Thursday, May 1, 2008

Acts of kindness

My father has always been a generous person -- at least with those whom he knows. He figures that if you need something and he can afford to help you, then he should. If you are having a fundraiser for a non-profit and he likes your program, he'll write a check.

My mother can seem a bit stingy at times. But she always has had time to volunteer for non-profits. And then there was that time when I was in high school.

One night on her way home from work, she noticed a disabled car on the side of the road. Stranded were a woman and her small child. My mother was concerned about the safety of the child. And so since they were near the exit to go to her house, she pulled over and picked them up. As the three walked in the house, my mother explained about the mother and child. She drove them to the house so that they could use the phones -- no cellphones back then -- to call for road service.

Later in high school, I found out that one of my friend's had a highly abusive dad. I shared the story with my mother. My mother, who grew up with an abusive dad, told me to go to school the next day and to tell my friend that she always had a place to stay if she ever needed to get away.

My mother's supervisor lost her house in the Oakland hills firestorm back in the early 90s. She thought about how it must feel to lose everything. And then we went to the kitchen. For years my mother had been "collecting" dishes. (This would be in her extreme shopaholic phase.) Together we selected a set of dishes to give to her friend.

In college, I had a roommate from Malibu. She told me the tale of seeing Martin Sheen in the grocery store one day. In line in front of him were some migrant workers. He told them that he would pay for their food -- but not the alcohol or tobacco.

This roommate had a friend whose mother had come to California in the 60s to find herself. Her mother ended up in Berkeley. Every day, back then, her mother would cook up huge pots of rice and beans and head to the streets to feed whoever was hungry.

I guess to me these things seem like perfectly natural things to do. And so sometimes I do things, like paying for a guy's food at Safeway, without even thinking about it. It's just the kind of person my parents taught me to be. (And yeah, I know that sometimes it is completely irrational to hold others to the same standards that I try to which I try to hold myself and then to get mad when they don't meet my expectations.)

Before going into teaching, I worked for a non-profit in the Union Square area of San Francisco. The panhandlers at the Powell Street BART station? I knew all of the regulars by name. I have never been one for giving out money to panhandlers. But I will give them a smile. And sit and talk to them. And if they tell me what things they need, I will get the items for them.

Only one of the regulars was a woman. One cold winter morning (The nights had been running in the 30s.), I noticed that she kept putting her hands in her armpits to keep them warm. I asked her about gloves. She had had some but someone had stolen them. I explained to her that I frequently received gloves as Christmas gifts and had tons of new ones at home. She almost had tears in her eyes the next morning when I showed up with a new pair of mittens.

Another panhandler had a wife who worked. But they were in San Francisco with only one income. So they lived in an SRO. With their newborn daughter. Their cooking facilities consisted of an "illegal" microwave. Some evenings I would be at the station late enough to see the wife coming home from work. (I still have the photo she gave me of their daughter on one of those evenings.) We talked about AFDC. Apparently one can get WIC coupons for milk and juice but not for diapers. And diapers are damn expensive. So she would tell me what size they needed and on the days I actually drove into San Francisco, I would bring them diapers that I had picked up at Target. For much less than the corner store had been charging them.

When I left the non-profit to go into teaching, I let my peeps at the BART station know that they wouldn't be seeing me around. They wanted to take me out for a farewell dinner. I told them that I appreciated the thought but I couldn't let them spend their money on me.

The school at which I worked my first year teaching had a food drive for Thanksgiving. One of my students said that her father had told her that homeless people were bums. I told my students -- sixth-graders -- about the people I had gotten to know at the BART station. I explained how many had told me tales of being laid off. I then told my students that many people in the United States are only two to three paychecks away from being homeless.

I moved to Berkeley three years ago because it has always felt like home to me. Well, it really was. When I was born, my family did live in Berkeley. We only left when I was two because of my dad's job. My mother said that I have always been the kind of person who fits in perfectly in Berkeley. I can't disagree.

I have walked out of restaurants with my doggie bag to be confronted by a hungry homeless person. At those times, I was full so I found no problem in handing over the doggie bag.

Years before the Safeway incident, a homeless person asked me for money one evening while I was leaving my fave bar. I asked if he was hungry. When he said "yes," I explained that I would not give him money but that I would walk with him to somewhere to get food. He could pick out whatever he wanted and I would pay for it. He took me up on my offer. Of course, the boy I had met in the bar insisted upon tagging along. I think he felt a need to protect me. Because sometimes I'm just fearless. So the boy and I stood around in the quickie mart/deli that is around the corner from the deli while the guy picked out food. And when I pulled out money to pay for the guy's stuff, the boy insisted that I put my money away. The boy paid for the guy's stuff instead. Maybe he was trying to impress me. Who knows.

And so yes, I am perfectly serious when I say that if you find yourself in the neighborhood and in need of a meal, just drop by. My mother, the Southerner, has told me numerous times that you must always have food and drink on hand. Because you never know who is going to drop by. And it would be just rude not to offer them something to eat or to drink.

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