Blog post by Rose M, a Kindness Investor from Forest Park, IL.
Today I gave ten dollars to forty-eight year old Michael B, from Cicero. I found him while I was walking around my neighborhood on a gorgeous day. The weather is behaving itself, acting like a spring day should act, so lots of people are out “taking in the air.”
Michael was sitting on the curb outside McDonald’s, next to his blue bike. Initially I’d thought to go into McDonald’s and find someone so I at first passed up Michael. Inside I found a scruffy-looking middle-aged man drinking a cup of coffee by himself who let me explain the Year of Giving to him before refusing to take the money.
“You should find someone who really needs it,” he said. Frankly, he looked to me like he really needed it, but I took him at his word.
“Well,” I replied, “you could take it and then find someone worse off to give it to.” He considered that option momentarily before again refusing politely. I sensed I had hurt his pride. Thanking him for his time, I left in search of another stranger.
Michael was still there, sitting quietly on the curb listening to his iPod. He had a worried look on his face, and seemed absorbed in his thoughts. As I approached he got up and started to unlock his bike. I asked him if he had a minute to talk about a project and he said yes warily. So once again, I explained the Year of Giving and my role in it.
“Well, who wouldn’t want ten dollars for nothin’,” he joked. “But what do I gotta do to get it?”
“Nothing,” I said.
He looked taken aback. I wondered if he thought I was trying to sucker him into a change-making scam. I guess I looked too innocent for that sort of business because he started to act more curious than suspicious.
“So when is this supposed to happen,” he asked.
“Right now,” I replied cheerily. “I’ve got the money right here in my back pocket.” For some reason I felt like the Flying Nun at this moment, swooping in to save the day.
I saw a smile finally brighten his face. “Sit right down, then,” he said, waving his hand in the direction of the curb as if he were ushering me into his office.
I handed him the ten as I sat. He took it from me reluctantly, saying, “It don’t matter. The money don’t matter.” Once again, I sensed pride was at stake here. I asked him right away what he planned to do with his ten. He said he would use it to pay for transportation to work later that day. I asked him what he did for a living.
“I’m a welder,” he replied with some pride.
“How’s business these days,” I asked.
“Terrible,” he replied, “just terrible.” Michael went on to explain to me how his field has been railroaded by temporary hiring agencies like Manpower and Benchmark Staffing. “You go to Careerbuilders.com and you look for welders or tool and die jobs, and you won’t find one—not one—that isn’t handled through an agency.”
The cost to Michael has been high. Recently he was hired to do a job for $13/hr that would have paid him $25/hr a few years ago. His income is now a fraction of the $70K he used to make, and as a result he’s been battling foreclosure for the past eight months. Jobs for Michael only last a few months at a time, and then he is again on unemployment. Sometimes that gets tricky. For instance, he had listed his resume with 75 (yes, 75) different temp agencies. One of those agencies reported to the government that he now had a contract with them, even though they had not supplied him with any work. His unemployment was cancelled because of the meaningless contract.
Lack of health insurance is another problem. Temp agencies rarely provide it. Michael’s health is ok, but this past year has been tough due to a cold he has been unable to kick. I could hear the rattle in his chest as we talked. Occasionally he had to stop our conversation to cough.
“It’s from the public transportation,” he explained. “I have to ride the trains and buses all the time now and there’re full of homeless people. Homeless people are just livin’ on them, and they’re sick. They’re coughin’ and sneezin’ and spittin’ on the floor.” A look of disgust came over his face. “I get better for a little while and then it just comes back again.”
I asked Michael about unions, “Aren’t they helping?”
“They said they would help me. I belonged to three unions, and I paid my dues. I kept paying them until I couldn’t afford to anymore and then I gave up because they weren’t doing anything. They were just sittin’ on the bench.”
In addition to the nagging cold, I could hear the exasperation in his voice. I share his frustration. It seems to me the recession has settled into middle America like a lava flow slowly hardening around its ankles. It has been enough to put anyone into a foul mood and I wished then and there I could do more for Michael. I thought it might help if I got him talking about what has helped him survive this difficult time in his life.
“I’ve always had to fight,” he replied. He went on to tell me about moving to Texas as a child. His father promptly bought a fancy car and left his mother there with five kids. Michael never saw his dad again. Later they moved back to Chicago where he lived until he was sixteen. “Then my mom kicked me out because she had all those other mouths to feed.”
“Michael, I’m sorry,” I said. “That sounds really tough. I can see you’ve had to fight to survive a lot in your life.”
I hoped I sounded genuinely sympathetic and not like I felt sorry for him, or like I wanted to smack his lousy parents for making him feel unwanted and unloved. But Michael, I could tell, was not going to feel sorry for himself. “The Lord gives me strength for it,” he responded. “He has a plan for me somewhere along the line. Besides, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”
These are the gritty slogans that keep Michael going, and frankly, I’m amazed he can live on such thin soup. He told me sometimes he gets inspiration from watching Joel Osteen on TV. I can’t say I get inspiration from a man whose greatest struggle in life is deciding whether to live in a really big house or a mansion. However, I am moved by Michael, who is fighting tooth and nail to keep his modest home, his health and his dignity as a skilled working man. We stood and shook hands.
“Well, Michael,” I said, “I better let you go. I know you have to get to work.“Good luck with…with.”
Michael laughed as together we both finished the sentence together“…with everything.”
Michael climbed on his bike, and I turned and walked towards home, wondering if a ten-dollar band-aid could possibly fix anything.