A couple of years ago I was reading a cookbook I had borrowed from the library and there was an interesting seafood recipe that referenced a “corn meal bath” on another page. I went to that page … or, rather, I tried to. The page was gone – expertly razored out.
Browsing further, I discover at least 10 more pages missing.
This was not the first time. Other cookbooks I’d borrowed from the library had been pilfered in this way too – sometimes even new books still on 14-day loan. The pages had always been removed very neatly. This particular thief must read with an X-acto knife sitting nearby.
I still wonder – was it so inconceivable for this person to make some twenty-five cent photocopies? Copy down a recipe? Buy a copy of a book? Why must this person steal from the public library, rendering the book incomplete for anybody else?
How did this person come to feel so entitled?
I sometimes also run into this at the thrift shop/food pantry where I volunteer once a week. We sell donated items in order to fund the food pantry, which exists to provide food for the hungry in our community.
Most of our items cost a dollar or two. It may be the best deal in the entire Northeast. Yet there are certain customers who find it offensive to pay even that little.
They have their own little systems for obtaining what they want for free. One likes to dump the clothes she wants in the dressing room or the elsewhere in the store, buy one small item, then come back through another door and grab the rest.
Some brush things into their pockets or bags, or stuff them under their coats. They open their bags on their way out and add more to them. They do this in front of their own kids, sometimes. Heck, their kids do it, too. Sometimes they come in pairs – larcenous friends like to shoplift together, apparently.
One woman stalks quietly around the shop, her pretty face deformed by a permanently suspicious expression. She always seems to think that what we ask for an item is too much, on the occasions when she buys something instead of stealing it. But of course she thinks we’re out to cheat her – she probably assumes the rest of the world is just like her.
I also can’t get over the guy who used to use our dumpster as his free trash service. He’d come in and buy something small – a book, a gadget. He’d spend maybe fifty cents. And just about every time he came, there was suddenly a bag of kitchen garbage in our dumpster. I caught him in the act once and stopped him and explained to him how much the dumpster costs us (hundreds of dollars a month). He was extremely contrite. But he went right back to doing it.
This was a guy who owned two houses and a brand-new truck. But he felt entitled to steal trash-dumping from an operation that exists solely to feed the hungry.
But there’s another area where things can get dicey.
Most of our clients are truly in need. Most are very grateful. They may be temporarily disabled, or working low-wage jobs, or between jobs, recently divorced, or suddenly supporting grandchildren or elderly parents. They won’t show up until they really need it. Some volunteer themselves. Some struggle to find stuff they can donate to us.
Others seem less deserving. Some are clearly alcoholics. (Of course, even alcoholics and their kids need to eat.)
But some of our clients simply seem to feel we owe them. Their families get suspiciously large. They try to tell us they have guests, so they need more food. They never miss a month. When they call, they don’t ask, “Is it okay if I get some food today?” They say, “I’d like to pick up my food today.”
Sometimes they watch greedily while we pack their groceries and ask for this rather than that, do we have any coffee, what about pet food, what about toiletries, what about ______? They call up and say their friend got a ham, why didn’t they? They never miss signing up for anything they can get, from Thanksgiving dinners to Christmas presents.
They don’t say “Thank you.”
The great temptation of volunteering in an organization like this is to begin to suspect everybody of scamming you. And if that happens, you become pinched yourself – grudging with the food, hostile to well-meaning people who donate stuff that just isn’t salable, curt with customers. You burn out. If the organization is lucky, you take time off, or quit. If it isn’t, you make everybody else miserable.
The organization I volunteer for is a local ecumenical Christian organization, and I do happen to be a Christian, though nobody has asked to see proof of that. Jesus certainly promoted charity. If you have two coats, he said, give one to the poor. (My closet wouldn’t bear examination, that much is certain — I pick up too many bargains at the thrift store.)
Christian though I may be (multiple coats aside), what keeps me going best when I am tempted to give in to cynicism is a little scene in a trilogy of novels by Thalassa Ali that she set in Victorian India (future Pakistan).
In one of these novels, when an especially observant child in a Sufi family asks the family matriarch why they must give alms when many beggars don’t truly deserve help, she tells the child that God may also give her something she doesn’t deserve.
Think about that: God may also give us something we don’t deserve.
I find that very useful and sobering to reflect upon whenever I start getting snarky about some of the less grateful or deserving recipients of charity.
After all, we all need charity of one kind or another, even if it’s just the charity of being loved despite our faults.
So I thought I’d share it. Maybe it’s a concept that will help you, too.
When I first published The Awful Mess I maintained a fundraising page for Feeding America (which helps support the Regional Food Bank of Northeastern New York, from which we get a great deal of our pantry’s food, as well as logistical support). I did this partly because the heroine of my first novel The Awful Mess depended on her neighbors for her survival — and embarrassed me by doing more for the hungry of her town than I was doing. I still volunteer, but I give my donations differently now, so they can be matched. You can do that, too (or find a food pantry, if you need one), at Feeding America.