Several years ago I stopped giving Christmas gifts. Every year I felt obligated to purchase things for others, and after a while that began to feel ridiculous. Being required to buy something seemed to contradict the very notion of giving a gift freely and expecting nothing in return. Growing up I had loved Christmas, but whatever Christmas had been when I was a boy had morphed into an absurdly overly-commodified event that focused less on connecting with the people close to me — to say nothing about it’s various religious significances — and more about what I had to purchase for those same people. I bought Grandpa Old Spice not because he wanted or needed it, but because he bought me clip-on ties I didn’t want or need, and it wouldn’t have been right not to return the favor. I purchased things because I was supposed to, not because I wanted to, and the whole process had come to sicken me. I came to object to Christmas for many reasons, but the most powerful was my opposition to the egregious consumption that surrounds the holiday. I staked out my grounds: No More Gifts!, and over the years my family adjusted to receiving nothing from me.
The Monday before Christmas I went with my roommate to a local bar for what has become something of a ritual for us: a $5 burger and fries special and a beer or two. After finishing my bacon-cheeseburger and fries, and while sipping down the last of my beer, I mentioned to Gary that I was still somewhat hungry. He suggested I have another round, and I said there was no way I could consume more. Gary insisted, I resisted, but eventually a bet was born: if I ate another burger and fries and drank another beer, he’d pay the entire tab. Several minutes had passed as we haggled out the details of the bet, and my body had started to tell me that my slight hunger was actually contented fullness. Despite this, some distorted version of my pride was on the line and I did the only thing that could salvage it: I called the server over and order more. 20-some minutes later the second plate and glass were both empty, and we did the math: I had just consumed somewhere around 2,500 calories on a bet, and the only thing I had to show for it was a bloated belly and an unemptied wallet.
The following day I skipped breakfast and headed down the gym, intent to compensate in any way possible for the prior night’s gluttony. On my way out of the gym I passed a woman standing on the street holding a large cardboard sign. She had a young face: late teens, maybe early 20’s, and she was dressed frumpily, Goth-ed out all in black. Her hair was dreadlocked, dirty and unkempt, and she had a pale complexion offset with chapped, bright red lips. Her sign was made from a cardboard box that had been broken and folded flat. Across the top of it were three photocopied pictures of a baby girl, smiling and wide-eyed, food smeared across her face. Underneath the pictures, written in black marker and a large shaky script were words to the effect of Single mother struggling, help for my baby, holiday spirit, etc.
I walked quickly past this woman and her sign despite a voice inside me that cried, Go back and help her out you privileged jackass! I got about ten steps down the street before I stopped, the whole time trying to convince myself that I was fine walking away from her. I live surrounded by need — it’s everywhere in this town, dripping from the skies like the unrelenting rains — but I rarely allow myself to be confronted by it. I knew that if I turned around and engaged this woman I would end up helping her in some manner, and I really didn’t want to do that. I just wanted to go to lunch and read my book and continue my day, contentedly numb to her and the reality that she was and represented.
What’s even more embarrassing than my selfishness was the internal deliberation I soon embarked upon. When faced with this woman’s destitution I found myself evaluating the merits of it, as if I were somehow in a position not only to determine its veracity but subsequently make awards based upon my conclusions. I debated the truthfulness of her situation, attempting to determine whether or not she was legit: Was she really a single mother? Was this some scam? If I stopped and gave her money would it all go straight to the liquor store? The best I can say is that though these were my first thoughts, I didn’t stay entangled in them long. I soon realized that it didn’t matter whether or not she was telling the truth: standing alone on a snowy street in 25-degree weather begging from strangers was sufficient. In fact, being in a situation where the best option might have been to lie about having a baby simply in order to obtain help called loudly enough to me. I stopped walking away and turned back towards her.
I returned to her begrudgingly, part of me still wishing I was headed to lunch or anywhere other than towards her. I said hello and we talked briefly, and suddenly and without thought found myself telling her that I was headed to the grocery store and asked if I could purchase her and her baby some food. This wasn’t true: I’d gone shopping the day before, but it was out of my mouth before I could clamp my lips closed. I think offering to purchase her food was a compromise with the concerns I’d experienced about her legitimacy: she couldn’t get drunk or high off the food, and if she really did have a kid food was a great solution. She smiled and revealed a mouth full of dirty, slumping teeth, and her eyes brightened warmly and she said Yes, that would be really great.
Something inside me was angry with whatever part of me had just made this offer. What was I doing? The simplest thing would have been to slip her a couple bucks and walk away, and instead here I was offering to go shopping for her. I began to fish for any excuse that would pull me out of the situation. I told her I needed to stop and grab lunch and wasn’t sure when I’d be back. She said she’d be there for another hour or so, and even though I don’t wear a watch I glanced at my wrist theatrically, attempting to imply that I might not make it back before she left. I asked if she’d be around the following day and she said No, she’d be home with her baby. If I was going to help her at all, it would have to be now.
I had been walking contentedly through my day; blinkered, yes, admittedly so, but comfortable in my decision to have blinded myself to the glaring exigencies of life. And now I had broken the bridle that had enabled me to walk past so many others with an unaffected conscience. I had stopped, looked her in the eyes and spoken with her, and this was the fatal flaw to my defenses. Engaging another person is a dangerous proposition, for in doing so you assure that person can no longer be a prop, colorful background ornamentation, an abstraction called homelessness or need or destitution. By talking with this woman she had become human, terribly so, human like me, only one who wasn’t certain where her next meal would come from, if it would come at all. I smiled at her, asked if she had any requests and told her not to leave until I returned.
It was a half-mile walk to the grocery store and along the way I passed a burger joint. I was hungry and thought of stopping-in and grabbing a bite. As I was visualizing myself inside the warm restaurant enjoying my food I recalled the previous night: two burgers, two fries and two beers, some 2,500 calories, all eaten on a bet. I had devoured enough food to sustain a small village and here I was foot-dragging, searching for excuses not to buy food for a hungry person. Worse, I had spent the past month rolling my eyes at Christmas and the needless consumption surrounding me, and yet the night before I had the poster-child for an advertising firm, gobbling away simply because I could. I had become the consumer sprit I so resented, and I was ashamed of myself for it.
I arrived to the store and bought several bags of food for this woman and her child. I walked back and she was there, waiting, excited that I had returned. We stood on the sidewalk, a frozen strip of cement streaked with last minute Christmas shoppers scurrying past, and talked for some time. Her name is Bella and her daughter is called Keira. They live near the University; her life right now is obviously challenging. After several minutes we went our separate ways, and I walked home past the shops flush with holiday displays.
A cynic might say I bought my conscience clean, as if $18.43 could somehow scrub away my poor behavior. But that’s simply not the case: my conscience is as weathered as ever, and I’m certain there’s no amount of money I could spend that would change that. Despite my hesitations I helped Bella because I wanted to and because it was the right thing to do, not because it made me feel good. Besides, the point is less about my conscience and its equivocations and more about Bella and Keira. The story is that a woman and her child who could not afford to eat received food from a man who could afford to give it, and in that interaction we participated in something that approached giving a true gift. I still think most of Christmas is misguided, commodified and generally insipid, but if the promise it holds is that we might just be able to give one another help when its needed, then perhaps there’s something worthwhile in it after all.