My friend was sitting in her car the other day, waiting in a morning rush-hour line at a drive-up coffee shack. The wait for quick caffeine seemed interminable.
Three cars later, and edging toward being inexcusably late to an important meeting, she finally pulled up to the window. She ordered her usual soy latte, with an extra shot. Handing her the cup, the barista said, “no charge.” The customer before her had paid for her coffee.
So incredulous was my friend, she shot back with, “Are you sure? How much? Enough to pay for the whole thing?” Yes, the barista assured her. And a tip, too.
For a few minutes, my friend was floating in a happy, bumper-sticker world. A random act of kindness and all of that. The latte tasted better than usual.
So in the days leading up to Thanksgiving and in the month of holiday frenzy to come, I’ve got to say this: I’m grateful for unorganized charity. The guy who pays for the next latte in line, the woman who throws in an extra fare at the toll booth for the commuter behind her, even the person who lets you squeeze into her lane on the freeway without blaring the horn—I’m grateful for all of them. Their acts are random, friendly and unexpected. Giving at its very best.
I wish I’d thought of the unorganized-charity concept, but I didn’t. The great mind that introduced me to the concept was the late American writer Bernard Malamud. In his stunning 1963 short story “Idiots First,” the main character, an old and rapidly dying man, Mendel, must scratch enough money together to send his mentally disabled adult son Isaac by train to live with an uncle in California. Mendel first tries to pawn his gold watch, but the neighborhood pawnbroker will only give him $8. He needs another $35 for the ticket.
Next, Mendel visits Mr. Fishbein, a wealthy benefactor in the neighborhood. He begs Fishbein for a donation, anything to help him accomplish this one act—to see that his son is safe with family before Mendel dies. Fishbein is willing to help, but only by offering Mendel some leftover chicken dinner. Mendel says it isn’t food he needs, but cash. Fishbein stares blankly at the intruding Mendel and says: “I never give to unorganized charity, only institutions. Private contributions I don’t make. This is my fixed policy.”
If you’ve never had the pleasure of reading “Idiots First,” I won’t give away the ending. But it has everything to do with Mendel cheating Ginzberg the Angel of Death long enough to put Isaac safely on the California-bound train.
After several readings of “Idiots First” over three decades, I’ve come to understand the subtle difference between organized and unorganized charity. The anonymous latte buyer gets it. So does the man I once witnessed at the supermarket checkout line. He ponied up a couple of bucks to help the woman in front of him, who was embarrassed by coming up a little short on her grocery money.
On the other hand, the people behind a chilly little brochure that downtown Salt Lake City merchants distribute to shoppers and diners could use a little coaching on the unorganized charity model. “The Facts About Panhandling. And What You Can Do About It,” is the bold-faced headline on the pamphlet. It’s a product of the Salt Lake Downtown Alliance, an affiliate of the Salt Lake Area Chamber of Commerce.
Believe me, I understand their thought process. The Chamber types would prefer we who live, work or visit downtown to forego handing loose change to panhandlers and send it off instead to a reputable homeless aid program, food banks or other organized charity working for the general social good. By paying off the panhandlers, the warning goes, well-intentioned donors are, 1. probably feeding an alcohol or drug addiction, and 2. probably giving to someone who really isn’t poor, or homeless, but living quite well off the begging circuit.
It’s mostly true, I guess, though I do wonder how anyone could continually beg for change unless he had lost all his dignity long before. So there are days my colleagues and I make our way along Main Street and we simply choose not to buy the chamber’s line. Some days we give; some days we don’t.
This week I decided to start my own unorganized charity: I leave a few loose coins on one of the planter boxes, chess tables or public benches on Main Street. That way, no one has to go through the undignified process of approaching me for money. And I don’t have to get all haughty about handpicking who does and does not get the dough.
Besides, I’d rather not be another version of Malamud’s Mr. Fishbein. If I’ve got the spare change to give, I’m not going to tell anyone on the street how to spend it. If they’re hungry enough, I figure they’ll buy food. If it’s cheap vodka he’s after, that’s what he’ll buy.
It’s the best kind of charity I can think of, the unorganized variety. For my money, it takes care of both “thanks” and “giving.”