It was the time of the Great Recession and I was desperate for cash. Yes I, a college graduate with a Master’s Degree Summa Cum Laude, jobless and occupying someone else’s home. My official title was house sitter but I felt more like a house squatter. My gratitude was immense, my shame visceral.
One sunny Saturday, I took a walk to the local jewelry store to sell my valuables for a mere pittance. I had decided to give up my special Peridot ring in order to pay a debt a gnat’s eyelash away from the collection agency.
My favorite aunt had surprised me with the ring when I graduated from high school. I’m not sure what was a bigger shock back then, actually managing to graduate or the exquisite piece of jewelry cushioned in the blue velvet box. It was a lovely ring with a substantial stone, green as a new baby leaf glistening in the morning dew.
I had conducted a farewell ceremony with my cherished ring the day before. Selling valuables had become a habit with me. It started with the silver dollar my dad gave me when I was twelve. He brought it back from a business trip to Las Vegas. He had been excited about the coin because it had been minted during his birth year. I felt a bit guilty about selling the coin. After all, my dad hardly ever presented me with little treasures. I sold the dollar for twenty-four dollars. The cash softened the blow.
As I headed down the street with my ring on my finger for the very last time, I felt a bit melancholy. What a shame that life had come to this. Selling my ring so that it could be melted down for someone else’s trinket seemed wrong.
I tried to hurry down the sidewalk so that I could complete the transaction quickly. However, that turned out to be a bit of a challenge. The little beach village was swarming with people perusing the local fair. The annual chocolate festival was in full swing. There were chocolate connoisseurs who seemed excited at the prospect of trying chocolate tamales or chocolate pizza. Some more traditional chocolate lovers expressed disappointment at the lack of pies and cakes.
I zigzagged through the crowds observing a true slice of Americana. There were small families dressed in designer clothing with matching offspring. There were larger families parading along with grandparents bringing up the rear. Some took baby bites and deposited the rest in the overflowing trash receptacles. Others seemed to be savoring their morsels to the very last smidgen. Children with chocolate mustaches displayed emotions ranging from agony to ecstasy. Oh yes, the fragrance of chocolate filled the air as people with disposable incomes lined the streets shopping for the perfect delicacy.
And then there were the homeless. Many were filling grocery bags with partially eaten food taken from the trash. Some were asking for donations. The chocolate lovers zoomed past the homeless as if they were trying to avoid a contagious disease. No one seemed to be in the mood to donate. One individual sat strumming his gently loved guitar a few feet away from a glistening red Ferrari. He seemed content to luxuriate on a dilapidated old lawn chair with his contribution container close at hand. Pain shot through my belly as I observed the shocking inequality in a country my mom used to refer to as, “The Most Powerful on Earth.” I felt the need to do something, anything, to make the situation a little bit more palatable. I looked at the musician and smiled at him. He responded with, “Hi sweetheart, what’s happening?” I responded with, “Not much, how about you?” It felt good to be asked how I was doing. I was grateful to be able to connect with another human being, especially someone who seemed to be in such a state of utter peace amongst all the chocolate chaos. Even though he didn’t respond to my question, I wished him a good day and told him to take good care. He replied, ”You too, sweetheart.”
That sidewalk musician will never know how much I appreciated our brief, yet uplifting interaction. When I was feeling low he was there to remind me of something that I had forgotten. Human connections are sacred and much more valuable than any piece of gold. In addition, whenever we start feeling sorry for ourselves, we must remember that there are always people on our planet struggling with challenges worse than our own. It’s like that old adage, “I felt sorry for myself for not having any shoes until I met a man who had no feet.” I pictured those hungry folk wolfing down other people’s leftovers in the comfort of their cardboard homes. I wondered who had enjoyed the chocolate bounty more, the homeless population or the local merchants.
Whatever the case, I was struck by the epiphany that we are all really the same. A quick change in circumstance and any one of us could become homeless. We should never become too comfortable in the illusion that life has guarantees. How many homeless people are actually born homeless? We are doing ourselves a great disservice if we believe that we are protected from life’s hardships. Now is the time for us to open our minds and our hearts to help humanity. After all, any one of us could be that person fishing in the garbage for leftovers. I wonder how it would feel to be on a treasure hunt for someone else’s trash. I am deeply humbled by this question as I remember my angst at having to sell a piece of jewelry.