©2013 980 words
There has never been a time when I didn’t worry about money.
I write that sentence understanding full well that I know nothing of abject poverty. Indeed, pecuniary anxieties, when they’ve come my way, have been the ordinary middle-class variety. Non-life threatening.
In my youth those worries were about supplementing the minimal allowance that my parents were occasionally able to afford—about raising money to pay for a Saturday afternoon movie, a new pair of track and field shoes, things my more affluent schoolmates didn’t give a second thought. Later, as a young man unskilled in money management, my troubles sprang from foolish choices—how to make rent and pay college loans after having spent too much on good times. Later still, after I’d become a husband and father, monetary challenges were more domestic in nature: how to afford sky-high childcare, what to do about a furnace in need of repair.
Now that I’ve entered my so-called golden years (though I think the reference to ‘gold’ in that tired old cliché greatly exaggerated), my partner and I keep ends met without much difficulty, even on fixed incomes. That said, there are still those nights when my sleepless mind gets carried away by worst-case scenarios—all the ‘what ifs’: What if a serious illness strikes? What if an aging parent needs help? What if Social Security turns out to be a ruse?
I reiterate that the cares I’ve enumerated don’t add up to a hill of beans against the unscalable Mount Everest of worldwide poverty. Not when, as I read a few weeks back, 50% of the planet’s 7 billion+ human beings live on less than $2.50 a day.
In a world where such statistics rule my petty economic concerns don’t count for much. I know that I’m privileged.
Even three years ago when my partner and I lost our California home in the great U.S. bursting real estate bubble, we never lived hand-to-mouth; we never worried we’d be on the street. That’s how fortunate we were; how fortunate I’ve always been. Losses happen—a job, a home, savings—my life stumbles on.
Of course, it could be argued that all losses—even those that First World’ers like myself encounter—are relative in the great scheme of things. In fact, lately I’ve been struck by how even a small loss can assume unexpected proportions—relatively speaking.
For example, a few weeks back, I lost some cash. Somewhere between the downtown ATM and my home, the money went missing. I remember looking for it in the usual places—for all of a few minutes. It never occurred to me then that my loss could have—for a full day—made the difference between hunger and satiation for 8 of the planet’s impoverished inhabitants. I didn’t consider that, until last Friday—until I’d experienced a brush with indigence.
Here’s how it went down.
On Fridays I go to the gym at 5:00 a.m. Afterward, my reward (for all that pain and suffering) is a trip to Starbucks. Only last Friday, my routine was interrupted. There on the sidewalk outside my gym I encountered a family, the mother and daughter seated curbside while Dad fed coins into a nearby pay phone. Both bedraggled parents looked to be in their early thirties; their little girl, perhaps six or seven. It was 6:30 a.m. Early for a young family to be on the street.
As I approached, the Dad, pointing at his wristwatch, hailed me. I thought him inquiring after the time. Instead, he asked if I could direct him to the nearest pawn shop. But before I could respond that none of them would be open at this hour, he’d begun relating his family’s situation. He’d just begun a new job, he explained in a breathless, embarrassed rush; however, payday was 3 days away. Meanwhile, he said, his voice breaking, the family hadn’t enough cash to cover their temporary accommodations at a nearby motel. Unless his wristwatch could fetch $20.00 at pawn, they’d be on the street. It took less than half-a-minute for the man to tell the tale.
I remember that at some point during his embarrassed, tearful monologue, I began digging in my pocket for my car keys, thinking—I’ll admit it!—that I had a legitimate ‘out,’ a way to sidestep the awkward encounter. You see, I don’t carry my wallet on gym mornings—only my driver’s license and a Starbucks card. But as I went fishing for my keys that morning, I found something else. I found a twenty-dollar bill in my pocket—right where I’d ‘lost’ it.
There was nothing grand or magnanimous in what happened next. Rather, the act of retrieving the money and handing it over to that bereft father was a reflex, automatic—like discovering something in the Lost and Found and handing it over to its rightful owner. The same as anyone would do.
I don’t rightly recall the father’s response, though I know he called his gratitude after me as I hurried on to my car—something about hope.
I do remember that, sitting in my car in the aftermath, I didn’t feel noble. I didn’t feel proud or generous or righteous. Rather, I felt confused, even ashamed—ashamed that I’d considered sidestepping the situation. But mainly, I felt shaken from my comfort zone.
In retrospect, I know that it’s possible I was scammed, that the man’s tears were part of a carefully rehearsed act. But I don’t know that it matters—not relative to those few shaky moments following the encounter. Not in comparison to the realization that twenty dollars could assume such momentous proportions, that a loss I’d dismissed could determine—if only for a day—whether there was shelter or no, whether humiliation would rule or a shred of human dignity be preserved. Whether hope would be lost or found.
Given the world we live in, I can’t help thinking there is nothing relative or fake about any of that.