Spare Me Your Change

Posted on December 14, 2011


If you have been reading this space, then you know how I am always willing to participate in any initiative that has the word Alzheimer’s associated with it. So when the Alzheimer’s Association of Greater Illinois was looking for volunteers for a fundraising event, I volunteered to go in for a few hours.

It was a cold and dreary day. The temperature was around -4 C or 24 F. I reached Union Station at 11.45AM. I quickly found my way to the desk where the Alzheimer’s guys were waiting. I was given a nice and bright purple apron to wear and a near-empty jar with a few coins in it. I was to wait near the Clark Street exit and get donations from passersby.

Now, I have never ever ever ever done this before. I know for a fact, that had it been anything else but Alzheimer’s, I wouldn’t have done it. It’s embarrassing to solicit like that. I know how I avoid looking at people on the street trying to raise funds for hungry, dying children. So, I would never put myself through that. But here I was. I thought to myself, “Hmmm, this is going to be interesting.”

I stood at a corner, walked up and down, jangling my few coins to attract attention. If I was gonna do this, I was gonna do this with elan, I decided. So I started jangling in a rhythm. Jang (break) jang, jangjangjang, jang (break) jang, jangjangjang. I was jangling for about 10-minutes, but got no coins or anything. I said, “If at least 10 people give me a minimum of $1, I will be happy.”

A few minutes later, I had a woman, tap me on the shoulder from behind. She smiled slightly and put a dollar onto my near-empty jar. She looked sad, wistful…something. I wondered what her story was. I said, “Have a great day, thank you!” And we both moved on.

Learning: You will always remember the first person to contribute to your cause.

That was just the beginning. Slowly, I had people coming in and dropping some change here and there. I had a woman stop by and drop a dime (10 cents) saying, “My mom had Alzheimer’s.” I felt a lump in my throat. So many inexplicable emotions raced through me, and I had to contain myself. Once I was done feeling emotional,a thought popped into my head, “And that’s all you can spare!” I felt ashamed, so I smiled brightly at her and said, “So did mine! Thank you. Have a great day!” 

Learning: If you’re going to work for a cause, you have to be mentally vigilant to make sure your personal experiences don’t interfere.

Realization: No contribution is big or small. Show the same gratitude to your biggest and smallest donor! You don’t know what they can afford. If you say, “Give us what you can”, then mean it!

I had a man in a blue blazer come close and drop a few quarters in. I thanked him and he went away, only to return, 5 minutes later and say, “I am not made of money. Just because I wear a coat, doesn’t mean I am rich. Don’t believe what others say, especially these policemen.” As he was speaking, I merely smiled and said, “Yes sir, of course sir!”

Puzzle: What one minute of lucidity prompted a really sick man to contribute to my cause?

And so it continued. I found that some people were just like me. They’d look at me (the solicitor) and then act as if they didn’t see me and move on pretending to be in a great hurry. A few others, waiting for trains, continued to look at me with curiosity. Some of them, moved to my beat. Jang (break) jang, jangjangjang, jang (break) jang, jangjangjang. Drumming their fingers or tapping their toes. Some gave me a bright smile, but no change. Some gave me a dollar, but no smile.

But my jar was filling up. I was getting excited, and also ambitious. I wanted the jar to be full by the time my shift was up. I walked more purposefully, I smiled more sweetly. I felt it was working. I don’t know whether it was me, or the station was getting busier.

It was then that a man who was sitting, called me towards him. I stretched my arm to let him drop a coin in my box, instead, he said, “Can you take your jangling somewhere else for a while?” I was astounded. My hands became cold and I felt my body hair stand on end. “I see you walking up and down and smirking.” He continued. I replied in a tone lower than my usual. “I am not smirking sir. I am smiling, so that people give me money. I am raising money for Alzheimer’s.” He wouldn’t give up and said, “Well, your jangling is annoying some people.” I replied, still in my low tone, “I am sorry you feel that way. But I am going to be here for a while. This is my spot and there are people at different points in the station.” Saying this, I walked away.

I was angry and upset. But I continued to jangle my coins. To that man’s relief, my box was quite full and heavy and it was hard for me to jangle real loud like I was in the beginning. My arm was beginning to ache and my feet were getting stiff. But I was determined to finish my 2 hour shift. A few minutes later, I found the same man walking towards me. I groaned inwardly. But to my surprise, he said, “I am sorry for being so rude to you. Actually I suffer from PTSD and any kind of repeated sound, really gets to me.” My anger melted and I said, “It’s all right. Don’t worry about it.” He continued to apologize before walking away.

Learning: Look beyond a person’s words. You don’t know what circumstances make them react the way they do.

And the dollars and quarters kept coming in. I saw a bald, young man in a nice blazer and jeans walk past me and put some money in and hurried away before I could say anything. When I looked inside, it was a $20 bill. I was exhilarated. I blessed him in my mind. I wondered why he gave me a 20! It is a big sum to just drop in somewhere. Did he know someone close with AD? Was he having a bad day and wanted to make someone feel better? The truth is, I would never know.

Suddenly, I saw 2 men approach me. They looked scruffy. One of them said, “I have this torn dollar. Can I put this in and get a good one out.” I was nervous, but said no gingerly. He said, “Just kidding.” And shook my hand. Before leaving, he put in a couple of quarters.

Remember: Don’t judge a book by its cover.

Soon it was time for me to go. My box wasn’t full. But it was three quarters there. I felt good. I think I learnt a lot just by standing in a corner, jangling a near-empty box for 2 hours. You should try it sometime. I know I may never be able to walk away from someone jangling a box, ever again!

Posted in: introspection, life