I guess we’ve all been considering how we want to be in the coming weeks and months. How we want to conduct ourselves, think of ourselves later. Do we want to be heroes? Some people say that. They’ll shelter Anne Frank’s family, dammit! Screw those Nazis, they won’t hoard toilet paper!
I have no illusions about my own morality or ability to stand up to extraordinary measures. Sure, I’d put the Franks up, if they asked. But if the Nazis came snooping around later, or worse, the Serbs, and grabbed my daughter and threatened her with rape or worse if I didn’t talk? Yep, the Franks are in attic. We’ll just go out for coffee until you’ve dealt with them. No worries, I’ll clean up.
But we probably won’t have to deal with Nazis, or Serbs, in the coming misery. Rather, it’ll be poverty, and shortages and brother-can-you-spare-a-dime. I think, in that case, I want to be generous.
There are two kinds of generous. Foolishly so, and sensibly so. And a third, maybe: Just-because generosity. My boss gives a buck to every bum we pass on the street. It’s kinda comical. He engages them in conversation. He offers them small tasks in exchange for a few dollars more. He once stopped on the way back from lunch last summer to talk to a guy we both knew to be a heroin addict who grew up in Grosse Pointe and now sleeps rough, downtown. My editor was suggesting job opportunities, and the junkie was saying he couldn’t apply because he didn’t have a state ID. My editor said, “I could take you down to the library and show you how to get the documents you need, online.”
“Yeah, but you know? There’s an opportunity cost to that,” the junkie replied. I rolled my eyes so hard I actually may have sprained them, then said I would nip into the coffee shop we were standing in front of, because I could use a double espresso.
When I came out, they were still discussing the economics of giving up an hour or two of panhandling vis-a-vis the chance of getting a paying job later. I separated them – the junkie probably figured time chatting was money lost – and I laughed as we walked the final block back to the office.
“You are the world’s softest touch,” I told him. We agreed there are worse things to be.
You might call that foolish generosity, but as I’ve often told my husband: If I had to sleep on the street, I’d want to be high all the time, too. Giving a buck or two won’t change anyone’s life. But it might make the next hour a little better.
The spot outside my Saturday breakfast spot is popular with bums. They say they’re hungry. I ask what they want to eat, go inside and buy it, taking it out in a go box. “Make sure the wrappers go in the trash,” I say, then go back inside and have my own eggs.
I expect, in the coming days, weeks, months – people will lose their jobs. They’ll need help, need cash, need something I can maybe help them with. I want to do that. I’m not going to give away money to anyone who asks; I have needs, too. But I won’t be a pig about what I have. I’ll share. I’ll overtip. I’ll buy stuff I don’t need if I can afford it, and it helps the seller in some significant way. (Which is to say, bring me your Girl Scout cookies.) I don’t want to be an asshole, crouched in my bunker, thinking only of my own family. Stacking up boxes of ammo, or some other paranoid must-have.
Another friend of mine received this piece of mail at his house today:
It was a campaign mailer. Speaking of generosity.
God, this country. Enjoy Wednesday.