A few weeks ago, my friend—let’s call her Nell—said she felt guilty about throwing away donation plea letters that arrived in December. Throughout the year, she was generous to charities, but during the Christmas season her money was spent on gifts for family and friends. Still, she wished she could answer all the pleas.
She remembered a quote attributed to Jon Carroll. He allegedly said that if you want to give away money, go to the bank, take out as much cash as you can afford, and distribute it to people on the street.
This appealed to Nell. Nearly every day, she saw homeless people and others in need. But she never paid much attention as she whizzed by in her car or, when walking, crossed the street to avoid them. She thought about her “Fiver Envelope.” Whenever she receives a five-dollar bill as change in a transaction, she saves it. After gathering a bunch, she uses them to treat herself to a massage or some other luxury. She decided to take the $100 she’d accumulated and give it away.
The prospect of approaching complete strangers scared her. She formulated a couple of rules: she would only interact with solitary people, no one in a group; and she would not interfere with those who looked mentally unbalanced.
She found her first person one early cold morning at the post office. A dented maroon car stuffed with clothing pulled into a parking space, the back bumper tied with a rope on top. A weary woman with thick black curly hair struggled to get from the vehicle and up the post office steps.
Nell pulled a five from her wallet and folded it in half. When the woman entered the building, Nell asked, “May I give you something?”
The woman looked wary.
Nell held out the money.
The woman looked confused and asked, “Why?”
“Because it’s Christmas.”
The woman took the money. “That’s it? For no other reason?”
Nell said, “Yes,” and wished her a Merry Christmas.
“Thank you so much.”
Nell felt happy, very happy.
The second was a young wispy woman wrapped in layers of clothing to stave off the cold rain. She was walking with a black pit bull that wore a padded doggie jacket. Nell pulled to the curb and got out of her car. “May I give you something?”
Again a wary look.
Nell held out a five.
The woman grinned, yet looked close to tears. “I’m so glad I turned around and started walking this way. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have met you.” She gave Nell a hug.
The next day, Nell was walking to her car in the Purity parking lot. She noticed a heavy-set woman putting her baby in a car seat in the front of a yellow dented pickup.
As Nell held out her offering, the woman backed slightly away and adjusted her glasses. “I shouldn’t take it.”
Nell reached her hand out further. “Please, I want to give it to you.”
“Thank you. I really do need gas money.” She invited Nell to the live nativity scene produced by one of the local churches on Christmas Eve. She said her baby would play the role of Jesus. She blessed Nell as she walked away.
A few days later, Nell saw a middle-aged blonde woman fishing through a public trash can. When she gave her five dollars, the woman beamed. “Thank you. It’s my birthday.”
Nell’s heart soared. “Happy birthday, my dear!”
Every time Nell gave away money, she felt immense joy. She was as grateful for the offering as the recipients were to receive. Most interactions were less than a minute, but during that time she was able to look a person in the eyes, touch his or her hand and, in a few instances, receive a hug. In those moments, she felt something she had never allowed herself to internalize—these are human beings just like her. They have feelings, fears, hopes, and dreams. Yet their daily lives are immeasurably more difficult than hers.
She felt compassion.
Her last five was given to someone she sees frequently—a tall, lean man who sports a camo jacket and walks a dog with a matching bridle coat. He’s a loner, who appears to avoid others. It was shortly after the New Year and raining. She spotted him on the sidewalk. He was walking so fast that she pulled over a block ahead. She got out of the car with trepidation. He’d always seemed stoic and she wasn’t sure how he’d react to her approach.
“Hi,” she said.
He returned the greeting with a slight twinkle in his eyes.
“May I give you something?” She held out the folded bill.
“Are you serious?” he asked.
“Yes, please, I want to give it to you.”
He grinned. “Thank you.”
She had never been close to him. She looked at his face—really looked at it—and saw a kind man in his forties with well-sculpted features and dark brown eyes who somewhere along the line learned to keep to himself. She reached down and petted his dog, grateful that he had a companion.
“Happy New Year.” As the words left her mouth, she regretted them. They sounded hollow and trite.
“Happy New Year to you,” he said, leaving her with the gift of his smile.