I briefly considered giving $10 each to ten people today, in honor of 10.10.10, but decided to stick to my plan. So far, no one has balked at the $100 bill. I’ll need to replenish my supply this week.

The President’s Day sales inspired me to consider a major purchase – a couple of new pillows – and I decided to make a trip to the nearby mall this afternoon. I drove right by Goodwill on the way, and there was a parking place out front. I was feeling lucky, so I pulled up and headed in. I have found some really nice things at Goodwill, although it’s hit and miss.

October makes for kind of a weird scene in there, with all the second-hand costumes and decorations. There were well-dressed college types shopping for Halloween, as well as the regulars picking through the sweaters and work clothes. I’m not really a regular but I know my way around the place and within a few minutes I had found a few nice blazers to try on.

The dressing room doors each have a punch-code combination and you have to wait for one of the staff to come and open it unless someone inside holds the door for you on their way out. I was standing and waiting alongside a rather rough-looking middle-aged woman and a young boy of six or seven. The dressing rooms are adjacent to a bunch of the Halloween stuff, so he was looking through that and kept asking the woman to buy things for him. She said she would buy him one of those orange plastic pumpkins that you can take trick-or-treating. He found something else he wanted and the woman said, “Let’s just pick one thing a day instead of a whole bunch of things.”  The boy kept up a polite chatter, pointing out things he liked. The woman, clearly impatient, said, “Don’t ask for anything else here. I’m just getting you that pumpkin. I don’t know what you are going to ask for at the next store.” “I know it’s something you don’t want me to have”, said the boy. “And how do you know that?” “Because I already ask-ed you for it and you said no”. “Then why are you asking me for it again?” The boy was holding the plastic pumpkin and looking around. “Because maybe you will say yes a different time.”

It seemed like an innocent enough conversation but there was an ominous undertone that put me on edge. I felt sorry for this boy. I imagined that he was regularly subjected to the tyranny of the woman’s impatience and borderline hostility. Someone came out of the dressing room and held the door open for the woman. “You go ahead,” she said to me. “I’m waiting for my daughter.” Trying my stuff on just took a few minutes and I came back out just as the daughter came out of the next room. She was the right age to be the boy’s mother, but I wasn’t expecting the multi-color dreadlocks and facial piercings. The door slammed shut behind her. “Why’d you close the door?”, accused her mother. “Now we have to get someone to open it again.” She sent the boy crawling under the door to open it from the inside.

I was standing in the checkout line when the young woman with the dreadlocks came up behind me with her selections. I had been hoping she was shopping for Halloween costumes but she had a long sweater-dress folded over her arm, and a pair of shoes in her hand. “I like your boots”, she said shyly to the cashier. Her mother took the little boy outside to wait in the car.

I felt pulled to help this young woman and her boy, although there was something distasteful about the family dynamic. I finished paying and stepped outside, where I saw the boy and his grandmother heading to their car. I was still thinking about what to do when the young woman came hurrying out of the store and swept right by me, eyes downcast.

I let her go. I felt kind of crummy about it, but told myself the older woman would probably have gotten her hands on the money somehow. Or she would have punished the daughter for having it. Weird to just get a feeling like that.

Once at the mall, I knew exactly what I wanted to do. First, I picked out my pillows (buy 1, get 1 free). Then I went up to the food court. I saw a small man in a uniform sweeping the floor. He was at least 60 and was wearing a cap that said “Mexico”. I said hello and he stopped, standing up straight and looking me in the eye.  “Alberto”, he said, smiling and revealing a broken front tooth. We talked for quite a while and then I told him, in my rusty Spanish, about my project. I gave him the $100 bill and he tucked it in his pocket. “Muchas gracias!” He said he worked very hard but was always coming up short and having to borrow money from his brother. He was grateful but didn’t seem particularly surprised. Maybe where Alberto comes from the idea of a gringa handing out $100 bills is not that strange.

If you look right at the center of the photo, you can see him in the background.

Alberto, in the background

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8 Responses to In the Background

  1. Carole Barkley says:

    It’s interesting how this project makes you pay more attention to what is going on around you.

    So much of the time we avoid the daily dramas of other people, out of distaste or politeness or lack of interest or just plain failure to notice.

  2. Carrie says:

    I haven’t been on here for a couple days, so I had to catch up tonight. I’m really enjoying reading your stories! I wish I could know what kind of stories your recipients tell about the experience! Hope you’ve had a wonderful weekend. It’s been sunny and 70 here in beautiful northern Michigan. 🙂

  3. Melanie says:

    Wow. I really like this idea and your writing style. Maybe try giving to a person you wouldn’t approach or wouldn’t want to give to; like a smoker or a person who doesn’t seem like they need it. It might be interesting to learn about their stories And see that part of humanity. Or maybe that’s just my curiosity, being a psychology major. These gifts definitely break down the walls that are accepted by our society and reveal an amazing amount of things. It’s incredible what you’re doing and it makes me happy to read about it.

  4. Timea says:

    Hello, Jill!!! Your writing is so evocative that the little family you observed at Good Will (my sister’s very good at navigating it!), well, the older woman, made my skin feel tight. I loved the boy’s hopeful comment about perhaps a different answer coming his way one day.
    Keesses and admiration.

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