The American Dilemma and How We Can Fix It

Posts tagged ‘charity’


Chan’s Chinese Laundry & Dry Cleaning was a small store, about a ten minute walk from my apartment.  The proprietor, a lady who was in her mid-fifties when I first began bringing my clothes there was a Taiwanese woman who spoke very little, broken English. Her name was Chan Mei.  I used her services for a very long time.

When I say a long time it was over a period where I saw her son Peter grow from a toddler, playing in his play pen in the store; watch him grow old enough that he would help out with the ironing; graduate from the University of Illinois with a degree in electrical engineering; get married and have his first child, a daughter whom he named Doris.

After Doris was born I asked Peter how he had decided on her name, thinking this was perhaps a close approximation of a Chinese name.  He answered me, “She has no Chinese name.  We’re Americans, so she has an American name.  Besides, I like Doris Day and her movies.  She seems very nice and very happy.  I want my daughter to be very nice and very happy.”

Every Saturday between noon and twelve fifteen I would show up at Chan’s, armed with a bundle of soiled clothes and some wire hangers which I was returning so they could be reused and would pick up my clothes that had been expertly cleaned.  It got to the point when Mei was so used to my schedule that she always had my clothing up front shortly before noon so that I didn’t have to wait for her to find them among all the hanging clothes that were ready and waiting for pick up.

When my mother passed away, I left Chicago and spent four weeks in New York, dealing with all the things one has to do after a family death.  Needless to say, my last load of clothing languished in Chan’s until I returned to the Windy City.

When I came in that next Saturday, Mei sighed as though in relief and said, “I worry about you, Missee Juwanna.  I thinkee maybe something happen you – no see for long time.”  I explained what had occurred and the reason for my absence.  A look of great concern and sadness came over Mei’s face.

“You fatha die and now you motha die.  You orphan now.”

With that statement, Mei raised the wooden hinged board in the front counter that allowed access to the back of the store, came over to me and gave me a big hug.  “I be you motha now,” she said as the tears welled up in both our eyes.

After a few minutes in this embrace, Mei released me and before giving me my clothes which I could see waiting in their usual place, she said, “You waitee here.”  She went in the back of the store and I could hear oil sizzling in a wok.  About ten minutes later she came to the front of the store with a little plastic lined white Chinese food takeout box and presented me with my lunch.

I thought that was extremely sweet but was completely taken by surprise when the following Saturday I was again presented with a take out container.  That continued  every Saturday for the next twenty years.  This loving woman had voluntarily taken on this responsibility and never failed to deliver on her commitment.  When she finally returned to Taiwan at the age of 78 to take care of an older brother who’s wife had passed away, I could tell that Mei was concerned that I would be able to carry on without her.  But I assured her that I would be okay – and she hesitantly seemed to believe me.

About five years after Mei began making my Saturday meals, I walked in as usual and could see that she was very upset.  I asked her why she was so distraught.  She said, “Man come in and wavee gun at me – steal money.”  I was so angered that someone had stolen the little amount of money this woman had and who worked so hard to earn it, I was determined to do whatever I could to see that he was apprehended.

I asked Mei, “Was he tall or short; fat or thin; black or white?”  If I happened to see him while doing my Saturday shopping, I wanted to be able to flag down one of the police cars that regularly cruised the neighborhood.

Mei looked at me and said, “Missee Juwanna.  All you black and white people lookee same to me.”  I had to bite my cheek to prevent an involuntary smile from spreading across my face.  I did not want her to mistake my genuine amusement at her statement to be mis-interpreted for minimizing the seriousness of what had happened.

I thought about Mei and Chan’s Chinese Laundry & Dry Cleaning the other day because of what has been happening in Ferguson, MO.  I wondered to myself whether Ferguson had a Chinese laundry there.  And I asked myself, “If they did have a Chinese laundry in Ferguson, after all the protests, looting and rioting, is it still standing?”


And the answer is 92,690.  I checked my calculations several times and I am certain this is correct.

You may ask, “What was the question?”  So here it is:

“What is the grand total of all the numbered IRS forms which Mitt Romney and his wife Ann had to include in their 2011 Individual Income Tax Return in order to comply with the Internal Revenue Code for filing?”

Yes the Romneys, with the assistance of Price Waterhouse Coopers had to file fifteen separate forms, each bearing its special IRS identification number and if you add the numbers on the forms up you get 92,690.  (In addition there was an alphabet soup of other forms included).  The total number of pages for this return was 104.

I have to admit that my favorite was Form 8082.  It is entitled, “Notice of Inconsistent Treatment or Administrative Adjustment Request (AAR).”  What in the name of all that is holy does that even mean?  Was this form invented by a psychopath whose real goal in life is to confuse us with his mind games?

But back to our subject …

While this number of pages might not have been sufficient to call for the downing of one of the ancient redwoods in the Pacific Northwest, I suspect the axe fell on at least one small birch or elm to provide the sacrifice and the paper to complete the return.

If you choose to review the return you will find out something we already knew.  Mr. and Mrs. Romney are successful people – at least as far as we measure success by the amount of money a person earns.  They reported an Adjusted Gross Income of $20,908,000 for year 2011 and paid Federal Income Tax in the amount of $3,227,000 on that.

I can hear the groans from the left of the auditorium.  That is only 15.4% of their income paid in tax.  That doesn’t seem fair when the average taxpayer pays at a higher effective tax rate.  Much could be said in favor of that point of view.  A flat tax would make it “fair” in an absolute sense for each of us.  We would all pay the same rate.

However, the problem with that is that paying 15% of your income as a minimum wage earner has a far more dramatic effect on your ability to live than it does for a person who earns millions per year.  (And I think we would get a lot of flak from CPA firms like Price Waterhouse Coopers, not to mention all the folks at IRS who suddenly would be out of a job).

There is one other item in the Romneys’ return that I would like to point out to my readers.  They voluntarily donated $4,020,680 to charity.  Their $3 Million payment in tax was compulsory.  Their donation of $4 Million was voluntary.  If you consider both of these in toto as a “payment to American society” – the percentage of their income which they handed over to others represents 34.6% of their income.

One of the allegations leveled against candidate-presumptive Romney is that as a wealthy man he has no concern for the ordinary person.  The amount of his and his wife’s charitable donations suggest otherwise.

I did the math.  Feel free to check my figures.


When I went to the Catskills with grandma for the summers of my early youth I was usually occupied with swimming and trying to catch frogs and reading.  Just as a precaution my parents would always pack away a few of my favorite board games to play on those days when the rain curtailed my outside activities.

I would invite a couple of kids who were staying at the little bungalow colony over to play and we would wile away the day as the rain beat down on the roof of our little cabin.  As grandma had become legendary as a master chef among the summer guests, I never had any difficulty finding other children to play with since our game was always accompanied with one of her wonderful lunches.

When my parents came up for one of their every other weekend stays, they surprised me with a present.  It was a board game called Parcheesi.  The game had been around for a long time but I had never owned it.  So it was with delight that I eagerly started to open it.

Grandma handed me a small pair of sewing scissors so that I could puncture the wrapping and having made my surgical incision between the cover and the box, I began unpeeling the plastic.  Grandma pulled the kitchen waste basket over so that I could place the wrapping directly in it.

I pulled off the cover and laid it on the little table that we used for dining and for game board playing.  Much to my surprise, on the top of the game board and pieces and rules I saw a fly.  Apparently, it had been trapped in the box as the game was being assembled at the factory.  It’s left wing had been caught between the cover and the box and was badly deformed – bent in half at a ninety degree angle to the rest of its wing.  Amazingly, the fly was still alive.

I remember saying to my parents and grandma, “Look there’s a crippled fly in the box.”  They came over to look at this.  I said, “Can you imagine what happened to this poor fly?  Let’s try to see if we can save it.”

I was no stranger to killing flies.  I had been a willing participant in their massacre, employing the only tools available to us for this enterprise – our hands, a newspaper or the ever-efficient fly swatter.  (This was before we had elevated our executional skills by introducing electrocution in the form of bug-zappers).  I had never before thought anything of my sending these creatures into the next world – merely that I was eliminating something that I found annoying.

The fly in my Parcheesi box changed my perspective.

Grandma folded over a paper towel and put it on a bread plate.  She went and made a solution of sugar and water and poured it on the towel.  We then gently picked up the disfigured fly and put it on top of the wet paper towel.  We really didn’t know what flies ate but this was all we could think of.

I  forgot about playing my new game and sat at the table by the plate to see if the fly would eat anything.  I remember trying to push it erect as it’s disfigured wing kept causing it to fall on its left side.  After an hour it was time for bed.  I remember hoping and praying that “my fly” would be alright.

I awoke the next morning to the smell of pancakes.  Grandma and my parents were already dressed and I ran from my room still wearing my pajamas.  I hastily said “Good morning” to them and went to the table to see how the fly was getting along.  The plate wasn’t there.  In it’s place was a bottle of maple syrup.

The fly had died during the night and grandma had taken the plate on which we had placed it outside.  She had folded over the little paper towel and the sugar water and had made it into a burial shroud for the deformed insect.

Grandma said, “After we have breakfast we’re going to bury the poor creature.  That is after you wash up and get dressed.”  So we had our breakfast which was a bit solemn.  I went into the bathroom and began crying quietly.  I washed my face, brushed my teeth and put on my clothes.

By the time I was finished, my father had dug a little grave to the left of the front door so that we could bury the fly.  Dad conducted the brief service.  I remember he said, “We return you to the earth from which you came.  Welcome home.  Amen.”

We covered the grave with the earth which dad had dug from it and each of us threw some dirt on it to cover the fly’s remains.  Dad tamped down the remaining soil on top of the grave with his spade and we left the cemetery.

I have never since that day killed a fly although I will shoo them away.

That encounter taught me that we are all part of a great and wondrous creation and are all inter-related from the loftiest of us to the least among us.  We all have a place, and it is only in accepting and embracing others in whatever form they may take that we have earned our right to call ourselves human.



 My high school was about a five minute walk from mom’s store on Madison Avenue and 62nd street. I would usually finish the school day and swing by her store to see if she needed help with anything. As part of the service she provided, if a customer purchased a present for a friend, mom would hand deliver the package to them. Occasionally she would ask me to do that if the recipient’s address were on my way home. 

One day she gave me a package which had been purchased for a person who lived about six blocks north of the store on Fifth Avenue and asked if I would mind taking it there. So I left with my school books in my bag and the present in my other hand and started up Madison Avenue. 

I loved looking in the store windows at all the beautiful things that were for sale – if you had the money to buy them. To make sure I took it all in, sometimes I would walk home on the west side of the street and sometimes on the east. I always looked forward to my walks home.

 I was about two blocks from delivering my package when I saw her.

 Like a disfigured statue she stood – implanted in the middle of the sidewalk – kneeling with the stumps of her amputated legs on some carpet, placed on top of a small piece of plywood which had four small wheels at its base.  

Her gray hair blew across her face as the autumn New York wind had its will with it. In her right hand she held a tin cup, filled with yellow-colored lead pencils. 

She wore fingerless gloves on her hands and used her fists to propel herself slowly down the street. In a faint voice she cried out, “Pencils – only ten cents. Would you please buy a pencil?” 

I turned away and peered in the window of one of the stores. I couldn’t look at her. Deformed and poor – in contrast to the wonderful stores – beautiful and opulent. But she kept asking, “Would you please buy a pencil?” – and as I turned around I saw that she was looking directly at me with her hopeful but sad pale blue eyes.

 I told her that I didn’t have any money on me but that if she would wait 10 minutes I could get some. I said I would be right back and returned to my mother’s store. 

Mom was naturally surprised to see me – especially since I was still carrying the package I was supposed to deliver. She asked me what was wrong.

I explained that there was a lady who was selling pencils on the street and I wanted to buy one from her. I asked her for an advance of $1.00 on my $2.00 allowance which she gave me without any hesitancy. I promised that I would deliver the package and go straight home afterward – as soon as I had conducted my business with this woman. And so I started back up Madison Avenue.

 The Pencil Lady had only moved two stores down the street during the time I was gone.

I went up to her and asked for a pencil. She offered me the cup to allow me to choose my own. I selected one and handed her the dollar bill. I said to her, “I know these must be special pencils – so please keep the change.”

 She thanked me and a broad, beautiful smile came over her face. And she thanked me again. And again. 

I went on my way, delivered mom’s package and went home. 

I never saw The Pencil Lady again. 

Although it’s decades since I encountered her, I still have the pencil which I purchased from her. I have never sharpened or used it.

 I think it’s the most priceless pencil in the world.



As a child, my parents used to buy me jigsaw puzzles to put together. These puzzles weren’t the flimsy kind made of thin cardboard that are now sold. They were made of thick solid wood out of which the puzzle had been carved and the pieces hand painted.

Each puzzle had 15 pieces. After putting them together over and over I began to lose interest. So dad came up with an idea. He would remove the pieces from four of the puzzles, mix them all up and put the frames in front of me. This got back my interest for working on them – but only for a short while. Eventually, they found their way to the small closet in my room – taking up a lot of space on the top shelf – never to be looked at or played with again.

Over the years, birthday and Christmas presents that I had outgrown were added to the collection in the closet until it was filled to near capacity. Something had to give. Something had to go.

Mom came in one day in early December and sat me down. She said, “You know, your closet is full of toys and games that you never look at and don’t play with anymore. I was thinking we could go through the things in there and could give some of them to children who don’t have toys to play with. Then you’d have more room in your closet. Wouldn’t that be nice?”

I didn’t care for that idea in the least. Those were my toys. And I told mom as much. I thought that she was going to argue with me about it, but she just said , “Okay, dear – if that’s how you feel.” And she left my room.

I didn’t feel good about the way this ended – but at least I was keeping my toys.

A few days later mom asked if I would like to spend about an hour on Saturday playing with some new friends. “Sure,” I said. “Who are they?”

She just said, “You’ll see.”

That Saturday morning we went out. We walked about a mile to a place that had a sign that said, “The New York Foundling Home For Children”. When we entered, the lady at the reception desk looked at me and said, “Oh, you must be here to play with some of our children. I hope you have a good time.”

She and my mother took me to the home’s “play room”. There were eight kids about my age in there. The lady from the home asked two of them who were working on a small jigsaw puzzle if I could join them putting the puzzle together. They said it would be okay.

So the three of us worked on this 40 piece puzzle when one of the boys said, “All done.” I looked at the puzzle and said, “But there’s four pieces we haven’t put together.” He said, “Oh, those have been missing for a long time.”

The next puzzle was missing seven pieces – and the third and last puzzle that they had was missing almost half its pieces. It’s no fun putting together a jigsaw puzzle when you finish and there are missing pieces and the picture is incomplete.

I was wondering what other games I could play when mom and the lady returned to the game room. Mom said, “It’s time to go. Please thank your new friends for letting you play with them.”

I did. And we left the Foundling Home.

On our way home I asked mom, “What is that place and why do those kids live there?”

She explained these were children whose parents couldn’t take care of them. The people at the home tried to find new families who would adopt them – but sometimes there weren’t enough loving people to take care of all the children, so some of them had to stay in the home.

“But why don’t they have good toys?”

Mom told me that the home didn’t have a lot of money to spend and by the time they bought the children food and clothes there was no money left to buy new toys.

We walked the rest of the way home quietly, the snow starting to fall.

I couldn’t sleep that night. I kept thinking about the children and their jigsaw puzzles. It was very late but I got out of bed and went into my parents’ room and woke my mother.

I said, “Mommy, can we please give some of my old toys to the kids at the Foundling Home?”

She smiled and said, “Are you sure that you really want to do that?”

I said, “Oh, yes. They need them more than I do.”

That was the year that I understood the message of Christmas.

And I had a lot of room in my closet.


Oscar Wilde was best known for his rapier-like acerbic wit and his flamboyant lifestyle.

But there was a gentler side to him that was best expressed in his children’s stories – notably the story of “The Happy Prince”.

If you have not read this story you have truly missed one of literarature’s greatest treasures. A brief synopsis follows.

Once upon a time there was a ruler who was known as the Happy Prince. His life was filled with parties and dances. He enjoyed the finest of foods. He wore all the latest fashions. There was nothing but joy and self-indulgence in his life. And then he died.

His Councilors decided to erect a statue in his memory – and it was indeed a fine statue. The prince’s likeness was cast exactly. His sword was encrusted with precious jewels, two rare emeralds were used for his eyes and the entire statue from head to toe was covered with fine gold.

One day, as winter approached, a swallow flew into the city. She had been separated from her flock on their way south and was exhausted from her effort to avoid the cold. She decided to rest for the night. She sat on the Happy Prince’s shoulder.

The statue startled the tired swallow by suddenly speaking to her. He told her that his whole life he thought of nothing and no one but himself. But now that he stood tall over the city he could see all the poverty, grief and want which was the life that most of his people knew. 

He prevailed on the swallow to go on some errands of mercy for him – removing the jewels in his sword and in his eyes and finally removing all the gold leaf that adorned him and giving these to the poor.

At first the swallow was reluctant. She merely wanted to go south for the winter. But as she ran errand after errand for the Happy Prince her attitude changed. She was so taken with his kindness and compassion that she finally realized she loved him.

When all that was of value was gone, the Happy Prince told her that she must leave as it was getting bitterly cold. But the swallow could not tear herself away from him and she died, falling at his feet.

The following day the Town Councilors were walking through the square when they came to the statue of the Happy Prince. They were shocked to see the statue in its current state, bare of its beautiful jewels and gold leaf.

How shabby the Happy Prince looks. And here is actually a dead bird lying at his feet. Well, we must have another statue – and it should be of myself”, said one of them. And they began to argue as to who should be the subject of this new statue. And argue. And argue.

They threw the dead bird on a garbage heap and had workmen pull down the statue of the Happy Prince and cast it into the furnace. But while the statue melted, the leaden heart that was inside would not burn. So they pulled it from the fire and threw it on the same pile where the little sparrow lay.

The final words of the story are these:

Bring me the two most precious things in the city”, said God to one of his angels.

The angel returned with the leaden heart and the dead bird.

You have chosen well”, said God. “For in my City of Paradise, this little bird shall sing forevermore and the Happy Prince shall praise me.”

I had thought to make copies of the story of “The Happy Prince”, sending one to each of our Members of Congress and a final one to the White House.

I just don’t think they would understand it.

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