The Great Vacaville Children’s Bed Drive

I was startled halfway through a mouthful of a well-aged burrito a few evenings ago by a timid knocking at my apartment door – followed by a considerably less-than-timid pounding on the same door.

Foolishly, I dropped my burrito-from-long-ago back onto its plate and went to see who was rattling the accumulated dust off my door frame. Staring out the peephole, I saw only the tops of three small heads.

Great, I thought. Leprechauns. There was a pack of angry leprechauns trying to beat down my door. This can’t be good…

I decided, however, that the best thing I could do was to quickly clear up whatever misunderstanding had brought them to my apartment and then go back to my getting-older-every-minute burrito.

Upon opening the door, I found only three small children, in the 9-to-10-year-old range, holding out a large plastic basket full of assorted sweets.

“Wanna buy some candy?” asked the trio’s apparent spokesman.

And then there was silence.

I waited patiently for one of the usual pitches – “We’re raising money to buy some new unicycles for our school band,” or, perhaps, “You want to help us pay for a new basketball court so we have something to do after school so we don’t turn to drugs and steal your car?”

But no pitch came as three pairs of eyes continued to peer up at me.

I began to get worried as my thoughts turned to past experience on the mean streets of Solano County.

Smart move, I thought. The door’s wide open and now they’re going to drop their candy, pull out their Glocks and demand all my cash and rock cocaine.

And still nothing happened.

“Soooooo,” I asked. “How much?”

“Dollar each,” responded the spokesman, still declining to give the slightest hint as to why I should buy their candy.The silence finally overcame me and I reached for my wallet as industrious spiders continued to weave intricate webs around my abandoned burrito.

“Does this benefit anything?” I asked, desperate for any kind of explanation.

The young entrepreneurs mulled the question over for a few seconds and then the spokesman gestured toward the female third of the sales team.

“Yeah. She’s, like, trying to get some money to buy a bed she saw in Berkeley,” he explained.

Whoa! Honesty. They weren’t even trying to claim nonprofit status or say they were helping homeless Republicans.

Yes, I was looking at what may have been the very first Great Vacaville Children’s Bed Drive.

I paused and considered lecturing the tiny trio on the dangers of knocking on strangers’ doors. Or puffing myself up and telling them self-importantly that door-to-door sales were strictly prohibited in my gated apartment complex.

I considered these options for about three seconds and then shelled out five bucks for two bags of glowing neon Sour Skittles, a box of Hot Tamales and a couple of Big Kat Kit Kat bars.

Let’s face it, amigos, a door-to-door bed drive is not something you see every day.

(And besides, they might have had Glocks…)

Originally published May 30, 2004

Charity begins on the sidewalk

Across the nation charitable organizations of all sizes are gearing up for one last holiday push as they solicit Christmas season donations.

If you have a mailbox, you undoubtedly also have two dozen requests for urgently needed funds waiting there right now. There will be three dozen more tomorrow.

This seasonal avalanche of solicitations can get a little daunting for the average wage earner who wants to feel sure that his donation is actually going to a worthy cause and not into the pocket of an overpaid administrator 3,000 miles away.

I have no quarrel with large, multinational charities. Some of them do a lot of good. On the other hand, some of them periodically get indicted and that makes it hard for many of us to comfortably choose a charity. In the final analysis of holiday giving, it all comes down to who you trust.

I have a modest proposal that should at least partially alleviate this holiday dilemma. Plus, it works all year long if you can maintain your spirit of giving.

Here’s how it works:

Never pass up a panhandler.

The next time a down-and-out street person asks for some spare change, think about how much money you can actually spare and then hand it over.

You won’t have to write a check, you won’t have to worry about your contribution going to pay for someone’s vacation bungalow in Malibu and you won’t be getting follow-up requests in the mail every two months for the rest of your life.

This is about as simple as it gets when it comes to charitable giving and you won’t have any worries about exactly where your donation is going. He’ll be standing there right in front of you. Your money will pass directly from your hand to the hand of someone who desperately needs it – no administrative costs, no paperwork to fill out, no “free gifts” to stuff into a desk drawer. You won’t even need a stamp.

There are those who will tell you that helping out a panhandler is simply a waste of time and money.

“They’re just going to spend it all on booze,” friends will advise.

“Those people are hopeless. They like living on the street – you’re throwing your money away,” others will argue.

Yes, it’s easy to fall back on stereotypes, but that’s not what this kind of giving is all about. It’s not up to you or me to pass judgment on someone who’s down on his luck. If a guy’s standing in the rain on a cold street corner and hasn’t had a meal for a day or two, chances are he’s not panhandling as a hobby.

As for the booze, well, yeah, that panhandler might spend all or part of what you give him for a drink. It’s a possibility. Sometimes, when booze has had a grip on you for a long time, you need a drink just to get a decent meal down. And sometimes you need a drink just to make the decision to get sober.

I know that last part may sound a little bit strange, but it’s true. Been there. Done that …

And it’s just as likely your contribution will go for something like a cheeseburger, a rain parka or a pair of dry socks.

There are, of course, some drawbacks to this form of charity. You won’t get a tax deduction for your contribution. On the other hand, you’ll walk away knowing that you’ve reached out to another human being, one-on-one, and that’s a pretty good feeling.

Originally published November 2, 2001.