Tuesday, 18 November 2008

Finders Keepers, Givers Weepers

I recently found a five dollar bill outside of my apartment. Instinctively, I picked it up. It was only after I got inside that I realized that I had no idea what to do with it. Should I try to locate the owner? No, it was a small denomination and I found it in a public place. It would be almost impossible to get it back to its original owner.

So what should I do with it? I placed the crumpled character on my table because it felt uncomfortable to put it in my wallet. Somehow that would mean that it was mine. And though I wanted it, I did not need it.

After a night’s rest, I decided to give the five dollar bill away. I imagined the possibilities. Maybe I would be generous with a tip for my coffee guy. Or I could leave it in a conspicuous location where someone else would pick it up. If they needed it, they would use it. If not, maybe they too would pass it on.

Stuffing the bill in an outside pocket of my bag (not in my wallet!), I headed to work. Sure enough, I encountered a homeless woman in a wheelchair asking for money outside my metro station. With an awkward aha! moment, I yanked the bill out and gave it to her. All I remember was her face. It was an unforgettable look of simple, grateful surprise.

Which made me even more uncomfortable. Was she surprised because people rarely offer her more than a dollar? Was she grateful because she could use the money to meet her basic needs? Of course, I imagined her using it to buy fruits and vegetables rather than booze or drugs. Or was this simply the look that she gives anyone that donates?

I don’t know. All I know is that this incident has me thinking about homelessness. I have a graduate education, I spent six years working in social services and I have traveled around the world. Yet I can’t figure out what the right thing to do is. You can argue that they are adults who make choices. But I can’t imagine sitting out there in the freezing cold, begging for your survival. I want to be empathetic. Still, I usually end up looking the other way, unless I have someone else’s five dollars to give.

Somehow this whole incident left me more conflicted than when I started. So please watch your money. I really don’t want to come across another orphaned bill. Finding a foster home for it is way too emotional.


JHB said...

you're such a socialist! just kidding. maybe you're actually a thoughtful capitalist, letting your winnings "trickle down" (smirk).

seriously though interesting to hear your experience. i know that you've experienced this in africa / india but when i lived in china i always did the quick drive by ... trying to look the other way and brush by the homeless. i felt powerless and who likes to feel powerless? in china / se asia it seemed there were more kids than adults so i started stopping, playing and then inviting them for a meal or coffee or ice cream. turned out they wanted friends - just like i did. perhaps this was a way for me to rationalize my power and instead of giving money, i gave "friendship" or "time" or a meal ... but somehow it left me and i think them more alive.

Anonymous said...

Its hard to know what to do. I know that I have steeled myself against feeling though I am shocked sometimes where I find poverty. I recently passed by the Coop not more than a block from Harvard University and saw homeless people tenting out for the night. It felt really awful and tragic to see people whose lives seemed propelling downwards even as there are so many students in the area building their lives upwards. It made me think about something I had said in class just half an hour before "you can do anything you want to, you don't have to accept the job with the awful boss"....reality check for moi: some people don't have options or else why would they chose this.

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