The holidays are like ecstasy; they make people want to give. And many make big contributions in December. I don’t. I prefer to give throughout the year because the needs of others aren’t seasonal. Among various groups, I mostly give my time and money to Gilda’s Club Chicago, an incredible organization for cancer support of which I serve on the associate board of directors.
I certainly don’t give to the Salvation Army. They outwardly oppose two things important to the growth of this country: gay marriage and pornography. And that’s their right to do so. And it’s my right not to fill their tin jars.
One of the greatest things about Gilda’s Club is how personal it is. I have seen first hand, the affect the money and efforts of donors have made on the members of the club. It’s incredible and heart warming.
I like a charity with a face. So, I do make a small, special holiday time donation. I’ll take a homeless person out to eat. This way, I know I’m making some small difference in a life. I’ll even buy a homeless person booze because let’s face it; if you were homeless in Chicago’s winter, wouldn’t you need a goddamn drink, too? I’ve even hired a homeless person to help me out with Christmas shopping.
A few years ago, an old girlfriend, Elle and I got up early on a Saturday morning because Macy’s was having a huge sale. We hopped a bus to Water Tower with our shopping lists and zero percent credit cards in hand. As we walked into the store, we snubbed the Salvation Army and I turned my attention to a dirty, hungover, degenerate bum who was playing an upside-down harmonica for cash.
“Elle,” I said, “we need one of these.”
“Need what?” she asked stepping into the revolving door.
“Him,” I said pulling her out and pointing at the bum. “He’s going to carry our bags today.”
You see, since Elle and I had been together, I played the role of pack mule, the one who carried the bags when we went shopping. Usually, it wasn’t so bad; a sweater here, eyeliner there… but at Christmas time, it was a daunting task.
“We can’t pay a bum to carry our bags,” she protested.
“Oh, yes we can,” I said. “It’s the holidays. It’s charity. We’re creating a job.”
So there we were, two Lakeview yuppies with a homeless man lugging high-end shopping bags down Michigan Avenue. His name was Carl. He used to be a window washer but he showed up drunk and used his urine to power wash a window at the Wrigley Building. He had no wife, no kids and no skills as a harmonica player.
However, he was skilled at talking. He had a tale for every store we walked into. Stopping into Chico’s reminded him of an old friend named, Chico.
“I knew him a while back, we used to panhandle in Streeterville. He had a bad neck, an old war injury and couldn’t turn his head to the left. Made it hard for him to look both ways when crossing the street. He was hit by the #146 bus.”
This went on all day. “Macy’s, huh? Let me tell you about some Korean woman who tried to mace me last summer when I asked her for a dollar. Banana Republic? Man, I hate bananas! Borders? I knew a guy who was arrested at the Illinois/Indiana border for murder.”
Elle was growing tired of his ramblings but he was ridiculously strong so she and I just kept piling the bags on him. And he was nimble, having no trouble maneuvering the crowds or revolving doors. When we first met him, he had a terrible odor. But after walking through the department stores, he smelled much better as a result of all the Jessica Simpson, Mariah Carey and Gwen Stefani perfume tester bottles available.
Now, we all know that when you go shopping for gifts, it’s hard not to buy a few things for yourself. Elle was in the market for a New Years dress and Carl was happy to help with that, too. Every time she’d step out of the dressing room to model for me, Carl would hoot and holler and whistle and clap and cheer. At first, the attention it gathered was off putting. But as we shopped on, it became fun and welcomed. Other girls in the dressing rooms were noticeably jealous of Elle’s popstar-scented gentleman servant.
After our shopping, we were so taken with Carl that we brought him to our apartment to wrap gifts. It turned out that Carl was one helluva wrapper, a trick he learned from having to make his shoes out of newspapers. When he was finished, I made him a grilled cheese sandwich and we paid him $200. I even showed him a few things on the harmonica.
While some might see this as exploitation, Elle and I truly felt like we were helping out our fellow man. He seemed so happy just to be a part of something other than the cold Chicago weather. Even though Carl put himself in his situation, it is tough out there for a lot of good, hardworking people right now. And remember, that although you may have your worries, it might be even worse for someone else; someone like Chico, who was rendered legless from the bus collision.
So when you consider giving to a charity this holiday season, don’t give to the faceless behemoths that won’t miss your money. Hire a homeless person. Maybe he can walk your dog or clean your gutters. If you find Carl, he can now play you Silver Bells on the harmonica.
Of course, if you don’t want a bum hanging around, give to Gilda’s Club Chicago. There are plenty of your neighbors who have been affected by cancer that would be lost without your help. Above all, remember that helping others does not go out of season.