As I walked York Street in New Haven a young woman sat, legs crossed, on the sidewalk, in front of her a cup. “Please, any change,” she asked. I looked at her and understood. “Sister, just twelve hours ago I was you…”
Lifestyle is like the tide. It ebbs and flows and the best we can do is float. If I were to choose the artist to paint the landscape of my life, it would, of course, be my favorite, Claude Monet. Unfortunately, I can only afford Ernst Richterfuzen. Exactly. No one has heard of him. Financial security. There is no other reason the past six weeks, post surgery, have been eye opening. This day was the most of all. It was a Saturday and I slept in. Hugo and Cody, their little bodies lying next to me with subtle breaths, were still. The plan was to wake early, putter around the house and knock out my Physical Therapy. After, and since I am able to drive, a visit was overdue with my nephew, Christopher.
The plan changed when Maria texted and asked if they could visit me instead and swim in the pool. Elated, I agreed and headed for home. As I passed the “Field View Farm” the sign out front reeled my car in. “Ice Cream”. On a scorching summer day what could be better? “What flavor ice cream” my hands texted quickly as I sat before the dairy farm barn with its sliding window for orders. How could Chris visit without a special treat, not to mention I’d wanted to try their product out. And then, it was before me. The bold lettered sign. “CASH ONLY”. This was a problem.
While working, I am never without cash. It lives in my pants pockets, my car and on my person, but since not working because of surgery, it is non-existent these days. I had two options, plead poverty and hope the high school girls behind the counter took mercy or scour the car for any remnants of cash leftover from six weeks ago. Opening the glove compartment and tearing through papers and sunglasses cases, there was nothing. My head, while not small, squeezed under each seat, my arms violating the space in assault mode. Again, nothing. In the console, so deep, I was seemingly digging a burial plot. And there they were— three one dollar bills. This was a start. Ripping through papers, receipts and the cleansing hand wipes, at the very bottom, between a folded receipt, mercifully, was a ten. I had a total of thirteen dollars and was elated—thirteen was the “new” lucky number.
“What are some favorites?” The young girl with the curly hair suggested “Moose Tracks”, a concoction of vanilla ice cream, hard fudge and Reese’s peanut butter cups. “Sounds good, he’ll like that. What about the chocolate chip?” She smiled and said, “Can’t go wrong,” and started to pull the containers. “That’ll be 15.40.” I stared at my palm holding the thirteen dollars. Was this really happening to the king of cash? Suddenly a Xanax was in order. Actually an ATM would have been better.
“I only have thirteen dollars.” I can’t imagine it actually but it was like a bullet shattering my cranium. She most likely wasn’t, but I felt her pitying me. “I didn’t know you only took cash.”
It was a semi-truth created to sound as if I was not impoverished. I hadn’t been this uncomfortable since the salesgirl at Goodwill, after purchasing a four dollar gown for Halloween, asked, “Would you like to become a ‘Frequent Buyer’…It can save you twenty percent off this purchase?” That eighty cents could have come in handy right now, had I not been an imperious snob.
“ You can just buy one pint.” That was an option except it wasn’t, but she did not know me. I needed choices for my nephew and quite frankly me. I stared at the ten and three ones as if it would compound there in my hand the. Turning again to the price list I noticed two large cups with lids was affordable. A resolution at last.
“That’ll be $12.75,” she announced and, lifting the window screen, collected my fortune. I noticed a plastic container on the counter with the bold words, “TIPS FOR COLLEGE EDUCATIONS”.
As she handed me the change I dropped the dollar and several coins into the tip cup. “I’m so sorry, it’s all the money I have…or I’d give you more.” My apology made no difference to her.
“We appreciate any donations, thank you.”
Collecting the ice cream, I entered my car and started the engine so the coolness would come quickly. After that episode there could be no risk of it melting. Besides, I couldn’t afford to replace it. Pulling away laughter overtook me. As my Jaguar SUV pulled away, down the dirt and pebble driveway, I wondered if they were thinking, “He lives way beyond his means…and he’s cheap.”
These past weeks, and the months to come, have been invaluable. Driving home I thought of my parents, sound, secure and happily middle class. On a warm day, not unlike this, my father came home from work. He told my mother, “It’s over. I don’t have a job after next week.” He’d dedicated his life, forty years or better, to a company and when the sons of the owners took over they let all of the “old guard” go. Our parents had not denied us anything within reach, but now, a once solid world became like the Jell-O molds she’d create for summer picnics, shaky.
They survived. Certain choices were made to economize. We pitched in to help and ultimately I gave a position at the salon to our mother. My father took in work for the men he’d done business with and the tide turned. It was a lesson in the art of being humbled and the art of appreciation. Today, I am humbled. I have a better understanding of those, who not by choice, live modestly. And while mine is hopefully temporary, it showed a new perspective. I haven’t great wealth but have gained knowledge, very much the equivalent. And I have, at the end of the day, like so many, simply floated in the tide.
**Just a footnote: My father had done business as a gentleman and forged relations with companies his former employers relied on. When the “old guard” of those companies stopped doing business with his former employer’s sons the sons asked my dad to return on a “case by case” basis. My mother gave my father advice. “Tell them to go to hell.” And he did. Two years later the company filed for bankruptcy and ceased operating.