July 19, 2015

Fair Shares

I was raised in a household where ownership ruled over everything else. My mother, who was particularly materialistic, never let us touch the microwave or washer and dryer, because they were hers. Both my parents made it clear that nothing I had or used was actually mine—because they'd bought it, it was theirs, right down to the wall-to-wall carpeting on my bedroom floor. When I sat on it to play records, I was technically borrowing it from my parents.

They didn't teach me or my sister to share, ever. Although they constantly recited the old adage "Life isn't fair," they tried to split things evenly between the two of us. We got the same portions of food, even if I wanted less. We got the same bikes at the same time, even though my legs weren't yet long enough to reach the petals.

And there was never any such thing as "ours." Although my sister and I slept in the same bedroom, it was practically split right down the middle with an invisible line of demarcation. Everything was delineated between the two of us—which dresser drawers, which side of the closet. Even our tiny TV and brass-framed full-length mirror were considered my sister's, though I'm the one who ended up taking them with me to New York City.

One horrible day, after my sister and I had been arguing and playing a literal or figurative game of tug-of-war with our record collection, our mother got so fed up that she pulled out a bright blue permanent marker and instructed us each to write our own initial on the records we knew to be our own. I protested but complied, until I got to my Grease, Urban Cowboy, and Xanadu soundtrack LPs. They were the closest things I had to prized possessions at the time, so I begged my mother not to force me to deface them, merely for the sake of declaring ownership. I'd rather my sister play my records freely—and even think they were hers—than to indelibly draw the letter "S" in a circle on them.

But my mother wouldn't budge.

Subsequently, I decided if it was OK to defile my Grease soundtrack, then every possession was fair game. I wrote the letter "J" in a circle on the forehead of my sister's favorite doll in blue ballpoint pen ink. It was hers, and everybody was going to know it.

My father got so mad at me, he yelled at me scarily, dragged me into the basement to our makeshift play area, and snatched my Charlie Brown pencil, my favorite, and snapped it in two.

That was my lesson. An eye for an eye. They didn't realize they'd taught me to stake claims on objects. They taught me to destroy something in order to lay claim to it, rather than to simply share.

None of us ever ate off each others' plates, at restaurants or at home. We never tried each others' food. And when a treat disappeared from the pantry or freezer, my mother would quickly tabulate how many each of us had had to determine if any of us had unfairly indulged. (Ironically, it turned out that she was a secret overeater, and many of the missing Twinkies and gone down her gullet.)

I haven't had a lot in my life, so I've been selfish with a lot of it, guarding it vigilantly like a nightwatchman in battle. At one of my past office jobs, my boss's kids would come visit every day after school and raid the kitchen. They'd ask my coworker, "Can I have a piece of your bread for toast?" and she would say, "Of course you can. Here, let me make it for you." But one day when my boss's daughter came into my office holding my snack cup of mandarin oranges she'd confiscated from the fridge, asking if it was mine and if she could have it, I said, "No, and I think it's rude of you to ask."

She sheepishly returned it to the refrigerator.

Most kids seem naturally inclined to share—or, at least, feel entitled to your cookies. Of course, I'm always inclined to say, "Get your own!"

Maybe it's because those kids never needed anything. They weren't starving or malnourished. Their mother would've bought them anything they wanted.

Sometimes kids ask for something just to see if they can get it.

I still don't know how to share, really, but I'm learning how to let things go, and give them to other people who need them more than I do. Last year, I was hanging around Windward Circle in Venice waiting for a friend, and a barefoot woman walked by me saying, "Those are really nice sneakers. I wish I had some sneakers like that."

I was feeling unusually chatty for me, so I said, "Thanks! They're new."

Once I engaged her in conversation, she was emboldened enough to ask, "Can I have them?"

I didn't even have to think about it. I said, "Well, you can't have these, but I have another pair in my car that you can have."

And with that, I left her at the bus stop while I went back to my car and retrieved an old pair of K-Swiss from my trunk. They were dusty with a little tear in the side of one of them, and I didn't have any socks to give her, but they were better than nothing. They were certainly better than barefoot.

Today, I was walking back to my car in Pasadena in the rain, without an umbrella. I saw an older woman with a car sitting on a bus bench, also without an umbrella. As I waited for the pedestrian signal to tell me to walk, I asked her if she was OK, and if she needed an umbrella.

She said, "Well, I'm already wet..."

"I know you've got your hat, but you're going to get soaked out here. I have an umbrella in my car. I can go get it and give it to you."

She looked up at me incredulously. "I can't pay you for it."

"No no no, you don't have to pay me. I'll give it to you. It's an extra one. You can have it."

She didn't seem to know what to say, so I told her I would go get it and bring it back to her.

I don't think she expected to see me actually roll up in my car, get out, and hand her an umbrella. Once again, it wasn't a gift in perfect condition, but it was a lot better than no umbrella, and was one of those long ones with a curved handle and a pointy end, so it could double as a weapon if anybody messed with her.

I would probably never loan someone an umbrella, and I really hate squeezing under one with another person, but I was happy to give her the umbrella. I'd only used it once or twice, and it had been getting in the way of my trunk. But when she asked if I was headed in her direction, I had to say, "I can't give you a ride, but enjoy the umbrella and please be safe."

I then blew her a kiss. I'm not sure why.

I know it was a small gesture, but then again, I know the impact that others' small gestures have had on me in the past. I don't know if this woman was homeless or out of it or what, but it just seemed like she needed a little help, and that much I could give her. While we were chatting, a homeless man seized the opportunity to tell me he was hungry and ask for help. I was holding a takeout box with some leftover food in it, so I handed it to him and asked, "Do you want a piece of grilled watermelon with goat cheese and balsamic?"

It's probably not exactly what he hand in mind, but he took it anyway, opened the box, and walked away with it without thanking me.

But as I hopped back into my car and started to pull away from the red curb of the bus stop, back into traffic, I could see the woman waving goodbye to me, mouthing the words "thank you" from under the shelter of her umbrella.

Related Posts:
The Kindness of Strangers
To What Do I Owe?
Life on the Curb

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