Raymond Chandler once noted: “Where an Englishman would give you his card, an American would very likely give you his shirt.”
But that seventy years ago. Funny thing about help in America today: we all purport to want to help; but when we do, our altruism is often questioned. When a celebrity appears at the opening of a new cancer wing at a children’s hospital to which he or she donated, we wonder about his or her motives. Is she or he there for the children, to promote the new wing, or to give her or his career a boost, which may have been lagging at the box office in recent months?
Truthfully, I feel more comfortable making my charitable contributions over the Internet, where I can maintain my anonymity. Of course I keep records of these donations for use during the tax season.
My own recent experience with reaching out to help went like this:
Saturday, March 28, 2010. I was in Ann Arbor shopping for some unusual beer. I know several liquor stores that sell some interesting microbrews; only one is located next to a tobacconist with a walk-in humidor that boasts a large selection of good cigars. This particular morning I patronized both and then headed over to Borders Books to browse. I found a translation of Victor Hugo’s Laughing Man, which I’d been meaning to read as a result of a quote from it I’d happened across some time ago.
As I walked from Borders I was approached by a young man who asked if I would donate to the Ann Arbor homeless shelter.
It’s not uncommon for the homeless to approach a shopper on the street for alms and the city frowns upon those who make a donation. There was a time when I felt uncomfortable giving a couple of bucks to someone who claimed to want to buy a cup of coffee when in all likelihood, in my mind, they would spend it on a bottle of booze. I value honesty, even if I am guilty of telling a white lie every now and then (aren’t we all?), and I’d feel better if they just told me, honestly, on what they intended to spend my money. Hell, if it’s a bottle of gut rot they want, I’d take them into a liquor store and buy them a bottle of their poison of choice.
Then one day it struck me: who was I to determine on what they should spend my donation? On top of that, if I ever found myself living on the street, I’d likely wish to seek comfort, lose myself, in a bottle of cheap bourbon.
There is a scene in The Fisher King, starring Jeff Bridges and Robin Williams (one of my favorite movies), in which a Viet Nam vet missing his legs rants to Jeff Bridges at Grand Central Station, as people walk by dropping a few coins into his cup, that they don’t give to help him, but instead to appease their own conscience.
There is truth to that, for me at least. I usually walk away, after having given the person a couple bucks, thinking, there but for the grace of God. Aren’t we all, those of us in the middle class, but three months from living on the street, once our unemployment benefit runs out?
This gentleman, not homeless himself but representing the homeless shelter, seemed legitimate, so I gave him a fin and left to find my car, hopeful that my money would at least go to good use in a meal and wishing I could’ve given more. Here in the 21st century I live off my debit card and carry little in the way of cash.
Tuesday, March 31, 2010. My boss’s boss approached me, told me the company was reorganizing and that my services, after 14 years, would no longer be required. I was then told to clean out my desk and, when I was finished, was escorted from the building.
A lot of thoughts went through my mind that morning as I drove the 30 minutes to my home. But the strangest of all my thoughts was my donation of three days prior. After all, isn’t it said that good deeds are repaid tenfold?
Not that I’d expected recompense; but I suddenly found myself wondering whether, at age 53 and in this economic climate during which I’ve read of the unfortunate being unable to find employment, their benefits running out, losing their homes, I’d soon be on the streets in need of a donation from a passerby.
As it turned out, I enjoyed the month of April as a sort of vacation, not entirely stress-free, but making good on a prior commitment to a book event 600 miles away in Winston-Salem; but I was fortunate that the right job for my skill set opened up at the right time and I was offered a job, with better pay, on my first interview.
Today I sit, typing these words, feeling truly blessed and a believer of paying it forward.