Aftermath of the snowpocalypse

It snowed! Well, it dusted. All week long, the possibility of snow was making headline news. Then it became a certainty and that was breaking headline news. Names for the upcoming event were flying: Snowpocalypse! Snowmaggedon! By morning today it was obvious that we had dodged a snowy bullet, most areas getting less than an inch. More like the Big Flakeout. Still, schools were closed and the news continued to run a steady series of images showing how bad it might have been.

One thing they seem to have gotten right, though, and that’s the frigid temperatures. Record-breaking cold temperatures, down into the teens, are predicted for the next couple of nights. Whenever it gets very cold, there’s a lot of talk about the danger to people living on the streets. Emergency warming shelters open in churches and other facilities, and numerous twitter feeds announce their locations and capacity.

I can’t imagine not being able to get inside to get warm. I hate being cold and am pretty much of a wuss about it. For that matter, I hate being hot, too. I guess I’m just kind of a wuss. I like to think I would toughen up if needed, but I don’t think I’d last long on the street.

So, as I set out on my way today I was thinking about all this and how maybe I could offer some help to someone who was out in the cold. One of my errands took me down Broadway near Goodwill. I spotted a dark bundle at the corner and, once out of the car, saw that it was Carrie, whom I had met in November. She was sitting on an overturned bucket, shivering. She looked exhausted. It was starting to snow.

I went over to say hello and she looked at me rather blankly. “You’re Carrie, right?” I asked her. She nodded. “How are you doing?” “I’m cold,” she said. It’s freezing out here. I can’t feel my toes.”

"I can't feel my toes."

Her sign said she could get a room at the Joyce Hotel for $18. I asked if she had enough money to get a room for the next couple of nights and she shook her head. “Not even close. I have about three dollars. It’s really hard right now.”

The C-note was weighing heavy in my pocket. By some unwritten rule, I’ve never given a gift to the same person twice. I actually turned down a request (via email) by one of my recipients for additional assistance, although I pondered both sides of that one for days. And, I felt just the tiniest bit hurt that Carrie didn’t seem to recognize me. I wanted to do something, so decided to get change for the hundred and give her a twenty.

I went into Goodwill and asked if they could give me change. “No, sorry, I can’t just open my register,” explained the cashier. I looked around for something really cheap to buy. Maybe I’d get Carrie some decent gloves; hers had holes in them that her fingers were poking through. I looked at the books and was surprised to see that they were, like, five or six dollars for a used paperback.

A couple of people were lined up to pay. “Once your register is open, can you give me change?” I asked. “Yes, I can,” she replied. As I was standing in the line I was watching Carrie through the window. She had gotten up and was standing right next to the building. A well-dressed woman came up to her, then started burrowing through a shopping bag. She pulled out a big cardboard container of food and held it out. As if in slow motion, I saw Carrie open the box, steam rising from the large portion of food inside. She smiled at the woman and they exchanged a few words. Then Carrie crouched down and started to eat.

I was still inside, waiting for my change. I felt really petty. And cheap. Here I had set out to bring a little warmth to someone who needed it, and there was someone right in front of me whose toes were frozen. How arrogant and self-centered to think that she would (should) remember me after months of deprivation and hardship I couldn’t even fathom.

Finally the cashier had the register open and I handed her the bill. “Oh,” she said. “I don’t know if I can do that.” She had to call a supervisor over to make sure the bill wasn’t counterfeit. Then she rifled through and under her cash drawer and finally gave me a fifty, two twenties, a five and five ones.

Back outside, it was snowing hard and miserably cold. Carrie was shivering on the bucket. We made a little small talk then I handed her all the money. “It’s enough for a room. Please get out of the cold.” She looked down at it and saw the fifty. Then she looked at me. “I remember you,” she said slowly. “In all the time I’ve been on the street, no one else has ever done that for me.”

The whole thing made me incredibly sad. I hate that there are problems too big to fix, like poverty and homelessness. I can’t bear that lives like Carrie’s are being wasted. I still struggle mightily with what it means to be human and how to make the world a little bit better. And I don’t like the parts of myself that are small-minded and self-absorbed.

The snow has let up and our furnace has been running nonstop, a sure sign that the temperature outside is dropping.

Looks like snow

 

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24 Responses to Freezing in Portland

  1. Joseph says:

    Wonderful piece Jill. For a second I thought you were going to give $80 to the person who gave Carrie the food, and $20 to Carrie. As a reader, you led me to believe this was a predicable post; however, it turned out not.

    “and numerous twitter feeds announce their locations and capacity”

    I must say, people who are living out in the cold probably don’t have access to Twiiter. Just sayin’

    • Jill Ginsberg says:

      Joseph- Thank you for reading and for the comment! Frankly, it never occurred to me that people on the street would have access to Twitter. That was more an observation about the irony of our advanced technology (Twitter and such) in contrast with our ability to provide for our community’s basic needs. Thanks again; keep reading! Jill

  2. Angie says:

    Great post, Jill.Thanks for the much needed reminder of how lucky I am to be warm and safe and dry during this cold weather.

    This post made me cry. It breaks my heart also at moments that there are problems that are too big to fix. How can we fix that? One person at a time, I guess.

    Keep giving, writing and being an inspiration. Stay warm, lady!!!

  3. Pru McDonald says:

    I think the hardest thing to accept is that we simply
    cannot FIX everything. People need fixing. The world
    needs fixing, but the only situation we can come close to fixing is the one right in front of us. And it’s probably just a bandaid for a wound that goes too deep to fix. I can’t fix my son who has MS. I can’t fix the other, abusive son. I can do nothing for the world at large. I can only smile, and love, and cheer the person in front of me, NOW.
    Even your generous C-notes can’t begin to fix it all for everyone, but at least you make a really
    tremendous effort! Blessings to you, Jill.

  4. Berta says:

    On my way home on the MAX once, after seeing the needy people downtown, I sat next to a social worker. She told me “you will never get them off the streets by giving them money and food. If they want off the streets, there are ways they can get there, agencies who will help them.” What do think of this viewpoint?

  5. Jill Ginsberg says:

    Hi Berta- Thank you for reading and for this excellent question. I think there is truth to this point of view, and I am a big believer in the power of grassroots and other agencies to make changes for the better. I also think there is a limit to this power. Many of the people I have given money to were very much in need but would never have benefitted from any of the charitable donations I have made to local organizations. They are just scraping by, barely. For me right now, there is something very meaningful about making that connection one-on-one and letting people know that, even though I am a stranger, I care about their struggles. I know the $100 won’t permanently change anyone’s situation, but I hope that the open-handed caring that comes with it will make a lasting impact in some positive way. It’s certainly not for everyone and I continue to support a number of non-profit organizations. I’m interested to hear what you think; please let me know. Jill

  6. Pru McDonald says:

    Re: your conversation with Berta. I feel there is a place for BOTH of you in this world. As you said,
    agencies are limited in what they can accomplish, but the incredible experience of having someone hand you a C-note, just out of love and generosity, must be a HUGELY dynamic one, with far-reaching effects in that lucky person’s life. Just to know that someone cared enough to reach out to you, who sensed your deep need, and responded to it must certainly be a life-changing experience that will
    affect them and their world forever!

    It would be nice to be able to somehow see those
    ripples in their “life ponds”, as they move forward in their lives.

    Again, Jill, you are giving a GREAT gift, beyond
    description, to others. And to yourself!
    Love, Pru

    • Betsy says:

      Well, and it is possible that the act of giving won’t make that kind of impact. It is a real test of generosity to give while knowing that the recipient might neither remember you nor be affected by the gift in any way greater than the value of the hundred dollars.

      I am thinking that is the kind of change Jill was hoping for, for herself.

      An awful lot of people have become hardened to their plight and it might be far too much to be able to absorb the emotional aspects of the gift.

  7. Steph says:

    Jill,

    Since having the experience of trying to break a hundred dollar bill, have you considered gifting smaller bills?

  8. Jill Ginsberg says:

    Hi Steph- Thank you for commenting! This is something I have thought about and I actually planned initially to use smaller bills (like in “Choosing” on Oct 1, the first day of my month of hundreds). I have come to believe that the impact made by the $100 bill outweighs the potential inconvenience. No one has asked me for smaller bills or voiced concern over being able to break the bill. I know there is a chance it will be hard, especially for people living on the street. I’ve also been concerned about giving the large bill to young people; that somehow their parents might not believe the crazy story that a woman gave it to them. I try to give people a card that has the blog URL so they can see that it is legit. Would love to hear your thoughts and perspective. Jill

  9. Berta says:

    Carrie’s pretty name, and face, are in my mind. In the night I prayed for her. She’s young. She looks bright. Where’s her mama? Her daddy? Brothers? Sisters? Aunts or uncles? Grandma or grandpa? Her future! There have to be people, answers.

  10. Steph says:

    Jill,
    I understand the impact factor of giving a $100 bill, but I still think the convenience of having currency that can be spent anywhere/anytime without question or scrutiny is very important.
    I know there is no way I can completely imagine what it takes to live without a home, but I have been giving it a lot of thought lately. So much has already happened to get to that point–I would like to make life a little easier by giving a gift that can be used right away.

  11. Ginny says:

    After reading this I am thankful for having a warm home and enough food to eat. We sometime forget what we have and want more that we don’t need. You remind us that we have so much to be thankful for. Thank you!

  12. Emma says:

    Jill, this post makes me want to cry. It’s great that you are able to help these people out. I loved the line “She was sitting on an overturned bucket, shivering. She looked exhausted. It was starting to snow.” That’s really what made me want to cry. Your story is truly inspiring.

  13. Berta says:

    Carrie stays in my thoughts. I went back and read your first post on her–and requested the book you mentioned there at our Cedar Mill Library.

  14. Jill Ginsberg says:

    That book made a big impression on me. Let me know what you think.

  15. Dave B. says:

    This may sound terrible, but…

    Please be careful when giving money to street people. A large percentage (2/3rds by most studies) have a major drug and/or alcohol addition. A $100 windfall would put some into a coffin as, often, what limits their consumption is their resources. It is possible to kill people with kindness.

    For those that wish to help, I highly recommend donating to the organizations that try to help street people (Salvation Army, step13.org, etc.). You get a much bigger bang for your buck by going this route.

    FWIW, my wife volunteers at a drug & rehabilition facility and I occasionally help a homeless shelter.

  16. Jillian Lowery says:

    Jill,
    I just started reading your blog in my creative writing class. That’s so incredible that someone would just hand out money like that, too complete strangers. I love all the pictures you have of the people you helped. I really liked the fact that you still gave Carrie money even though you already did before. A big deed of kindness no one else would dare to do. Except for you.

  17. Maddie says:

    I love this story! Jill you are doing an amazing thing each day when you give a stranger a 100 dollar bill. You are awesome!

  18. John says:

    As I have been homeless in Portland, OR for 2 yrs before moving on in the bad recession, I know what its like to sleep on the streets without an addiction, but jobless. To sleep on a sidewalk WITHOUT cardboard can kill you in your sleep, as the cold cement bites you cold at the bone. Portland is the only city in America where you CANNOT go hungry. Now trying to find a bathroom to use is a different story though.

    I commend you on your giving of a $100 to a person in need of help, especially thankful in a snowstorm!! I also agree with Dave as $100 is a lot of money for a homeless person who has possible addictions and/or health problems. I have seen a man die on his birthday, on his men’s shelter bed, from bed to floor, for too much alcohol.

    I would have done things differently if I had a $100 bucks to give. I would have bought a large fits all full-set thermal underwear & thermal socks for her to wear from Goodwill. Then I’d walk 4 small blocks with her down to Joyce motel on Alder St., put her up for 3 nights under her name, and hand her $25 bucks cash.
    Tell her to be wise on the 4th day with her $25 and thermal underwear.
    Pay it forward the same kindness to someone else she does know who does not live on the streets in the very near future..

    • Jill Ginsberg says:

      Thank you; I appreciate your perspective and comment. I haven’t seen Carrie in her spot outside the NE Broadway Goodwill for the past couple of weeks. Whenever I go by, I think of her and pray for her safety.

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