Archive for January 2nd, 2010

If I had to use one word to sum up today, it would be frigid. 

I hopped on the Metro and headed down to Union Station.  David, a journalist from CNN, had asked to meet with me and do a story on the Year of Giving.

It was really cold.  The 45+ mph wind gusts didn’t help either. 

I love Union Station.  For those of you who are not from DC, you should definitely check it out if you come to town.  The 101 year-old building’s 96-foot barrel-vaulted, coffered ceilings are bathed in 22-karat gold leaf.  The beautiful white granite takes you back in time to when Union Station was the largest train station in the world.  With its majestic ceilings and definitive architectural lines, Union Station seems right at home among the many monuments and classic governmental buildings that surround the transportation hub.  

I saw David crossing the main hall toward the enormous Christmas tree (I think they may be calling it a Holiday Tree this year to be politically correct) that looks much smaller than it actually is given the large cavernous space that now serves as its home.  I wonder how long they will leave the tree up, today is January 2nd.

We sit down and David asks me some questions and shoots a little video.  Then I invite him to follow me as I give out my $10 for the day.  He has a very discreet hand-held camera that he fires up and trails behind me.  I urge him to go outside with me, despite the frigid temperature.  We walk outside and the cold stark wind greets my skin with noticeable chill.  We wander away from the historic building like two people inching their way out into the ocean, ever mindful not to get too far from shore.  It isn’t long before we start heading back toward the warmth of Union Station.  I don’t want to surrender just yet though and I decide to walk around to the side of the building where the Metro entrance is located.  About 15 feet away tuck in a corner sat the recipient of Day 19’s $10.

John was sitting on a piece of cardboard with a sign that read, “Help me get a bus ticket to New Orleans” or something to that nature.  He had a plastic cup cradled between his feet with a few dollars inside.  His face was fairly well protected from the cold but he didn’t have any gloves on and I was seriously worried about him.  I walked up to him and asked how he was doing.

He responded in a slow semi-dazed voice that he was ok but that he needed money for a bus ticket to New Orleans.  The 25-year-old said that he recently broke up with his boyfriend in Vermont and was trying to get to New Orleans where his father had a place.  He said he didn’t have enough money for the entire trip, so he made it to DC and now needed to gather some more money for the remainder of the journey.

You want to believe John, but part of me wonders if I am getting the real story.  A woman interrupts us and tells John he should really get in a shelter and that he can go to nearby Adam’s Place, an emergency shelter for single men ages 18 and older run by Catholic Charities.  She shoves a few dollars into his cup and makes a final plea for him to get inside.  I urge him as well.  Today is the kind of day that hypothermia ceases to be something you read about and turns into something that you experience first hand.  He thanks her and also says that he has the Shelter Hotline number with him.  Last night he slept at a shelter but said that it was a terrible experience. 

John accepts my $10 and says he will put it toward the bus ticket to New Orleans.  Part of me wants to help more.  I offer to go with him to Adam’s Place and get him checked in for the night, but he says he will go later.   

Most of my time with John was somber.  I was concerned for his well being.  I feared how he fair should he not get out of these conditions.  Despite his dire straits, he finds it in him to let his mind wander away from reality and tells me how he really enjoys REO Speedwagon, Meatloaf, and the Scorpions.  I smiled and laughed a little.  He is probably the only 25-year-old that I know that is a huge fan of that genre of music.  It reminds me of a friend of mine, John Wilson, who is a huge music enthusiast in his mid twenties.  He could tell you almost anything you wanted to know about music recorded years before he was born.  Then again, my friend JW could talk solidly on just about any topic you could think up.

So I left John.  It was hard to walk away.  I invited David from CNN to come over and introduce himself to John.  I hadn’t told John that I was wearing a microphone and being filmed. I didn’t want to affect the experience.  David asked if he would allow the footage of him to be used in the story about the Year of Giving and he agreed.  It’s an awkward moment because as decent people we want to ask permission prior to the fact, however, in this case asking permission would certainly have changed the way the recipient would have acted.  David’s set-up is really minimalist and goes virtually unnoticed, so he is able to capture the events in a way that helps preserve the genuineness of the experience. 

David and I go inside to talk some more over coffee.  I can’t stop thinking about John and if he is still sitting on the frozen cement.  When we were finished, I walked by the spot where we met John.  He was gone.  I hope he sought out a warmer environment.

For those of you interested in the story that David is doing for CNN.com, I will follow up with some details when they become available…but it will probably be a few weeks.

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The first day of a new year.  There are probably so many interesting angles to examine on the first day of the year.  What does this year have in store for us?  Will the economy improve?  Is there peace in the future for Iraq, Afghanistan, Darfur, etc.?  Will world leaders make climate change a top priority of their administration?  Will Bill Cowher accept a job to return to coaching in the NFL?  (ok, that one is not probably on the minds of so many people, but I personally vote that he come to Washington and coach the Redskins!)

It’s an odd feeling on the first day of a new year.  It’s like the first day of a new job or the first day of high school.  You don’t feel any different, but things are somehow different.  For me, the biggest thing I notice when a year comes and goes is that I keep writing the old year by mistake on forms, checks, etc.  

That awkward feeling could perhaps describe the interaction that I had with today’s recipient.  I got a late start today.  I recovered from my evening of celebration and tried to get my condo cleaned up.  I decided to cook up a tray of lasagna.  I know my friends and family in Central Pennsylvania are probably horrified…there is a strong tradition there of cooking pork and sauerkraut on January 1st to ensure a year of good luck. After enjoying some lasagna and a glass of wine, I decided to head out to give my $10 away before midnight.  

I walked a little ways and came across a Rite Aid pharmacy.  I underestimated how cold it was tonight and was not dressed properly, so I thought that I would find someone inside to give the money to.  As I crossed the street and approached the pharmacy, I thought, I am going to give the $10 to the first person I see when I get inside. 

I didn’t a bit more walk through the door before I saw Melvin carefully studying the shelves in the first aisle.  I walked right up and asked him if he could help me out with a project.  He seemed a bit reluctant and started to try to get rid of me I think.  I quickly countered with, “it will probably only take 2 minutes and you get $10.”

That was all it took…and cash had exchanged hands.

Melvin has lived in DC for five years although he is originally from Honduras.  I asked if he was from Tegucigalpa and he replied that he was from a place about 6 hours from there by car.  I guess it is probably like if I was in Honduras and told someone that I was from the US and them asking if I was from Washington, DC.  Well, I guess that is a bad example since I in fact live here in DC, but anyway, imagine someone else…say from Oconomowoc, WI and them saying that they were from the US.  It would be kind of ridiculous to assume they were from our nation’s capital.

Anyway back to Melvin.  He seemed very nervous.  Perhaps that is a result of my rather hasty approach.  I exchanged a few words in Spanish to see if that might make him more comfortable, but he still seemed a bit on edge.  He said he was going to use the $10 to buy his 2 year-old son a toy.  That seemed to be a thoughtful use of my money and I bet it will make his boy happy.  He seemed eager to end the awkwardness and turned his attention back to his shopping.  I wished him a happy new year, shook his hand, and walked out of the store.

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