HOLLYWOOD—It is always possible to give. Regardless of one’s beliefs, one always has the means to give. Even in these trying economic times, as people cut back and do financial contortions as never before, and the ”˜no’ is already on their lips and requests for charitable donations do a loop-de-loop and sail unopened straight into the circular file, the knowledge that it is possible to give can be an abiding comfort and self-generated source of strength. I know.
Nine years ago, my wife and I relocated to Los Angeles, after meeting and establishing our married lives in Mexico. Back in the states, we endured some very harsh and uncertain times. Although this was my native culture, my married status made me vulnerable in fresh new ways, unimaginable to my previous bachelor self, to L.A.’s wickedness. After only a few weeks here, we learned a baby was on the way. This joyful news served to ramp up anxieties over finding a job and a place to live. While we struggled to create a phony job reference and sidestep our lack of credit history, and somehow manage to sign a rental contract somewhere, anywhere, all around were glittering emblems of material success: the Sunset Strip crackled with electricity, outdoor tables teemed with beautiful happy hipsters with perfect laser-whitened teeth, curvaceous cobalt Bentley’s purred around and to the hillsides clung villas straight out of Dwell that, ironically, seemed utilized only by cadres of gardeners and housekeepers.
At the end of another day spent seeking to put the mattress on a friend’s floor behind us, we sought nourishment and respite at Yoshinoya on Vine. In the parking lot, a giant of a man in great shambling shoes and a long, ragged overcoat had his large hand out. My wife and I shook our heads sadly and told him we were sorry, no money. I gestured forlornly to my pocket and stopped just short of pulling it inside out. Then we incongruously went into the Japanese fast food chain to exchange lucre for dinner.
A half hour went by as we dined on beef teriyaki and rice. I gazed at my wife’s growing form and wondered what the future held.
We emerged, well fed and restored. The giant of a man came forth from the shadows. What could he want from us now? The muscles in my face formed a scowl. The man proffered a giant palm full of the coins he’d panhandled while we were eating. This windfall of silver and copper, was so unexpected and so overwhelming, tears welled up in my wife and I. Akin to the emotional about-face a parent does when about to reprimand a child for littering, and it turns out they were leaving a paper on which is scribbled, “I luv you.”
We left the parking lot speechless in our Tercel, and soon felt compelled to go back and thank the Giant and pour forth what feelings we carried in our hearts from that unexpected bounty. If the coins had mounted to seventy-five cents, the feeling that welled up inside of us was a priceless, unbounded fortune. It was sacred money, and for a long time we left it untouched behind a candle, as a reminder of munificence in the face of doom and gloom.*
We drove back to the parking lot, and through the alleyway, but the gentle giant had vanished. Maybe he had been an angel, a true angel, manifest in this place and time, to teach us that you can always give, even if you have nothing.
The lesson has held me in good stead. Giving in this way is the antidote to raging anxiety and stress—a uniquely Angeleno stress off the Richter Scale. And there are many ways to give other than money. I have learned to follow the Giant’s example through deeds and actions. You may be holding the door open for a woman with her arms full of children or smile at a stranger in the midst of heavy traffic—simple as that—these are welcome gestures, gratefully received.
So now that the giving season commences, let’s accentuate the giving in Thanksgiving. Ask what you can give. Imagine yourself in those lean situations (sadly, many of us do not have to imagine). It’s not a lack of money that plagues us and straight-jackets our generous urges, but lack of cleverness. You can always give. This was my life-shifting lesson from the streets of Los Angeles. The greatest gift is the knowledge that you can give something, no matter what; it need not be money. There’s so much more”¦
*Years later, a houseguest thoughtlessly appropriated the dusty coins to do laundry.