Confessions of a Laid-off Lawyer

Just Your Average Joe Blogging Away His Debt—In One Year or Less

The Lowly Penny

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Total Black: $29.02
Total Red: $227,913.40

I’ve stopped noting daily gains / losses; not much of any just yet.  Scrolling down through previous posts will show that and the breakdown on the 10th of each month will too.  Total black now includes twenty dollars invested in some mutual funds with American Funds.  I figure I should do that each week.  Savings have to start somehow.  Plus I gained a cent overnight.  Hey, that’s one penny closer to getting out of debt.  And it got me thinking all about the lowly penny.  Penny

My posting is quite late today—and I must admit that I’m forcing myself to sit and write only because I’ve committed to writing daily.  Now that this blog is out there, you (whoever you are) are my gym buddies, so to speak, keeping me on this fitness regimen each day.  So, your forgiveness please if my prose isn’t up to snuff; I’ve got an ear infection.  I was at the doctor’s office this morning.  And though the Stimulus package ensured that I remain insured (COBRA payment would have been about $530 / month instead of $199), I was still worried that I wouldn’t be able to afford the $20 co-pay and the co-pay for the medication.  I was quite relieved when the physician’s assistant gave me the drops from her set of samples.  Only had to buy the antibiotics.  At least that’s one thing pharmaceutical companies do for us—free samples from doctors. But I’m not here to enter the health care debacle.  Instead, today I wanted to share some thoughts about our behavior with money.  And, in so doing, question my own contradictions regarding the homeless.

I haven’t given a cent to the homeless since perhaps December 2004.  I was feeling the mood of the season one night (and the beer from the bar I had just left) when I walked by two women pushing strollers along a street in Washington, D.C.  One woman stopped me.  The other was nearby; their children were running about.  I think a light snow was even falling.  (Too much?)  She asked if I could spare any change, explaining that they had no place to go, that there was no room at the women’s shelter, and so on.  In an impulsive moment of giving, I took out a twenty dollar bill and handed it to her.  Instead of thanking me, she took the bill and immediately asked if I had anything for her friend as well.  To this day, I’m still stunned by that remark.  I think I may have even blurted out that I just gave her twenty dollars, not twenty cents!  Even though my generosity wasn’t well received, I know there’s still more behind all this than that one event.  I can’t really be punishing, so to speak, all homeless people for the actions of that one lady many nights ago.

I’ve lived in New York City for nearly three years now.  One thing I can say about this city—even the homeless are entrepreneurial.  People perform for money, though I suspect they aren’t really homeless.  But it’s almost as if New Yorkers want something in exchange for their spare change.  Panhandling on the subway has become a routine—almost as if homeless people were handed the same basic script.  And, of course, they wait until the doors close before they hit you up for your change.  One time I stood on the platform and watched as this man splashed milk over his clothes before hoping on the next train.  I figured it would make him smell a bit sour—and perhaps more authentic?—as he came through panhandling.  So, like many, I’m just as skeptical about giving to the homeless because there’s that one example—that one guy who made millions wiping windshields.  Perhaps some of you heard the story of the millionaire homeless Arizona man, Richard Leroy Walters, who left a bequest to National Public Radio.  So when they ask for spare change, we imagine them as closet millionaires and just look away.

And again today, as I walked to the pharmacy for those antibiotics, I passed a homeless guy asking for change.  The iPhone ensures blissful ignorance, so you can have your earbuds in and just smile and nod and walk on by.  This time, however, I wasn’t able to just walk by because I realized that I had completely passed the entrance to the pharmacy and had to double back.  And, of course, the homeless guy had strategically placed himself in front of the doors so that he could open the door for you before you’d even get there to do it yourself, and then lift his cup as you walk in.  Like I said, seems New Yorkers expect something in return.  Or viewed another way: perhaps that man felt he should do something to earn our spare change.  I said thanks and just walked through.  “I don’t have anything to give,” I thought to myself.  “And besides, I can’t afford it.  I’m unemployed.”  But, of course, as soon as I initiated this internal dialogue the contrapositive chimed in and I started scolding myself for thinking that way.  Especially so, I thought, given that I started this blog to help get rid of my debt, and in so doing, I’m trying to attract wealth.  “How can I expect to get from other people,” the other voice said, “if I’m not willing to give myself?”  Isn’t one of the lessons of The Secret by Rhonda Byrne that you have to be willing to give in order to receive?  It’s a lesson of one of those positive thinking books.  But despite all these numerous selfish and selfless points, seems the stingier angel always prevails.  But at least he’s been losing ground lately.

My reason for not giving to the guy on the street is, I tell myself, because I don’t know what he’ll do with the money.  So, if ever someone were to ask me for food, or to buy her or him food, or even for money for food, I’d give it.  Or so I tell myself.  As I walked back home today, I passed three more homeless people.  The first:  a guy leaning up against a restaurant wall.  He asked for money to get a sandwich.  Stingier Angel dug his nails in and I just nodded as me and my earbuds walked by.  Next: a middle-aged man digging through a public garbage can.  As his arm and shoulder were deep in the can, a guy walked up and tossed trash in, hitting him with it in the face.  He didn’t apologize.  He didn’t even seem to notice.  The homeless man did, of course, and in a scolding tone, called out “ouch” in a drawn-out voice.  He didn’t ask me for money.  He didn’t notice me.  Last: elderly woman quickly shoveling in the remaining crumbs from an Entenmann’s cheese danish box.  It appeared that she had just bought the item as she was standing outside a store.  She didn’t ask me for money.  She didn’t notice me.

So I started thinking: the homeless are sort of like the penny.  Discarded.  Dropped to the ground.  Stepped on and over.  Ignored.  But imagine for a moment all the good that might come from those discarded pennies.  As James Barron reported in a New York Times article “Many Wishes, Many Splashes, and the Fountains at the Met Fill Up,” the Metropolitan Museum earns roughly three thousand dollars annually from discarded coins in their fountains.  Imagine all the good we could do if we somehow found a way to toss those coins into a collective pool from which we all could draw.  Or from which we could help others in need.  A second ago, I stumbled across the website for Pimp This Bum—a small start-up committed to helping the homeless out from the depths of despair.   They’ve already raised $70,000 and just formed the company back in February of this year.

All this has got me thinking.  How can we tap into that generosity (or disregard in the case of pennies)?  Any thoughts?  I hope Stingier Angel continues to lose his footing on my shoulder.

One Response

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  1. Interesting post – I recently posted something similar on my blog about finding pennies on the street

    I’ll definitely start following your entries and wish you luck as you pay off your debt! I’m paying my way out of my own law school debt and hope to have it all (except for the very low interest loans) paid off by May. Can’t wait myself to be out this endentured servitude…


    December 10, 2009 at 18:44

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