The American Dilemma and How We Can Fix It


If you’re old enough you may remember some of the “light bulb” jokes.  I think there is some underground cadre of joke writers who hit on a topic and suddenly, as though through spontaneous generation, jokes on that subject proliferate quickly.

One of the light bulb jokes that I liked most asked the question, “How many psychiatrists does it take to change a light bulb?”  The answer, “Only one – but the light bulb has to really want to change.”

When I first began trading stocks from an office at the Chicago Board of Options Exchange, as I previously mentioned, I did very poorly.  A year and a half later (and many thousands of my own dollars down the drain) I finally turned the corner.  It was as though a signal beam had gone off and a group of seven homeless people suddenly picked up on my incipient success.  (It would be many months before I made back the money I had lost – but I was headed in the right direction).

Each of these men was black and each of them had an interesting “street name” – as though they were characters out of “Porgy and Bess”.  There was “Wee Willie” who was very diminutive in stature; “Sammy Snake Eyes” – who I gathered had gotten into his present situation because of his love of shooting craps; “Absolute Al” – who was an authority on any and everything; “Jivin’ Jerry” – I never understood how he got his name; but most of all I remember “Walter Two-Bits”.

I remember how my father would never refuse to give some money to a street person who asked for a handout.  So, despite the fact that things were still tight financially, I would always make sure that I had a couple dollars in quarters in my pocket when I left for the day.  The group appreciated this little contribution which brought them a bit closer to making a purchase at Cal’s Liquor and Package Goods Store which was only about a block away.

Meeting these guys on the way to get my car became a daily ritual.  And as I started to do well on a consistent basis the quarters turned into dollars.  It was as though I were a rock star and these men were my groupies.  Most of my fellow traders thought I was just “getting milked” and commented, “They’re only going to buy booze with your money.”  I replied, “Once I give them their dollar, it’s theirs to do with as they choose.”

It was a beautiful spring day and outside my office building there were all sorts of brilliant flowers that had been planted inside the marble areas where people used to sit and unwind from the day or perhaps eat their lunch.  By this time I had made an arrangement with each of my guys – rather than handing them a dollar a day, we agreed that I would give them five dollars each Monday and that would be it for the week.

Several of them, but “Wee Willie” in particular, tried to hustle me for an extra dollar here or there with stories about how it was his grandmother’s birthday (the third one in only a month) and all sorts of fabrications that would have made Corporal Klinger of M*A*S*H fame envious in his effort to try to get a Section 8 out of the Army.  I stood firm with our arrangement.

So on this lovely spring day I sat down for a moment to recap that day’s events – and as it was Monday I had my small wad of five dollar bills ready.  All of the men came over and the last one in line was “Walter Two-Bits”.  He was by far the youngest of the group as he seemed to be either in his late twenties or perhaps early thirties – all the rest being well over fifty years of age.

He sat down next to me and I gave him his five dollar bill – thinking that would be the end of my seeing him for another week.  But he decided that he wanted to talk.  So we sat there for about a half hour and he told me his story and asked for advice.

Walter was obviously a very bright young man – but he had made a mistake.  He had a job with a major company in Chicago, working in their accounts payable department when he realized that the company had very poor internal controls about how they paid their vendors.  He decided to try an experiment.

He prepared a voucher payable to himself in the amount of seventy-five dollars – and sure enough the check was printed.  He tried this twice more with slightly larger amounts and those two checks were also issued.  But he was afraid to cash these three checks which he had generated over a several month time period.  The total of them came to less than four hundred dollars.

The company’s internal audit department happened to be conducting a review at the time and found these three checks to be outstanding and started investigating who was the payee and what services had he provided.  In that process they discovered that Walter was one of their employees.  He was fired and the company decided to prosecute him for theft – even though he had never cashed the checks.

I remember a bit of wisdom that grandma imparted to me as a child, “A thief and a liar are both cut from the same cloth,” so I certainly didn’t condone Walter’s actions.  But on the other hand, considering the fact that he had not actually stolen anything, I thought that in his case, the “justice” which he received  – four months in Cook County Jail – was overly punitive.

After that conviction, it was difficult for Walter to find a new position and so he had joined the ranks of the homeless and lived on the street.  His former girlfriend had found another beau and Walter had pretty much given up on himself.  So we talked that day, and a few days later and almost every day after that for two weeks.

I encouraged him not to give up on himself.  Sure he had made a mistake – we all do – only some of us don’t get caught as he had.  But I told him that he was too bright to give up on life and accept his new style of living.  I asked him if he wanted to be on the street for the next thirty years.  That statement apparently struck a chord with him.

Well, my group of guys continued to meet me every Monday.  And Walter was among them.  Each Monday I would remind him of our conversation and ask him if he had made any decision about wanting to live the rest of his life on the street.

Walter told me that he had applied to The Salvation Army which had a rehabilitation center and a training program – and he was waiting to hear if he had been accepted.  I was delighted that he had taken that step and told him that I would gladly provide a reference for him if he felt that would help.

Two Mondays later my group, without Walter, assembled as usual.  I asked “Sammy Snake Eyes” where Walter was.  He said that he had started the program at The Salvation Army and had gotten a room in their dorm while he completed the four month program.   I was delighted – and said, “See, if Walter can do it why can’t you guys?”  But the rest of the group just took their five dollars and headed over to Cal’s.

I kept asking the group each week if they had heard anything about how Walter was doing.  But apparently he had dropped out of sight.  It was a Monday, about a year later when I next saw Walter.  He had completed the program and had gotten a job and already received one promotion.  I scarcely recognized him as he was nicely dressed, sporting a shirt and tie and a nice pair of trousers.

He had asked to leave work early that Monday because he wanted to show me how the program had changed his life and to thank me for my encouragement.  He was sharing an apartment with two other guys from the program and was saving up money so that he could get a place of his own.  He truly was a different man than the one I had met a little more than a year earlier.

Light bulbs and people can change – but they really have to want to.  Walter (no longer “Two Bits”)  demonstrates that fact..


Comments on: "WALTER “TWO-BITS”" (18)

  1. Nice!! Love this.

  2. My Pop-Pop was the same way, never refusing a little cash to a fellow who was down on his luck. I’m glad you’ve taken after your Dad; I’m trying to teach our kids that such small acts of kindness are how lives are built, sometimes. Please don’t be offended that I shared this on my Facebook page, but I know quite a few people who would benefit from reading the story of Walter and his compatriots.

    • Charity – whether it is well or ill received is never mis-directed. I’m glad you enjoyed this story about Walter and his companions. I take your sharing this on Facebook as a compliment, and hope that at least one person takes the message to heart.

  3. A very neat story. Thank you.

  4. Whether to give or not to give to people on the streets is a very difficult decision. I’ve spent 30 years living and working in Asia. The gap between rich and poor is more pronounced there than it is in the so called West. There are people who have talent but just can’t be bothered bettering themselves, and there are genuine cases that need our kind attention. I’ve seen people who are locked in a social system that is almost impossible to rise from, but they claw their way up and end up with a PhD. They have determination and look on difficulties as opportunities. The latter are a group I like to invest in, and if I’m convinced that people are in genuine need I like to help them too. However I will always make someone asking for money do something so they feel they are not getting a handout but are earning what you give them. There is a negative feeling one gets as they receive a handout, and there is a good feeling about oneself when the money is earned.

    • As I mentioned in an earlier post I spent a week on the streets as part of a “sensitivity training” exercise. I remember how embarassed I was when I asked a passerby for some change. I have tried since then never to be judgmental about the recipient who asks for something from me. I don’t consider it my place to judge their situation or to make moral decisions for them which are rightly only theirs. Perhaps we should all work toward a better world where those who are in need don’t need to beg for their paltry subsistance. I think you and I would both find that a kinder planet.

      • I totally agree with you, but there are some people who are content to wallow in their situation and have no interest at all in bettering themselves even if opportunities are given them. I’m not sure how you would deal with those situations. Governments have tried different approaches to the problem but so far none of them have come up with a way to help those who don’t want to be helped.

      • You are obviously correct, Ian. The old saying, “You can lead a horse to water but can’t make him drink” comes to mind.

        That we have a societal obligation to help those who are genetically disadvantaged (as in the case of my Downs Syndrome student, Amy) is clear to me. For those who are simply too lazy to better themselves yet have the ability to do so is a different matter. I realized that with my group of street people, most of them would never accept the challenge to be better than the way they saw themselves. But Walter did. And if I had to do it all again, I would willingly give all of them the few dollars they received – hoping that there was another Walter in their midst.

      • Reminds me of a lady doctor we knew in India. She sponsored many students at the college I taught in for a while. Many took advantage of her. Her philosophy was that if she could bring up in life two out of ten who later made a special contribution in society her investment was not in vain.

  5. One never knows when their words or actions will make a difference in someone else’s life.

  6. I really love how you never write anyone off, no matter what transgression they’ve committed. This is a theme I see throughout your stories – that penchant toward acceptance, understanding, and unconditional support – like in the way you responded to the guy who thought you were just being bilked – you said, “Once I give them their dollar, it’s theirs to do with as they choose.” I think this is hard for some people to do; they want to give but also control the gift. There are a lot of good lessons in this story…

    • Thanks SB. I think the most important part of this story is that Walter proved that he could be a better person than he had come to believe. All he needed was a little encouragement. As to making a gift – whether it is of time or money – I believe that the gift is of itself a gift to me as well as the other person. Whether they receive it well or not doesn’t matter. I have reaped the same reward. I don’t want to control their lives. I have enough to manage with my own.

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