Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Tin Can Savings

I’ve been trying to understand what it means to be a generous person.
When I first went away to school I suddenly became cheap. Ask anyone; I was a stick in the mud, absolutely, and I knew it. Everyone’s going to dinner and a baseball game, and dancing downtown? Not me. I’m broke.
Being the broke one all the time was weird, because I had always considered myself to be unimpaired by money. My family has by no means ever been rolling in dough, but ever since I was little I felt I could do what I wanted. Cheerleading uniforms for five hundred bucks? You made the team, honey. You got it.
But when I went to college, a private institution on the edge of a cliff overlooking the Pacific Ocean, buckled down in the shadow of looming loans—thousands of dollars for both my parents and me—cheap was what we had to be. Cheap was our right.
This went against my nature and instincts because, as a child, I was the generous one. A really good saver of allowance money, I stored my earnings in a red tin shaped like a British pay phone, and I saved. I saved so much money that each time my wad hit a hundred bucks, I’d make a special trip to the bank with my mom, fill out the deposit slip, and hand over the cash to the clerk. Proud as ever at that moment, to the woman behind the counter I was just another transaction. But to me, those three precious numbers, 1-0-0, meant something.
Every Christmas, for as long as I can remember, I’d pull out twenty after rolled up twenty, and go to the mall and buy all my family members, including aunts, uncles, grandparents, cousins, and the nuclear family unit, Christmas gifts. In high school, one of my friends confronted me about this.
“You really buy presents for your cousins?” she asked.
“Yeah, why?”
“Cousins?” She kept at me, curious, confused.
“What’s the big deal?” I’d shrug. “Don’t you?”
Surely she felt shamed at that moment, or so I hoped.
One time my parents were in Arizona, on a trip to see my dad’s sister, and they didn’t have enough money in their checking account. A bad situation of budget, which became a regular occasion with them, they withdrew five hundred dollars from my account without telling me, without even asking. I was such a saver, never drawing out much at one time myself, that it took me years to notice the dent.
This all changed when I went to college. Perhaps the realization that I no longer had my parents there to hand me ten bucks as I waltzed out the door. Yes, that must have been part of it. Whatever the reason, I stopped being generous. I saved, as usual, but the feeling around the money itself changed. It was no longer just a number that rose and fell on slips of paper. It was hours and sweat, literal coffees poured, shirts folded, carts collected. Every one hundred and twenty seconds was another quarter to plop in my tin can.
The summer between my junior and senior year of college, I studied abroad in Prague. I saved for months before that trip. In fact, every week during junior year I had a budget of twenty dollars to spend on myself, and everything else I earned I put into savings. My Prague fund grew rapidly, and by the time I actually went, there was a pretty decent amount. I checked my online banking so frequently that oftentimes my computer wouldn’t even log me off. I was ready.

But in Prague, I wasn’t allowed to be cheap. Thank God it was an affordable, post-communist city, otherwise I wouldn’t have lasted the eight weeks. Pints of Czech Pilsner a mere buck. For once in my life I was forced to spend.

My girlfriends on the trip were beautiful, intelligent women of the south—Virginia, North and South Carolina, and their elusive charm and quick, natural wit entranced me. This is what a woman should be, I thought. Well dressed, well read, and with a new leather wallet in a white canvas Longchamp tote filled with enough money for lunch, coffee, dinner, tea, maybe a book from the English bookstore, a postcard for home, a silk scarf from a corner stand. I can’t say I had the money for all that, but in watching them, I felt the old dregs of generosity bubbling up again. No longer afraid to spend, I could let go. I could also give, to those women around me as much as to myself.

I came home that summer with absolutely no money, but with a new sense of pride. I could get a better job. I could buy my own car insurance, and purchase new clothes, all the books I wanted, real, thoughtful gifts for my friends. And that’s exactly what I did. A new job at JCrew allowed me to fashion myself in brightly colored shorts, button down shirts, stiff, popped collars, everything my Southern Belles already were and I wanted to be.

My friends at school saw the change. I suddenly joined them for dinner, offered rides in my car, baked treats for the apartment, and consistently had a great new outfit to sport through all of it.

“You’re so JCrew now,” once friend said to me after chapel.

“That’s because I work there.” Was she mocking me? Because I felt it my right to brag.

Once again I managed to save my money, a little here and there at a time, and as graduation approached, I spent it on travel. This time the reason was simply to fulfill a dream—I would crew on a fifty-foot sailboat in the Mediterranean. For probably the first time in years, I met people on that boat who were even cheaper than I was. The relief was enormous.

“Can we buy these?” I’d ask Terri, the boat’s cook/map planner/second mate. Holding up a box of granola, I’d wait for her response.

“Nope, too expensive,” she’d say. “Corn Flakes are one Euro, so Corn Flakes it remains.”

I learned that summer on our cheap little boat what it means to be really cheap—to be hungry and sift through the fridge for the most appetizing combination of foods available. Some of my favorites:

            Saltine crackers with tomato paste and cheese
            Nutella spread on Digestive cookies
            Cucumbers and tomatoes, eaten like bananas and apples
            Rice with milk and sugar in a wooden bowl

Cheap knew no bounds. Split pizzas with free bread in Syracuse, gelato licked between four mouths, instant coffee stirred in mugs in the galley. We survived on five bucks a day.

This was good, a necessary learning experience and admittance into the “real world.” I needed to know cheap. I needed to know what it felt like to eat whatever was there, wear the same clothes again and again in different forms, and survive, on almost nothing.

Back in the states, I moved to Maine for a short-term documentary program in Portland’s hip and craggy coast. School cafeterias with pre-prepared food no longer existed, family was far, far away, and jobs were scarce. I fell to my natural resources, and between studies, I picked up modeling jobs for drawing classes at MECA, Main College of Art. My first payday, I sat for four hours straight in an orange bikini on a pedestal in the center of a circle of college students. The lights bright and hot, at one point I could feel sweat dripping down my sides. Unable to shift my pose, I sat, eyebrows furrowed in worry, praying, God, don’t let them see my sweat. I could just picture the drawings on the other side of their tall easels, waterfalls raining down my obliques.

In Maine, I also learned to scavenge. My apartment was filled with furniture from our landlords, piles of clothes from former occupants (which I sifted through before passing them onto Goodwill), and even my bicycle, which became my only form of transportation, was found in the basement and taken to a bike shop to be restored and recycled.  I didn’t buy milk for the first six weeks because the girl who lived there before me had left eight cartons of Eden Soymilk in her cupboard. A surprisingly expensive, organic brand, I had hit the jackpot. 1970s Schwinn road bikes? Tartan shirt vests? Perfectly good soy milk? Who would leave such treasures? Someone up there loved me.

I wanted to stay in Maine, but the money wasn’t there. So I packed up and moved back to California, down to sunny San Diego. And guess what? The money wasn’t there either. I got a job making coffee at a shop close enough to walk to from my apartment. I’m a good milk steamer. I make leaves in the foam.

Working at a neighborhood eatery has taught me more about generosity. I see the same people every day. Usually I remember their names, and they almost always remember mine. But mostly, I know them by drink. Double Krak Head (espresso with coffee), lid, no sleeve? Running late? No problem. These are the people I like—the ones who acknowledge my existence outside of “the coffee shop girl.”

For some, I merely add to the neighborhood charm. I am a machine. They call in and order their sandwiches (whose names I begin to scrawl on a white slip of paper the moment I recognize the person on the other end of the line). And when they come to pick up their food, they stare back to me, and slowly, methodically, as if I don’t already know, they tell me how they want fruit instead of potato salad. Or a lemon bar on the side. Or no mayonnaise. Dude, you come here every day. I know.

And here enters Sister Generosity. The people who know me, acknowledge me as a human, always tip. Always. The people, who treat out interaction as a business transaction, being what it is, never tip. Never.

I’ve tried time and again to understand why this happens. Why, for example, the old men in suits and ties, coming back to their lonesome homes in Golden Hill after a trying day at the office, why they can’t cough up the extra cash? They feel I don’t deserve it; they feel it is my job to get paid minimum wage and nothing more. A contract, a position I’ve agreed to. They don’t want to give the extra buck or two because by the end of the week, those pennies add up to earthly delights such as laundry, a burrito, and a beer. To add insult to injury, these men know, without a doubt, that a buck won’t get me into bed. I can see it in their hollow eyes. Don’t even get me started on the women.

But it’s the young ones, the broke folk, ironically, who feel the need to reach back into their tattered pockets, pull out the dollar, and slip it into the tip jar—whether I see them do it or not, mind you. They know my life will move forward from this place, so in the moment we share together, they contribute. They support. It’s not about the money. It’s an attitude.

Recently a friend of mine, a hard working young man just recently engaged to his girl, expressed annoyance at my strict tipping policy. “Jars are everywhere now, Rach. Everyone wants a hand-out that I can’t afford to give.”

I tried to assure him, no one’s as cheap as me, although I know that’s not true. He’s cheaper than me. My best friend is cheaper than me. She’s been eating quinoa from her local Trader Joe’s’ dumpster, until she realized there were shards of glass mixed in with the grains. But still, I know cheap. I know scavenger. I also know how good it feels to sacrifice one extra dollar to show the person on the other side of the counter (picture your local bar and bartender), that you care. Because trust me, these people keep tabs on generosity.

On which side will your name be written?


  1. Beautifully said. It really blows my mind where generosity flourishes. It's anything but logical :)

  2. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z-qV9wVGb38