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What You Give and What You Get

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It's Halloween, a balmy, magical night for children. My husband took our daughter out trick-or-treating. And I'm alone at home--a nice two-story stucco house in an old tree-lined suburb, right on the edge of the west side.

With half an hour of official trick-or-treat time left, I'm down to my last few Tootsie Rolls. I switch to spare change--nickels, pennies, a few dimes I find lying around. I've got them in a ceramic bowl near the door. I pick up a few coins, drop them in the waiting bags. The kids try to see what landed, but their bags have so much candy and I drop the coins so fast that they can't see them. One little boy says, "Hey, that lady's giving out quarters."

I'm not enjoying myself. I recognize few kids from the neighborhood, can't tell what any of the costumes are, and hate to guess, since I'm usually wrong. Vans park on my street and unload bunches of kids. Some don't have costumes at all, just a mask or a smudge of makeup on their little faces. They carry huge dingy pillowcases of candy, and some seem awfully big for trick-or-treating. They arrive on my porch in large groups, nine, ten at a time, faces shadowed by their jacket hoods, real-life wraiths who make me afraid to open the door.

The bell rings again, and I look out. It's a man. No kids. I wonder why he's there, whether I should open the door, but the spirit of Halloween presses me on.

"I don't mean any disrespect, ma'am," he says. He holds a mask in one hand, as some kind of credential. He stretches the other hand toward me, palm up, a soft brown bowl. "I heard you were giving out quarters." We both look at my bowl. "My wife and I, we wanted to take the children out for hot dogs after trick-or-treating."

The ceiling light in my front hall shines like a spotlight on the coins: six pennies and two nickels. I slide them around with the tip of my finger. I want this man to go away. I tip the bowl toward him so he can see its contents.

I am at a loss. The simple Halloween script--rehearsed for ages, we all know it--no longer applies. I'm mad, confused, mistrustful, trapped in a blur of logistics. Should I close the door while I get my purse? It's in the other room, and I don't want to walk away and leave the door open. But I don't want to open my wallet in front of him either. How much do I give him? How much are hot dogs? How many kids?

"Sorry," I say to him, "that's not what Halloween's about. It's for the children, a few coins, a few pieces of candy." I shut the door, hands trembling, real-life haunted.

It's a few weeks after Halloween. I've been brooding about the man at the door. I tell my story to a friend named Bruce, and he responds with his own story. A guy came to his church, said he was in need, promised he'd pay them back if they helped him out. In the end the stranger didn't do what he'd promised, and it left Bruce with a sour feeling about giving to strangers.

Another friend, Nancy, shakes her head. "When someone asks me for money, I just send them to the food pantry, or tell them about the homeless shelter." She's fed up with being asked, prefers to maintain distance between herself and the needy.

When I tell a third friend, Deborah, she says, "I have a hard time saying no to people who ask me for money." Because I feel stingy by comparison, I don't pursue the subject. Still, I wonder: Does she carry a few dollars in a coat pocket so she's ready if asked? Does she open her wallet, sort through her cash, select the appropriate amount?

"Not everyone sees it the way I do," she explains. "Tom and his wife don't give money to people who ask on the street because it might be for drugs. They'll give food, or help in some other way, but not money."

I hadn't even thought of offering some alternative to money. I wonder how it's happened that I don't have a policy for giving to strangers.

The Halloween man has disturbed the energy field around me, and in my life such disturbances sometimes provoke a reaction. One morning a newsletter slips through my mail slot. A sidebar catches my eye: Maimonides' eight dimensions of spiritual giving. Maimonides, the 12th-century Jewish philosopher and scholar, set out to index and organize the great body of Jewish ethical teachings and analyses, whacking through the underbrush to reconcile inconsistencies and contradictions, to instruct and guide the perplexed. The sidebar in the newsletter is a simple list, numbered one through eight, lowest to highest--the dimensions of giving. Oh, how we love a simple numbered list.

1. Giving reluctantly or with regret.

I go back to Halloween night, face-to-face again with my disquieting trick-or-treater. I hear what he has to say about kids and hot dogs. I make my cold appraisal of his request. I make him wait. Then, out of sheer guilt and confusion, I tip my bowl and empty the eight coins into his hand.

"Here," I say. "Take this." But I don't wait to hear what he says ("Cheapskate," most likely), and I don't look at his face. I double lock the door, turn off the porch light. We both feel awful.

2. Giving less than one should, but with grace.

Jane Henson, who used to live across the street, hated Halloween. She'd turn off her lights and retreat to the back of her house, hoping everyone would stay away. But they didn't. The bell rang and rang.

She died a few years ago, alone at age 80, in that house across the street. Her body lay there for several days. Her son, who lived in Iowa, called and called and got no response. At least Jane doesn't have to worry about Halloween anymore.

A young couple lives in the house now, and the husband's a prankster. For Halloween he dressed as a raggedy scarecrow and sat in a chair on his front porch, slumped over like a dummy, beside a big bowl of candy with a sign that said, "Take one only." When a bunch of kids collected on the porch and someone reached for the candy, he'd jump up--"Boo!"--and scare them out of their wits. Kids screamed, tumbled backward onto the grass and the cement walk.

I imagine the Halloween man returning. Behind him on the porch ledge, our jack-o'-lantern grins his hollow grin. "Ma'am, I don't mean any disrespect."

I smile. "Oh, here. Take what's left. It's not much, I know." I slide the 16 cents into his hand, close the door, lock it, turn off the porch light. I kill the lights in the front of the house, retreat to the back, hoping no one else will come, listening to the screams from across the street.

3. Giving what one should, but only after being asked.

One day, in the parking lot at Whole Foods, a woman approached me and my husband. She was thin, wearing a dirty old winter coat. She was crying: she needed diapers for her baby.

"OK," my husband said. "Let's go. I'll get you some diapers." I waited at the car as they wove through the parking lot to Walgreens. In the store, he told me later, he'd grabbed a package of diapers and turned toward the checkout counter.

"What about the larger size?" She pointed to the shelf. "That one has more diapers."

He shook his head, paid for the smaller package, and handed them over to her. When he got back to the car he was angry, unsettled.

Another day, a few weeks after Halloween, my husband, my daughter, and I were out walking. The hard edges of Wicker Park had only recently sprouted its stylish cafes, galleries, minimalist clothing shops. The warmest part of the day was gone, and the cold was getting to me. Near a busy intersection a woman unpeeled herself from a small group huddled together in a doorway. She brushed past my husband, planted herself in front of me. She was stocky, about my height, with light brown skin, wearing an old coat and scarf.

"Please, ma'am. I'm sorry to ask, but I need to do laundry." Her eyes scanned my face. "I've got a job lined up for tomorrow. I swear. I'm not going to use it for drugs or alcohol. I need it for the laundromat." She held her arms out. "Can't go to the job with dirty clothes. Need money for bus fare too."

She kept at her story, explaining, explaining. "You don't need to say any more," I said, reaching into my purse.

But she wanted me to hear everything. "I'm for real," she said. "I wouldn't ask if it weren't for the job."

"Please." I lifted my hand.

"Bless you, bless you," she said, building her wall of words as I handed her a five-dollar bill. She took the money and looked at my daughter. "Is this your baby?" she asked, syrupy now.

"Yes," I answered, though my ten-year-old daughter was hardly a baby.

"Can I hold your hand, darling?" She offered her hand to my daughter.

My daughter, polite but sure of herself, set the limit. "No, I'd rather not." The woman nodded and backed away. Later my daughter whispered, "I didn't want to hold hands after the lady said so many times how dirty she was."

4. Giving before one is asked.

To give before you're asked, you have to pay careful attention, notice who's around you, who's in need. You have to be ready, like my friend Lorry, who works in the Loop. One day, walking up Michigan Avenue, Lorry noticed an old man, bent, worn, lumbering along, eyeing the garbage cans. She ducked into Popeye's, bought a big lunch--fried chicken, rolls, coleslaw--and dashed out to catch up with the old guy. She circled around in front of him and held out the warm, fragrant box.

"Here's your lunch, grandpa."

He looked up at her, took the box from her hands, and said, "Bless you." She burst out crying.

5. Giving without knowing who will receive it, though the recipient knows the identity of the giver.

This is a hard one to understand. Why should the recipient know but not the giver? I asked my sisters what they thought.

Jan said, "This sounds like an intermediate stage of giving. Less ego but still not purely egoless. You don't know whether your giving will be acknowledged or appreciated. The only response may come from within, from your own experience of generosity. Also, you give the receiver the power to respond or not respond, and you wait for, maybe even hope for an acknowledgment, at the same time trying not to expect it."

Elaine said, "I think it's to restore a faith in human connectedness--so the receiver doesn't think it came from God or by magic."

I say the donor relinquishes the pride of having helped a particular person, and the recipient is relieved of the pressure of thanking or being beholden. She can bless the giver but only if she chooses to do so. Also, the giving is indiscriminate; the giver cannot choose someone "worthy."

Most nights I cook supper for my family. In the winter, something hot and hearty: spaghetti with thick tomato sauce, a casserole of rice and vegetables, a rich spicy chili, a stew. In the summer, something cool and refreshing: a sandwich with good bread, fresh mozzarella, shredded basil, garden lettuce, and tomatoes. I imagine that once a week I set aside a portion of our meal, wrap it in layers of tinfoil, a few plastic bags, then a brown paper bag. I add a few napkins, a plastic fork and spoon. I drive to the park in the center of town, walk to the stone bench. I leave my package. Someone waits nearby, obscured by the bushes, watching me. I can feel it. It makes me feel vulnerable. I drive home. Who knows? Maybe a dog will eat it.

6. Giving anonymously (the giver knows the recipient, but the recipient does not know the giver).

I like the sound of this. The anonymous giver knows she will not be thanked but has the opportunity to target the gift, make it just right, see the response. I think of the "unknown benefactor" in Ursula Hegi's novel Stones From the River: "Clothing and baskets of food and envelopes with money...appear inside locked houses at times of turmoil without notes or anything to link them to their giver." The unknown benefactor, Hegi says, would "steal into people's houses to leave his gifts like a thief who'd reversed the concept of thievery." The benefactor "had to be one of their own, the people agreed, because the gifts were always just right--like the gleaming bicycle Frau Simon had found in her bedroom two days after her old bike had been stolen, or the box with new coats for the entire Buttgereit family after storms had spoiled the crops."

Years ago, on a cold, blustery evening, my husband and I ducked into the glowing comfort of the Berghoff for an early supper. The light from the chandeliers gleamed off the polished woodwork; large flower arrangements added spots of color. The maitre d' seated us at a small wooden table. The waiters--all men--have worked there for years; they weave through the tables, their backs straight, plates of food aligned perfectly on their long arms. We ordered shots of their smooth 14-year-old bourbon, settled back in our chairs, took in the bustle of the room, held hands across the table, sipped.

Two raggedy men slipped into the restaurant together, sat at a table near the door, skirting the maitre d'. I tapped my husband on the arm and angled my head in their direction, but he'd already seen them. Street worn, scruffy, bulging with layers of clothing. One chewed on an old stubby cigar; the other looked dubious but went along. Soon the manager noticed them.

He bowed slightly at the waist, made a show of it. "Can I help, gentlemen?" The bold one lifted two fingers. The manager pulled out a menu, opened it, his manicured finger pointing out the minimum per-table order. The two looked at each other, but the bold one wouldn't back down. He looked into the manager's face, then all three looked at the menu again, as if trying to decide. The manager glanced around, tiring of the game.

Our steaming plates arrived at our table: perfect slices of white turkey meat, generous scoops of stuffing, brown gravy, a small tin of cranberry sauce, a round bowl of creamed spinach.

"You want to buy them dinner?" my husband whispered. I nodded. He motioned to our waiter. "Two turkey dinners for the gentlemen over there."

The waiter paused, a small, puzzled crease between his eyes. Then, well trained, the small bow. "Bless you, sir." He went to the other table, had a tete-a-tete with the manager. The manager backed off. The two customers felt the pressure lift. Alone at last, they settled back, stared at each other, afraid to speak. A few minutes later, as their plates arrived, they looked at each other, peered around, glanced up at the ceiling, and dug in.

7. Giving so that neither the giver nor receiver knows the identity of the other.

I'm having lunch with my friend Anne. She mentions that she gave blood the other day, but it was a special form of blood giving: apheresis. The lab technician draws blood, swirls it in a centrifuge, separates it into components--plasma, red cells, platelets--takes the part that's needed, and pumps the rest back into Anne. She gives platelets because a friend in New York has leukemia; she's had two bone marrow transplants and needs platelets. Anne's platelets may not go directly to her friend, but they build up the supply for people who need them. "It's something my body can give regardless of my bank balance," says Anne, "something in my body I can share, that others can use."

Maimonides gives the example of a secret chamber in the temple where the devout deposited their gifts and the poor families came to withdraw them. I tell Anne about the eight dimensions of giving. "How does it work?" she asks. "You add up the points, and whoever gets the most...?" I know what she means. We're so used to quantifying, scoring.

The next week, I make sack lunches for Project Sandwich. Good whole wheat bread, health-food-store peanut butter and jelly--two sandwiches per bag. Each sack gets two honey tangerines, a juice box, a few Hershey's kisses, napkins. The bags are so full I can barely close them. My daughter takes them to the temple, where a man adds them to the vanload he drops off at a shelter on the west side. I wonder if this will seem like good food to the people who receive it.

8. Helping another to become self-supporting.

"You shall maintain another; whether stranger or sojourner, this person shall live beside you." It's from Leviticus. Set someone up in business, give him a loan or gift, help him learn a trade, provide him with the tools he needs to earn his way. It's a big step, to engage with someone so deeply.

We're having our bathrooms renovated, which means gutting the whole thing down to the studs and then rebuilding the room, replacing the bathtub, sink, mirrors, faucets, light fixtures, flooring, tiles. First messy, then expensive. One guy on the crew is Joe, a brown-skinned man with a Caribbean voice. I think he's from Trinidad.

He does the demolition with a huge sledgehammer, crashing through the tile walls and floor, all set in three or four inches of concrete. Before he begins he seals off the bathroom with tarps and plastic sheeting. He wears a filtration mask over his nose and mouth, keeps the window open while he's working. Afterward I notice a white powder around his nostrils, the plaster dust that didn't get into his lungs but still could.

He's worked for our contractor for maybe ten years, and he's a nice guy, a good worker. We talk occasionally, and I get an overview of his life. He's got a couple kids, doesn't mention a wife. He gets breakfast for the kids, warns them not to eat too much cereal because the box has to last the whole week, he's not buying another one if it doesn't. He picks them up at school, lectures them about hard work. He lives in an apartment upstairs from Foster Toys, in Oak Park. I've been to the expensive shop many times, to get gifts for my daughter or for her friends' birthdays.

As the weeks of renovation go on, I grow increasingly uneasy with the differences between us. He's ruining his body to fix my house, and he doesn't even own one. I shop for toys at Foster's, and he lives in an apartment above it. I feel the inequality hanging in the air between us. I want to erase the differences but don't know how. I want him to have more but don't want to give away what I have. My husband and I talk about paying the fee so Joe can learn the new painting techniques they teach at the local paint store. I like to think about doing something good for him, but when the bathroom is finished he goes on to another job and I don't have him there to remind me every day.

9. Beyond Maimonides

My sister Elaine once said that giving can itself be considered a blessing because the giver feels she has enough inside to give some away. I think of ways I can fill myself up so I'll feel I have enough.

We own a beautiful glass box, a gift from my husband's grandmother. I tape a label on it with words my father once wrote: "My heart is very full with all the blessings I have had." I put the box on our kitchen table. Before we eat dinner each night I put money in the box--a dollar, some change, depending on how full I feel. When the box is full, I'll give the money away.

My sister Jan sends me a small story titled "What the Buddha Never Taught" by Tim Ward. He once saw Mother Teresa leaving her convent to enter a waiting car. Three beggars made their way to her, pleading, crying, raising their empty hands, lying down in her path. Mother Teresa patted one of them on the arm, shook her head, got into the car, and was gone.

"The lady gives her life to the poor," Ward writes. "If she turned them down, it wasn't because she was too busy. She knows what is and isn't her work. Still, she didn't treat them like dirt, like everybody else does. I can't describe how gentle was her touch on the man's arm. She saw them as people, not beggars. To me that's how a saint lives in a crazy world. Do the task at hand without delusions that you can cure all suffering."

I have another Halloween fantasy: the man comes to the door, holds out the mask and the palm. I'm afraid, but I look into his eyes. They're human eyes, like mine. He's afraid too, and ashamed. I open the screen door, slip outside, stand on the porch with him.

I feel vulnerable now that I've removed the barrier of the door, but I motion to the top step, ask if he'd like to sit. He hesitates, fearing that I've called the police, that I'm trying to detain him until they get here. "I just want to hear what you have to say. Please, sit." We sit down together. "Now tell me. Tell me how you came here." Then I listen. It's what I have to offer, what I do best. As he speaks, the children's shouts echo through the night. Their small shapes flit by. Their feet shuffle through the leaves. Free to roam in the darkness, pushing back the boundaries of fear.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Ken Wilson.

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