Thursday, April 19, 2007

Lucky Pennies for a Dollar [Rachel, south Minneapolis]

A man with a painted expression of apathy stood just within the archway of an alley in downtown Minneapolis. He wore a sky blue, nylon, 80s jacket with a faded baseball cap. I could not pass the pennies up for long. I turned back after a few steps to take a second look. On top of the suitcase filled with his life belongings and an umbrella handle protruding through the zipper sat an old cardboard pizza box with a few handfuls of pennies inside. Although he appeared to be passively watching the business world flurry by, I am sure he took in every pause or second flicker of an eye in his direction.

Looking at him through his goggle-like glasses, I asked if he was really selling pennies for a dollar. He nodded back without emotion. I shuffled through the pennies wondering what my odds were of finding a penny actually worth a dollar. I asked him where all his wheat pennies were. Through his scruffy beard, he quickly told me he kept them in his pocket. I laughed out loud at his quick wit. I chose a shiny penny from the bunch and began to dig out a dollar bill. While handing him the dollar bill, I asked for permission to trade the dollar for a picture of him and his corner business.

Even though it seems foolish to “buy” a penny, the picture of this successful entrepreneur beside his business is priceless. He sells pennies for a dollar and calls them lucky. A man in a dark, professional suit sells his ideas for thousands of dollars a year and calls it a career. The penny man appears to be the fool on the street with such a ridiculous venture, yet who is the bigger fool – he who is selling, or the cooperate world who pauses to buy, keeping him in business? What if we quit buying his pennies? What if we quit buying someone else’s ideas for the prices they demand? Which example of business is the more true consequence of corrupt consumerism?

I want to find him again someday to trade his penny for a cup of coffee. What is his story? What has been his life journey? How many times has he been trodden over by life?

Caroline and Chloe [Rachel, south Minneapolis]

Caroline is a homeless woman who sits in front of the IDS Tower in downtown Minneapolis. Her two year old daughter, Chloe, has spent some of her most developmental years understanding this life as the norm. Her sense of trust and security (from Erickson’s Eight Stages of Social-Emotional Development) is based on the constant motion and transient society of the street community. Where is her source of hope? What can she trust? As she is asserting herself as an individual, who is she defining herself to be? What is she learning to become? How often does she face shame or doubt instead of assurance?

I met this small family two weeks ago when God interrupted my life by their presence as I was searching for the lucky penny man I had met only days earlier. I paused moments up the street to watch this mother care for her child. Most of the world passed by, but occasional schedules would break momentarily to “bestow good will” upon the impoverished family. Yet the human connection made in those moments was so minute. It lasted but a second with barely a spark lit between their eyes.

I awkwardly approached her and asked what kind of help she was waiting for. She said any help was good; a job would be wonderful. I wanted to help, yet I know that “bestowing good will” only places her socially bellow me.

She says she is from Philly and is a bartender. She is waiting for benefits to come through county social services, which is so commonly a hardship of all stories of life on the street. She has repeatedly been denied. She only has two weeks left in her house before she must relocate.

We agreed to meet for lunch the next day to trade a shared meal for her life story. Unfortunately, the weather turned bitter and she kept her daughter inside. Not coincidentally, I have run into her a few times since then. Today, she was at her wits end dealing with housing and benefit issues. She does not want to have lunch today because she’ll miss the “gifts” others drop in her hand. She wants so badly to be self-sufficient, but the world has degraded her to accepting hand-me-downs. I wonder what keeps getting in the way. Could she make better choices? How many times does one fall before they quit trying to get back up?

I gave her my phone number since she has no phone to call her at. She has promised to call me soon to share her story and a meal. I offered to share my life with her as well, knowing relationships are a two-way journey. I debated in my mind whether or not to buy food at the market for her, just a simple bag of apples would do. Would I only break our connection giving myself a social boost? I made the offer but she said lunch was enough. She would rather I shared moments in life with her than bestow upon her a good deed. I smiled as I left wondering how often she truly felt human friendship. Chloe is maybe the only one who truly knows her, and Chloe is only two. I touched her arm as I left. She reached out to me as well, but did not dare get close enough to quite brush my sleeve.