The American Dilemma and How We Can Fix It

Archive for the ‘charity’ Category


Once again Gracie and I get to enjoy the company of the three goldens – this time for two weeks.  I picked them up on Sunday evening.  Their companion person, Barry has gone out of town, attending a family reunion and spending some time with his brother and his family.

Barry asked if I would be able to drop him off at the airport this morning and that worked out fine with my schedule.  We agreed on a time and as I set out for his house a little early I decided to stop to get some gasoline.

As I was filling the tank my phone rang.  It was Barry.  He was running late and asked me to give him an extra twenty to thirty minutes.  At that point I was only about ten minutes away.  So I decided to stop at Pet Smart which was on the way and pick up some additional treats for all four of the puppies.

I know the store quite well so I went directly to the treats aisle and got in line with my two items.  A lady whom I thought might be a few years older than I was returning some canned cat food which apparently her cat didn’t like and had substituted different cans of cat food in their place.  Because all of the 10 cans were different flavors, the return for each one had to be rung up separately.

(If you ever want to kill an extra fifteen minutes, follow me to the check out line.  I guarantee you that someone ahead of us will have a complicated problem).

As I was waiting to pay for my purchases, a man in a motorized wheelchair came into the store with his service dog.  She appeared to me to be a Labrador mixture and was wearing boots on all four paws to protect her from the heat of the concrete pavement.  The man appeared to be in his mid to late thirties and had lost his right arm above the elbow.

He powered his chair and his dog to the other cashier’s station and when she looked at him he asked, “Could you please tell me how much it would cost to give my dog a bath?”  The cashier who must be new since I am in the store frequently and didn’t recognize her said, “You have to ask the people in grooming,” and she pointed to the window just behind the checkout lines where the grooming department operated.  The man thanked her and started for the door that opened into the world of dog bathing and clipping.

I realized that with only his left hand which he used to operate his chair, he was going to have some difficulty opening the door and navigating both himself and his dog through it.  So I stepped out of line and offered to hold the door for him which he appreciated.

When I got back to my place a few seconds later, I noticed that the cashier who had directed him to the grooming department was going on break because she had turned off her light and was leaving her register.

The lady ahead of me still had a few cans to get refunded.   She turned to me and said, “That was very nice of you to help that man.  People don’t seem to be very thoughtful of others anymore.”  I thanked her and just said, “It’s really nothing special.  It’s just the way that I was raised.”

But I went on and said, “You know both my parents were in businesses where providing excellent customer service was important– and that is how I spent most of my working life as well.”

“If I were the cashier whom the man asked for help, seeing his condition and realizing that there were several groomers who were available to assist him, I would have picked up the telephone by my register and asked one of them to come out to help him, rather than make him navigate through a narrow doorway in  a wheelchair.”

I said that for two reasons.  First, that is what I would have done if I were that cashier.  Second, I hoped that my cashier would pick up on the idea should a similar situation ever occur to her – or perhaps she might mention the comment to her co-worker.

The lady completed her transaction and I mine and I headed over to Barry’s.  Traffic was light and despite our delay in starting out he had more than enough time to catch his plane.

When I got home, Gracie and the three goldens were, as is inevitably the case, at the door to greet me.  You would have thought that I had left them for two weeks rather than little more than an hour.  Barking and jumping and tail-wagging and face-licking were the order of the moment.  And I thought about the lady’s comment at the store.  “People don’t seem to be very thoughtful of others anymore.”  Sadly, I have to agree with her.

I guess that’s why I’ve always surrounded myself with those who truly are my best friends – my dogs.  We could learn a lot about the way we should treat each other from the way that they treat us.


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..


When I was ten I memorized St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, 13th chapter (in the King James translation).  I am not sure what it was that drew me to this particular passage other than the fact that I happened on it and thought it was beautiful.  I read it so often that the memorization was more of an accident than something I had intended.  The 13th and final verse, “And now abideth faith, hope and charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity.”

We are now in the season of bell ringing and red collection pots sitting at the entrances of grocery and department stores.  Although the Salvation Army does many wonderful things, I have a few issues with some of their interpretation of the Christian message.  As a result I do not contribute my spare change or dollars as I walk in and out to do my shopping.  (In saying this, I do not mean to discourage any of you – if you feel that is the way you want to extend yourself in charitable activity).

I prefer to do my giving in a more interpersonal way – to someone I see in need.  And in today’s economy their numbers are legion.

This September I was driving a friend to run some errands for both of us.  We came to an intersection and a tall, emaciated-looking African-American man whom I thought to be in his 50’s approached the car – obviously looking for a hand out.  He had a crutch under his right arm – on his right foot he wore a shabby athletic shoe.  His left foot was bare and dirty from his dragging it along the street.

As he approached my window, I reached in my pocket and pulled out a $5 bill.  He came over and said, “Can you help me?”  I gave him the bill.  He thanked me profusely, said his name was Joshua and asked me to pray for him.  I told him that I would.  He made his way back to the curb as the light changed and the traffic began to flow down the street.

As we drove, my friend looked at me and said, “Boy oh boy – you are a real sucker.  I can’t believe you gave that con artist bum five dollars.”

The insensitivity of that statement (both to Joshua and to me) really stunned me.  So I tried to reason with my friend using some plain old common sense syllogistic logic.

I said, “Can we begin by saying that one of two things is true?  Either he is a person in legitimate need – or he is, as you say – a con artist.”  My friend agreed with that beginning premise.

“Okay.  Let’s say he is truly needy.  Then my giving him the money has to improve his situation.  I am not going to question what he is going to do with it – whether he spends it on food or booze is not my concern.  But if he truly needs the money then he is a little better off having interacted with me.  Would you agree?”  My friend agreed with that.

“The alternative is that you are right and he is indeed a con artist bum.  Well, let me set up a situation where the con is working very well.  In fact, Joshua is so good that he is able to find fifty people like me each of whom gives him five dollars every day that he does his con.  And he is diligent about his business – he works every day of the year.  By my quick math, that brings him in almost two hundred thousand dollars a year.  So here’s my question.”

“If you knew that by walking with a crutch, wearing an old athletic shoe and dragging around a bare foot you could earn $200,000 a year – would you do it?”

My friend who is quite well-off immediately said, “No.”

So I said, “Well the next time I see Joshua I will tell him that you are not going to be competing for a place on his street corner.  And I imagine that will make him happy.”

I ended our conversation on the subject by telling my friend that my father never refused to give some change to anyone who asked for it.  He never questioned their motivation or their need.  And he used to say, “There but for the grace of God go you or I.”

I learned that lesson from dad and from St. Paul.  Truly – the greatest of these gifts is charity.

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