Best I can figure, I’ve given away 76 hundreds since the beginning of 2011. I have some catching up to do if I’m going to make my goal of 100 before the end of the year.
What started as a tribute to my mother (and a way to confront my propensity for cheap-ness) has become much more. It’s still about honoring my past and opening a way to a less constricted future. But the connections with strangers have changed everything. My world feels smaller and more friendly.
Another Sunday and another trip to Fred Meyer. My shopping list was pretty short and I was hoping to get in and out of there pretty quickly. But, with $100 in my pocket, I knew just about anything could happen. Or nothing.
Sometimes I wander around like a person lost in the desert. It was kind of like that today (except for the heavy drizzle). I finished my shopping without being struck by inspiration. I put my bags in the car and walked back to the store. There was a big pumpkin display and a steady stream of parents and kids making their selections.
A woman I know came by and we talked for while. She told me how her husband had called her last week after falling off a ladder. “He asked if he should go to the ER,” she said. “He had a pretty bad cut but wasn’t, like, knocked unconscious or anything. I said, ‘God, no! Don’t go there!’ We have a huge deductible. The ER would wipe us out!”
We bemoaned the state of the US health system and chatted about her business, which is struggling. After we said goodbye, I noticed a man hunkered down on a bench by himself, Starbucks cup in hand. Dressed in sweatpants and a sweatshirt, he had a wool cap pulled down to his eyes and a weekend’s worth of growth on his chin. His hunched-over posture and vaguely unkempt appearance added up to an air of mournfulness.
The man saw me looking at him and gave a little nod. “Hi, how you doing?” I asked. “I’m okay,” he said. “And how are you?” He had pale blue eyes and was looking right at me in an unusually bold way.
“I’m good,” I answered, moving a bit closer to the bench. “You waiting for a ride?” I asked him. “Nope,” he said. “Just sitting. Doing nothing. How about you?” He stuck his hand out. “I’m Duane.”
I told him my name and said I was on a mission. “What kind of mission?” he wanted to know. I was a little surprised at what came out of my mouth: “I’m on a mission to make the world a little smaller.” He snorted. “That’s a strange mission! How are you going to do that?”
“Well,” I said, “By meeting people like you. People I wouldn’t otherwise talk to.” He gave this some thought and nodded with understanding. “That’s pretty interesting. I get what you’re saying.”
I told him about my mom and how I was honoring her memory by paying forward a gift. He said he thought that was a very good thing to do, and that there are sure lots of people around who need help. He wanted to know how my mom had died and agreed that parents can be surprising at times.
“You have kids?” I asked. “No, no I don’t. My things was that I always wanted to travel. I never thought I’d end up here. I’ve gone to a lot of places but I always come back.” He shook his head regretfully, although admitted he loves Portland and that his life is on the upswing. “Last year at this time I was on unemployment. Now I’ve got a good job with benefits. I just joined the union. I’m doing pretty good.”
He started talking about politics and said, “This is really more like the ‘People’s Republic of Portland’.” I got a bit queasy and considered walking away. I decided to challenge him. “What does that mean? I’ve seen bumper stickers that say that, but what does it mean?” He said he doesn’t like how our elected officials make all the decisions for us. And the schools are a mess.
“Okay,” I offered. “Who do you blame for the crummy economy?” I held my breath while he thought for a moment. “The banks, I guess. And Wall Street. And the big corporations. I mean, if a huge corporation is paying the same amount in taxes that I am, something’s wrong!” I said I agreed with him there.
“So, I’d be honored if you’d accept my gift,” I said. He shook his head slowly. “I don’t think I can do it,” he decided. “I don’t even know what it is and I just don’t feel like I’m up to the challenge. So I’m going to say no.”
Again, I almost walked away. But I changed my mind. I told him I thought he could get up to the challenge, and that in fact I had no doubt of it. I put the hundred in his hand.
“Hmmm,” he said. “In…ter…es…ting. Now I have to figure out how to use this to help someone else. Very interesting.”
Duane didn’t want his face photographed, but he let me take this one:
He shook my hand goodbye and fixed me with one long last look. I drove past the bench on my way out of the parking lot. He was gone.
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