of meaning and consistency. I want to live in a world where people get the help they need when they are sick, so we give to a number of free clinics. No one goes hungry in this world, so we give to local food pantries. People should be shielded from the impact of natural disasters, so (not knowing what else to do) we write a check to Haiti Relief. I want to honor and encourage my friends and family, so I support their good work. In my dream world everyone has an equal opportunity to be healthy and prosperous, so we give in a way that I hope levels the playing field a tiny bit. I want my world to be filled with beautiful things but these days that kind of feels like a luxury. Sometimes someone I know well needs help and I realize how meaningless it would be to direct all my giving to strangers and turn away from my neighbor. But maybe I give less than I should, and maybe I do it somewhat reluctantly.

So, what am I saying with this month of hundreds about the kind of world I want to live in? I want to live in a world where wonderful and unexpected things happen and where things don’t always have to make perfect sense. In this world, a small gift can change a life. In this world, no one is invisible and my eyes are wide open.