Stuck in My Brain

My recent post about a guy picking up the tab for my wife’s lunch and some comments that followed prompted me to think quite a lot. My thoughts, both purely philosophical and emotionally introspective, led to no firm “position” on the matter of what I call “unchained generosity.” I defined unchained generosity as an expression of gratitude for living happily in the moment by doing something for (or giving something of value to) another person without the expectation of anything in return. It can be done in full view of the recipients and/or others or it can be entirely anonymous. I understand the perspective that suggests “paying it forward” is simply an inexpensive way to buy a greater sense of one’s self-worth. And I understand the perspective that suggests, whatever its motive, the recipient should be selected on the basis of need, not merely identified at random. Finally, I understand the perspective that suggests the recipient of random  unchained generosity might, one person at a time, improve the world by making the “feel good” element of both the giver and the receiver of unchanged generosity more visible and, consequently, more likely to be undertaken. This is way too long. I still haven’t reached a position. But all this thought led me back to a post I originally posted on another blog in July 2006 and posted again on this blog a few years ago. I’m posting it again below because it really made me think about what wealth and poverty and generosity and kindness mean to people up and down the rungs of the socioeconomic ladder. Warning: the post is long. But, I hope it might strike a chord with some who stumble across it.

An Eye-Opening Experience

We are the proud owners of two hopelessly damaged and tired old windows, one that miraculously still has all its panes of glass, the other which is missing not only all its glass, but some of its structure. They’re precisely what I had in mind. Old wooden windows that, with a bit of paint & whimsy, can be made into points of interest for what I hope will evolve into a funky & inviting backyard.

I could have spent days and enormous sums of money at the Orr-Reed Wrecking Company salvage yard, if I had time and money to spend.

Orr-Reed Wrecking Company is in the dark-side of Dallas, a part of the city that the people in city hall and the folks who foster tourism avoid talking about. It is an area gripped by horrendous poverty. People in that part of Dallas eke out a living by selling scrap metal and found items or working for people who do. In that dark-side of Dallas, homeless and almost-homeless people make do with what they can scrape from the streets. There’s no doubt a fair amount of drug dealing down there, as well, but I think that it’s populated primarily by people who are just deeply down on their luck or who never had a chance. They’re people who have learning disabilities, alcohol dependencies, or drug addictions. Or, they’re people who didn’t have the chance to get an education or who decided, after looking at their options, they would rather not mold themselves around the expectations of a society that discounts large segments of its population. This part of Dallas is home to people who I can’t understand because I’ve never experienced what they have experienced. I’d like to understand what their lives are like, but I’m not willing to voluntarily go through what they go through to experience it. Understanding is important to me, but I guess it’s not important enough for me to make the kind of sacrifice I would need to make to achieve it.

Most people I know would be uncomfortable wandering through Orr-Reed Wrecking Company. I have to admit that I was uncomfortable the first time I went there, and maybe still am to some extent. The people who work there define diversity.

Aside from the Black men in dirty white t-shirts who stream back and forth across the street in front of the building and the Mexican workers who scurry around like ants from building to building, the first person I see who is connected to the business is a middle-aged white guy, smoking a cigarette and smiling behind the front desk. He’s there as you enter the front door of the decrepit old building that looks for all the world like it is about to collapse around you.

The next person is a Black man, probably in his twenties or thirties, smiling widely to reveal only a few teeth, his arms bent and small, victims of a birth defect. The birth defect notwithstanding, he has an amazing prowess at thumbing through a pad of paper to find whatever it is the customer to whom he is talking wanted. He’s pleasant and seems completely oblivious to the fact that his appearance might be jolting to people like me, people who don’t often see the crustier side of our nice, comfortable worlds.

As we wander out back, in the open-air behind the building, we encounter several more Mexican men, Spanish speakers all, who are busily engaged in jobs like pulling nails from old boards and stacking the boards neatly into shelves that I can only describe as the sort I used to see in old lumber yards when I would travel around with my father. These are not the Home Depot metal mega-shelves; these are shelves that are made of the very lumber they are meant to hold and they are solid as a rock. Beneath the stacks of boards, on the face of the shelves, the nominal sizes of the boards are marked in dark permanent markers.

There are more Black men, each of whom seems to have a job to do, scurrying all around the salvage yard. Everyone seems to have responsibilities in specific sections…a vast area of doors of every type, size, and description has its group, the windows section, full of wooden, metal, plastic, and combination windows in every size and condition has its group, and so on.

I remember from visiting the place years ago that open-toed shoes are inappropriate here. There’s too much broken glass and sharp metal protuberances and too many nails and other sharp objects laying around to risk walking in open-toed shoes. Before going to the place, I advised my wife to put on something beside sandals.

We wandered through the place and found some windows I wanted, but I did not recall what to do with them; they were not priced. I did not recall how to get them priced or who to ask. I set them aside and we wandered through the rest of the place, taking it all in. Then, I went back inside where the nice white guy was smoking and he asked if I had seen Alberto; not knowing who Alberto was, I said I did not know. He said Alberto was a Mexican guy in a white cowboy hat; the white guy led me outside, where he quickly found Alberto and told Alberto that I needed some windows priced. I led Alberto to the windows and he offered a price almost as a question, but I considered it fair and did not attempt to negotiate, I just said “that’s fair, I’ll buy them” and he picked them up and walked out the front gate and asked, in a very heavy accent, whether the truck he was standing in front of was mine. I explained that I only had my car, but I thought they would fit in the trunk. After some adjustments, they did, and I thanked Alberto, who walked back through the gate where I had first seen him. I then went back in the front door of the place and explained to nice white guy that Alberto gave me a price on the windows and that I was buying them, but first wanted to know the price of some bird houses we had seen while wandering the salvage yard.

Earlier, as we were wandering through the yard, after having selected our windows and setting them aside, we came across a bunch of birdhouses, all similar in shape and size but each of which had unique characteristics. They were all made of scraps of various sorts and were decorated with numbers, fasteners of various types, bits & pieces of hardware attached to them, etc. They were very interesting and attractive and my wife was very interested. I asked nice white guy the price and he said they were all sold. They are made for Wisteria magazine, he said, which buys all they can make. If there are any available, he said, they would be ones with black roofs and they would be $75 each, he said; the magazine doesn’t buy the ones with black roofs. He said Wisteria magazine sells them for $229. Nice white guy showed us an article from the Dallas Morning News (I think) about the old Black guy who makes these bird houses and has been doing so for years. He also showed us a copy, in a plastic protector, of Wisteria magazine, with photos of bird houses that showed the price at $229 each. We went back to where we had seen them and found a couple with black roofs. My wife selected one and said she wanted to buy it. Nice white guy was happy to accommodate us and offered us a certificate of authenticity, which reinforced what he had already told us: that Mr. N.L. Jones, the old Black guy who builds them for Orr-Reed, had been making them for years and that he has worked for Orr-Reed for more than 30 years. The certificate goes on to say that custom models of the bird houses sit in front of some Razoos Restaurants (a cajun-styled restaurant, I assume a chain, with several in the D/FW area), and that Mr. Jones and his birdhouses were featured on a segment of Texas Tales on Dallas Channel 8. Nice white guy handed me an article, from the Dallas Morning News about Mr. Jones, that I found interesting. The article says the writer asked him how old he was and he replied “about 60.” It goes on to say that, later, he “stopped counting at 75.” Another piece says he was 85 at the time the article was written. Nice white guy said we would normally have been able to meet Mr. Jones, but his wife just died and her funeral was being held today (yesterday, Saturday). “You should come by to meet him sometime,” nice white guy says, “he’d appreciate meeting someone who likes his birdhouses.”

As we were paying the birdhouse and old windows and chatting with nice white guy, a woman came in behind us and nice white guy asked if he could help her. “You’ve got to, yes. I have some things here that I need to get rid of.” I started to move aside so she could move up closer, but nice white guy said no, don’t, take as much time as you like, and he moved around the counter behind us and talked to her. I wasn’t paying close attention, but picked up enough to realize that this lady was in need of money and she had some odds & ends to sell. Nice white guy went behind the counter to the cash register and pulled out some bills; not sure of the denominations or number, and gave them to her. She thanked him profusely and left. As soon as she was out of earshot, he said, “Now what am I going to do with this? I don’t even know what it is.” He held up a piece of very pretty, very decorated cloth, to which was attached descriptive information. A closer inspection revealed that she had brought in upholstery fabric samples from a fine custom furniture showroom in Dallas. I commented that someone could make some pretty decorative accent pieces with the stuff and he said to my wife, “if you like any of them, take them, take as many as you like, no charge.” My wife thanked him and picked up two rich Burgundy samples.

It occurred to me while we were wandering around the place that, while I made a point of saying “hello” to everyone I encountered, most of them seemed to divert their eyes when they responded. The Black guys, in particular, would say “how ya doing?” to me, but didn’t look at me. Their demeanor was not subservient, by any means. Rather, they seemed almost like they wanted to make clear that they were not to be messed with, but were willing to acknowledge my presence. I’m not sure whether there’s anything there, but it was interesting.

After we left, I commented to my wife that I imagine much of the economy in that part of Dallas is a cash economy and no small part of it must involve transactions such as that we had just seen, where someone is paid a small amount of money for something that is, for all intents and purposes, worthless. I don’t know the guy’s motives, but I appreciated his actions. The lady needed money, the guy gave her some. She ‘sold’ him the samples and left with her dignity intact. He had, of course, just made $75 on selling a birdhouse that had been made entirely with scrap, so he may have been in a jolly mood, but I suspect that he was participating in an economy that requires such acts of kindness.

About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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