Giving was a concept my mother tried to instill in me when I was young, but for some odd reason it never quite stuck. If I learned anything from birthdays it was this: It was much, much better to receive than to give.
The first time I gave (willingly) to someone, I was 12. Our family had traveled from North Carolina to Virginia Beach for a craft show. I was helping dad pack up for the day when an old black man in an Acapulco shirt approached me.
“Hey,” he said. “Remember me? It’s Pappy!” I didn’t remember this Pappy fellow. How did he know me? “Say, youngblood, won’t you lend old Pappy a dollar.”
A classmate asked me for ten cents and I’d tell him to get lost. But Pappy had me under a spell. Nobody that old had ever asked me for money. Dad was hanging back, watching as I pulled out my velcro wallet and handed old Pappy a dollar.
Pappy shook my hand, and when he was gone dad came up and, in a curious tone, said, “Why did you give him a dollar?”
“He said his name was Pappy. I felt like I knew him.” I felt very foolish.
Twelve years later I was in the strange town of Austin, Nevada. I’d recently quit my first job after college and was cruising around the country, finding myself. Half-crazed from driving and loneliness, I parked on Main Street and took a walk around.
I’d locked my keys in the car. The police didn’t carry slim jims. “They took ‘em away from us,” said the cop behind the desk. “We scratched too many cars.” He wrote down the name and address of a man named Jeremiah. “He can do just about anything,” said the cop.
I climbed a hill and found Jeremiah on a ladder inside a gutted house. He had a beard and very kind blue eyes. “Hello, brother,” he said upon seeing me at the doorway.
I told him my predicament and, after some convincing, we walked toward my car. I don’t know why, but I told him about a girl I was seeing, and how I maybe wanted to be a writer, something I’d never told anyone. I told him this as he broke into my car, popping the lock with a coat hanger.
“Thanks,” I said, and offered him a 20, which for me was a lot.
“No,” he said. “You keep that. Instead, I want you to do me a favor.”
“Do something kind for someone else. That’s how you can repay me.”
I put my wallet away. Once again I felt very foolish.
Recently, I was clearing out the bottles from my Düsseldorf apartment to return to the market. While placing them in a bag, I found a fortune stuck to the bottom of a beer bottle, which was weird. I hadn’t had Chinese food in a while, let alone a fortune cookie, but there it was.
“IF YOU CONTINUALLY GIVE,” it read, “YOU WILL CONTINUALLY HAVE.”
The message stayed with me as I walked to the market. Where did it come from? Was it a sign?
I was in the cleaning supplies section, looking for dish detergent, when a very old woman came slowly down the aisle. She had grey hair to her shoulders and a shabby pink sweater. In her hands she carried a glossy gossip magazine.
“Guten tag,” she said, stopping beside me. Her eyes were like wet marbles. A single tear had rolled down her face. She didn’t know it was there. She said something in German that I didn’t understand, and then asked for money, which I understood perfectly.
“Zehn euro, bitte.” She was asking for ten euros (almost $14 US).
Dumbfounded, I explained that I didn’t have that much. She searched my face and asked where I was from. I told it, and she tried to bargain me down to nine.
“I want to buy this magazine,” she said, “…and some flowers.”
“I’m sorry,” I said, and walked across the store. As I fed the bottles into the bottle machine, I remembered the fortune and thought, This is too strange to be a coincidence. Suddenly I felt very foolish. It didn’t escape my attention that the universe had arranged this situation, and once again I’d blown it.
After collecting my deposit slip, I decided to follow the old woman. From behind the eggs, I watched her ask a woman in high heels and jeans for ten euro. She said no, as did the man in the pasta aisle. She even approached one of the stock boys. She was anything if not persistent. I thought for sure someone would give her the money, as Germans are usually quite charitable. But nobody did.
I followed her over to the periodicals rack, where she’d returned her gossip magazine. Casually I walked over and said, “Oh, hello again. Any luck?”
She raised her hands as if to say, Hey, what can you do?
“Here,” I said, and handed her enough to buy either the magazine or flowers.
“Five euros more?” she said, raising an eyebrow. The tear was still on her face.
“Bitte schön,” I said, which basically means you’re welcome.
“Danke,” she said.
She eyed the magazine, then walked over to the flower kiosk. As she picked out a small bouquet of roses, I wondered what she was thinking. What kind of person did she think I was? Did she think I was a successful writer who enjoyed handing out money to strangers? Did she assume young people owed her something? Did she think I was being a cheapskate? Should I have given more, or could it be that this whole experience was just practice?