Monday, October 5, 2009

Got Plums?

During the spring, our two girls wanted to run a lemonade stand in the community. Risako and I weren’t sure about it. Then in August, a neighbor shared how her 12-year-old son bought a laptop and iPod with money earned at his lemonade stand on Queen Anne. A few days later, Risako, my partner, asked me to clean up the fallen plums from our yard. As she watched me work, she came up with a brilliant idea. The girls would sell the Italian plums from our tree, before they fell off the tree and rotted on the ground. I suggested adding water and doggie treats to the menu as well. People in Seattle just love their dogs.

Well, the first weekend the kids made $135 dollars. They definitely had a grace on their business; Risako reported making $60 dollars within the first two hours, while standing near a public restroom at Green Lake. The following week was quite different. They first day, after their return, it took six hours to make $4 dollars. The team returned home demoralized. Poor sales had taken the wind out of their “sales.”

The following evening, the nonprofit that I volunteer with invited us to join them for Childhaven night at a Mariner’s game in Safeco field. During the game, a vendor came by with cotton candy, announcing that it would cost $5 per child; they coolly waved him away. I was impressed. Instead, our three entrepreneurs decided to share nachos. While remaining silent at the start of this adventure, their budding awareness of finances moved me toward seeing things Risako’s way. But why had I been so ambivalent about the whole enterprise anyway?

After reflecting on the matter, my thoughts went back to returning with my mother to San Diego from Los Angeles to live near my grandmother, and my “grandma” having me help her clean offices — her second job. Worn out from the work, I had spent many a day sleeping during class in elementary school. Later on, when I was in junior high, my mom sent me to shine shoes with my grandfather. I continued to work and run small family businesses through high school and the first year of university. I learned a lot of valuable lessons about life and work during that era in our lives.

At the same time, I thought, every American is captured by the idea of social mobility, and every parent wants better for their children. But what does better mean? A great education at a good school, ballet and music lessons, I thought. What about the good that comes from real time encounters with the world? For example, shining shoes gave me the opportunity to engage all kinds of people. I wanted them to have a good education and the ability to understand the experience of poverty without being poor.

Risako put me to work despite my doubts. The following Friday night, I found myself out there on the trail at Green Lake. I also found myself quietly rationalizing the whole thing. Wasn’t it right for dad to support and protect his kids? I could teach them how to interact with their customers, I thought. As the day began to fade away, my doubts dissipated giving way to calm as peace began to prevail.
It sort of felt like I was back at the shoe-shine stand on Broadway in downtown San Diego, or at our ice cream shop, Papa Sweet’s. I found myself striking up conversations with the local folks. Even visitors who weren’t buying anything at all wanted to talk.

For a moment, I had the sense that I was being placed back in the marketplace for some unknown reason. When I first moved to the Emerald City, 20 years ago, I sold T-shirts on the corner of 23rd and Union, as well as in Seward Park and on Capitol Hill. I spent a lot of time talking to Seattleites and transplants from other cities. Looking back, some of my most enduring relationships are people that I hung out with back then: Maria Kang, Inye Wokoma, Caroline Scott, Efrom Howard, and tons of folks from the music scene.

Yet and still, this time around, it was indeed a humbling experience. Back then, I was a new to Seattle, and had blown into town wearing red, gold and green. My revolutionary "look" was accentuated by natty dreadlocks and a beard. At the time, I lived in a share house of other social outcasts in Wallingford.

This time around, I had returned to teach at an excellent Christian university, after spending almost seven years in Cambridge, Massachusetts, while earning two degrees at Harvard. In other words, something else was going on. It wasn't merely child's play at business that led me to submit to Risako's request. Now, I was straddling the tension between privilege and disadvantage.

My time in New England involved rubbing shoulders with the intellectual, social, and financial elite. However, in reality, I hadn’t moved far up the socioeconomic ladder. While standing at Green Lake, I was forced to admit to myself we could use a hand to pay for the kids' extracurricular activities and the technology they craved. But it was also an adventure, often it felt like a parable come to life.

On the one hand, I will never forget when a major televangelist walked past us. I yelled out, “Hey kids, look that’s the preacher mom likes on television.” He and his wife looked up for a minute and walked to the edge of the sidewalk and passed us by, twice. Like others, he had mistaken us for panhandlers.

On the other hand, unexpected people stopped to bless us; people with obvious ideological differences from the evangelical views that give shape to our lives. They offered their own fruit and friendship. One day, a homeless man gave our children money from his cup. They hesitatingly accepted it hoping that it would lift his spirits. In the end, we found ourselves in the car driving home asking, “Who had acted as our neighbor?”

At the end of our journey, during the month of August, I had a great deal of peace and some joy to go with it. On sales days, we would develop a gathering of folks who weren't even thinking about ending our conversations. These folks included lawyers, professors, teachers, graduate students, business people and a financial planner. One night, as a gift to themselves, the girls decided to go to the local Korean beauty shop for a cheap haircut on their dime. Another night, they wanted to purchase sushi. We were bonding as a family in unexpected ways.

A number of interesting interactions followed our business encounters.

One night I checked my email to find a message from our church. We had met a local scientist who had written to say that he wanted to get to know me better. He thought that we could run at Green Lake or I might attend a bible study. Wow! I had two other powerful moments that involved people on the streets of Seattle.

My girls began to ask us to help others, the poor, the homeless. One Saturday, they wanted Maestro, a dreadlocked shoe-shine man downtown, to polish their soccer cleats. I’ve known Maestro since my early days as a wannabe Rastafarian when I first arrived in Seattle, back in ‘88. His street pose had always signaled a cool indifference. While cleaning the girls' shoes, Maestro told them about how doing honest work allowed him to awake in the morning to a person who he had no problems facing: himself. After they paid him for their shoe shines and his wisdom, Maestro looked me square in the eyes and quietly said, “I love you man.”

It would be impossible for me to convey to you, my dear reader, what these words of reconciliation meant to me. I had sought some kind of a connection with this man for decades, but he had remained aloof despite all my gestures. Twenty one years later, providence had intervened unexpectedly as we aimlessly walked down the street. My children’s concern and tolerance had melted his facade. Reconciliation didn’t stop there.

The following week, I was exiting a grocery store where a woman, though I'm not sure, was selling the homeless newspaper. She seemed a little scattered and disorganized. Without my eyeglasses, I stared trying to discern whether or not she was sober. Walking over to the corner, I gave her a dollar, she looked at me and said, “Thanks for seeing me and coming over to help me.”

In that moment, I realized the treasure of our experience, as a family. To begin with, somehow it felt as though we had become more of a family. More importantly, our light and momentary struggles had opened our eyes to the pain of others, their humanity; their poverty became more real to us. If I had returned to Seattle to a cushy job and lots of money, I might have become smug and raised children who would overlook the poor. This possibility had quietly been a constant fear. At this point, however, I’m certain that my girls will continue to see those who are in need. My hope is that they will continue to have an amazing capacity for empathy.

1 comment:

Jordan Daniel Wolfe said...

Wonderful thoughts! I love the lenses of vision that can only come with the willingness of those who have lived at the different socioeconomic levels or go there themselves. I come from a family that has been living off of faith in our finances for years and it has instigated an exceeding gratefulness to be here at SPU and in the heart of a beautiful city.
I have resized many though many students do not have the contrast. Thank you for painting one, keep doing it, and let me know if there are ways that I can help as a student to paint the picture of our incredible blessing. Good thoughts!