Give Something, Get Something


 Leaving campus today, the blue sky thin and distant and the morning chill lingering long into the afternoon with the first intimations of imminent fall, I passed a woman carrying a bag and a bucket and spray bottle, and instinctively, because her clothes spoke to wear and her dirty feet dragged off the edges of her sandals and because her brunette hair was long and unkempt and the skin of her face was patched and blotchy, as if burned or stricken by birthmark, I pulled my bag close to me, hoping to avoid the inevitable solicitation. I don’t have much myself, is what I say when the homeless ask, pretending reluctantly bohemian isn’t nonetheless a choice; when I see the signs the homeless carry as they line the side of the road at highway entrances and thoroughfares with stoplights, “God Bless,” and “Please,” and “Every Nickel helps,” I drive on certain the money will go to booze or drugs or both.

Now this woman calls from behind me in a plaintive voice: “Sir, I don’t want your money.”

I know this disclaimer isn’t true, but in her tone is already resignation that I will keep walking—it is as if she wants this statement to be true, that perhaps in saying she wants nothing she could wish herself away from the size of her need. I turn and face her. She is younger than I thought—perhaps only twenty-five, not thirty. Her clothes fit badly, and she is heavy-boned and thick-bodied, sun-browned folds of flesh visible where her top and too-tight denim jeans meet. She has taken the time and care to fold the bottoms of the jeans up in the style of the college girls here. Her skin is bad, a pastiche of angry reds and unhappy pinks, elsewhere unnaturally pale for the season, but she has a kind face, the parenthesis of smile lines about her mouth worn deep.

I take a deep breath. “What exactly do you want?”

She regards me with steady eyes, raises the spray bottle she’s carrying and cranes her chin at the rucksack slung over her shoulder, folded newspaper spilling from the top. “I want to wash your car windows. If you want to give me some money for it, that’s your choice.”

I glance at my Ford Focus, dust-caked to the point that invites teenagers to scrawl missives like “Wash me!” on the windows. “Ok,” I say, pointing out the car.

She grins, swings the rucksack off her shoulder with more enthusiasm than grace and tosses it to the ground, seizes a great fistful of newspaper and the spray bottle and goes to work on the first window. “This is pretty dirty,” she observes.

“I’m not so good about washing it.” I watch her scrub and scrub at a pinch of birdshit dried hard to the window, at the dozen other avian gifts dotting the window. It takes a long time to clean just one window panel, and as I stand I have the impulse to grab a piece of paper and help, have to remind myself that the point is to get something in return for my money. I can’t help but think of the recent comments by the Republican Presidential candidate, Mit Romney, about the freeloading 47% of Americans and their outsized sense of entitlement. Is this woman freeloading now on my largesse? Or do I feel entitled to the right to sit back and watch her abase herself in the sun?

The woman rounds the car and meets my gaze and says, “I don’t usually have to do stuff like this. Usually the services are available at the Mission and Saint Vincent’s and Food for Lane County. But today it’s all closed what with the yearly celebration downtown and it being Sunday. I have to find a way to feed my daughter.”

I nod to acknowledge her declaration of necessity; I recognize this daughter could be sheer invention, the hungry child an unassailably benign responsibility. I also know that my best friend in the world is a single mother of three who’s smart and talented and has a graduate degree, but the bad summer the economy crashed and she lost her job and couldn’t find work and the state denied her childcare credit, she swallowed her pride and took her kids to the soup kitchen, accepted bags of food from friends, sold her treasured books and finally even tried to hock her own plasma to make ends meet. I know I don’t truly understand what blood money really means, or what it is to offer up the vein, to be willing to give anything just to get by, but I have learned this: just because a story has utility doesn’t mean it’s false. I watch the woman scrub and scrub, the soft flesh of her arms shaking, her letting out little grunts of effort. First I fish a couple dollars from my pocket; after a time, I return the ones for a five.

When the woman finishes, I go to her and hold out the money and say “Thank you,” and she doesn’t thank me back because she’s worked for her money, because maybe this really is her first time at the mercy of charity and she hasn’t yet accepted the shame of asking, let alone learned to forget it. Instead, she says, “You should probably get your car washed,” and smiles, shoulders her bag and retreats with trundling steps. And I realize she has more dignity than I do, standing here in the sun wishing I’d given more, pretending there’s anything adequate that isn’t offered freely.


Listen to Michael read his essay:

Update Required
To play the media you will need to either update your browser to a recent version or update your Flash plugin.

Michael Copperman's work has appeared in The Sun, The Oxford-American, Guernica, Creative Nonfiction, and Triquarterly Online, and garnered fellowships and awards from the Munster Literature Center, the Oregon Arts Commission, Literary Arts, and Bread Loaf Writer's Conference. His memoir about teaching in the rural black public schools of the Mississippi Delta, Faces Bright, Voices Loud, is forthcoming from University Press of Mississippi. More from this author →