I’m a hands on type of charitable person. After I learned about the profits going to the executors of charitable business and not to the needy I stopped donating to charities. Instead, I’ll invite a homeless person to come in with me and get a hot drink and roll (butter and jam), or oatmeal – yeah, smelly and dirty and delirious even. Last time I checked hungry was hungry. We are all people. Every so often, I’ll just leave a tenner with the cashier and ask them to make sure someone who is hungry gets a bite to eat. And, they do.
I don’t shove a bag of my old clothes in those bins anymore. Most of them are recycled to the flea markets – after the top selections are taken home – so I put them where I know needy feet tread. In plain sight and made to be inviting. Once, in Los Angeles, I was rolling an empty suitcase toward the corner bus stop and I saw an old woman – or maybe it was the ageing of sleeping in corridors, noise pollution, miles and miles of endless cement streets, sidewalks, and car fumes – with her unruly supermarket cart brimming with contents as tossed and tumbled as she – so I asked her if she’d like my suitcase. At first – I saw it in her eyes – she didn’t know if I was harassing or mocking her, you know, some wise ass setting her up of trouble, or sincere. Worry etched her face as her brown eyes studied me and her lips twitched. Definitely a size-me-up moment because nothing was wrong with the suitcase so why would I be offering it to her? I better fucking explain. So I did. Before unzipping it to show her how spacious the interior was I gave it the 360 swivel so she saw that the wheels were intact, and finally I explained why I thought it would help her. Those eyes lit up like the lights on a Christmas tree and we shared that Santa Claus moment when all dreams DO come true. By chance, I passed her several hours later; she was sitting at a bus stop and her suitcase was upright in the supermarket cart – full of her things. My heart soared.
But I’m facing a different situation now. There’s a gypsy woman that sits outside the CarreFour supermarket just up the hill from my home in Spain and she’s there every day, all day. The first day I left some spare change with her we shared a few words and with time I came to know her story – real or invented – and so every week I’d make sure I had 2 euros to put in her hand. Sometimes we’d chat, sometimes just a ‘take care’ and ‘thank you’. And, I grown to care about her; if I’m driving by I look to see if she’s there, and if I walk to the store and she’s not there I wonder – and worry. So every week for a year and a half I’ve given her 2 euros, and on special holidays I might leave her with a bag of groceries. It always felt right – until about a month ago.
A month ago, I felt ‘obliged’ to give. It had become a habit as well as an expectation. So, the first time I said I didn’t have a spare change – true, but I had planned it that way. The next time I gave her 2 euros but I felt bad about it and all the way home I wondered why, why did I care? Then I found myself shopping elsewhere. I didn’t want the discomfort. What was my problem?
The problem was that I wondered if I was enriching her life or keeping her in ‘her story’.
Was I improving her quality of life or simply continuing a standard of life that left her playing the role of outcast, victim, and social ‘panhandler’? Not to mention me and my role as ‘lucky one’ and ‘benefactress’.
Was I seeing her whole or crippled by circumstance? Was she seeing me only as a ‘supplier’?
Had both of us become ‘inhuman’ in our own politically correct way? Was this the same thing as donating to a business? Had she created the business of being out of business and I the busy-ness of charitable ‘donation’ and not really giving?
It’s a dilemma. I haven’t gone back since. I’m still digesting this insight. It’s easy to get sloppy and well, so off-the-cuff and second-nature about it all that giving becomes denigrating and degenerating despite what we ‘think’.
What do you think? I’d really like to know.