start with a sandwich

By Kathryn Baxter
Woman Newspapers

This morning, on a surprisingly warm day considering that autumn is well under way, I stood outside my local coffee shop. Just a few days ago, the winds were blowing strong and cold and the sun has now begun to set before I even get home from work. I could almost taste autumn in the air (though it might have been the smell of pumpkin-­everything creeping from each cafe I passed.)

While my partner went in to get our food, I perched outside guarding our bicycles. Ten feet away, an older woman sat on the bench by the cafe’s front door amidst several other coffee swillers, and gently asked each person who walked toward the front door if they would be able to help her out with a sandwich. I tried not to pay her much mind. There are a few characters who show up in the neighborhood from time to time, approaching as though they need directions or intend to ask the time, and then launch into long stories that never match what they told you the day before, but always conclude in needing something (money). Usually, said characters do not seem sober and so I feel almost certain that I know the money isn’t going to buy themselves or their kids food or to fare for the bus or subway, as they might try to convince me.

I’ve mentioned before that I live in New York City, but I’m sure it’s not all that different anywhere else. We build up shields to strangers. Don’t take up too much of my time. Don’t tell me an obviously false sob story and then ask for my money. Maybe it isn’t like that in other places. Maybe you’re reading this and feeling utterly disappointed in me, your peer on this planet who sometimes turns a cold shoulder to people in need. Here in the City, we’re told all the time to give to charities and organizations that deliver care to those in need, not to those who ask for it on the street or subway. We’re told that this is the only way to ensure your money is going to actually help those in need, by providing food and shelter instead of drugs and the like. But it isn’t always easy to turn away from someone’s story that just gets into your heart. And when I let those moments pass me, the moments where I’m teetering on the fence of do I help and do I look away, it eats at me.

So this morning, I stood there and listened to that woman asking for a sandwich outside of a sandwich shop. We all sat or stood around and ignored her. We kept our eyes on our fancy phones. We said nothing except for an occasional “Sorry.” Until a young duo, maybe in their late 20s, approached the front door.

Again, the woman asked for help getting a sandwich, but this time the young man stopped and looked at her for a moment. It was just enough of a peripheral pause that I stopped scrolling on my phone to glance up.

“What kind of sandwich do you want?”

“Whatever you can afford.”

And that was it. My heart collapsed. I could afford to buy her a sandwich. I could buy her 10. I could take her to the grocery store and stock her kitchen up for the week. So why didn’t I? Why don’t I?

I’ll tell you the truth. Because I’m uncomfortable. Because I tend to isolate and detach. Because I rarely believe in how good it feels to contribute to the well­being of another until the moment I’ve done it. I want to give, and I want the connection to my community that contributing gives me, but I’m wary of being taken advantage of. I’m nervous that I’ll end up with someone who depends on me, rather than someone whom I might help get on their feet. I am not super happy admitting that. I don’t like that my comfort zone for charity comes with such self­-focused conditions. But I also think that being honest about them will help me find a way that I can give.

My father retired a few years ago and now, among other things, volunteers with Meals on Wheels, spending a good chunk of one day each week delivering food to those in need. If I don’t yet have that kind of time to contribute, I can certainly send a check. If I couldn’t afford to send a check, I know that online organizations like Charity Navigator (for example) could help me find a way to contribute that suits me.

We try to act like philanthropy should be altruistic, that it is never about the mutuality of giving. But the truth is, whether it is helping someone carry a big baby stroller up some subway stairs or sending a donation to WaterAid, I feel better after having helped someone else. I feel better after watching someone help another who is in need. I feel especially better when I know just where my effort or money went, whom it actually helps and how it actually helps them.

Recently the ALS Association created one of the most successful viral campaigns ever: “ALS Ice Bucket Challenge”. Did you participate? If gave your $10 – lunch money for much of our country – how did it feel? Was the sound akin to a penny tossed in a wishing well? A nice tight kerplunk followed by quiet? Maybe you challenged 10 friends and one or two carried the momentum forward? Maybe all of them did. Maybe none. Maybe you didn’t even get involved. Either way, more of us know what ALS is (huge success right there) AND, as of the most recent update I found on the ALS Association’s website, the campaign raised about $115 million dollars. Seriously. That tidy little kerplunk of your $10 note that seemed to end with you? It didn’t. Other people gave. And that is the whole point. We don’t do it to be a superhero. We do it because we can. And those that can, when coming together, change everything.

As a species, we are better off in communities. It’s how we have survived for so long. But to act like the sense of mutuality is a farce – that the act of giving isn’t also an act of getting – it actually undermines all the best parts of being a part of a community. So for this holiday season, I will put my name on my list. And I will get myself the gift of giving. I may not be able to solve world hunger, but I will find a way to contribute to my community’s well­ being – so that I may contribute to myself as well.