It was more than 100 degrees. I didn’t eat breakfast, slept poorly the night before, and nearly passed out at the Brewery Art Walk. A stranger came to my aid. She brought me water and held ice to the back of my neck. She murmured encouraging words and stayed at my side until my husband arrived. I acutely regretted my lack of magic powers. I wanted to be her fairy godmother and, with the sparkly ping of my magic wand, make all her dreams come true.
Alas, I have no magic other than good intentions and, of course, that other magic power: money. It would’ve been tacky to dig a crumpled $10 bill and a handful of change out of my purse to give to my good Samaritan, wouldn’t it? But a $1,000 bill would’ve been nice. Do $1,000 bills even exist?
Ah to be rich.
We always feel that other people, wealthier than us or luckier or less encumbered by dependents, are in a much better position to be generous than we are. Take, for instance, the creep building the monstrous mansion behind my house. I’m sure he thinks he’s a hell of a guy, kinder and more generous than strictly necessary with his underlings, his lazy relatives and his church.
He originally designed his monster house with an eight-car garage to accommodate his snazzy vehicle collection, but he has since downsized the car park in deference to neighborhood complaints. The master bedroom, however, will still be 1,200 square feet, and the house itself, 6,000 or 8,000 square feet, I can’t remember which (and does that include the pool house?).
He’s free to do as he wishes with his money and the land he bought, even if what he’s building looks like a mini-mall and has wiped out what used to be four lots of trees and deer and butterflies. I assume he picked our modest neighborhood to construct his behemoth so he can look like a lord among serfs. And that too, is his right. But now that his garage will fit just six cars, maybe he could sell the other two and use the money to fund an elementary school lunch program, or pay the annual salary for a school librarian in his new neighborhood. He could, if he wanted to.
The mind boggles at what the rich could do, if they gave the least damn. I paged through a fashion magazine recently and was gobsmacked by the price of handbags. Actual people must pay those prices for a purse, or the purses wouldn’t exist. That means there are people who think those prices are reasonable.
Of course, it’s way easier to note the excesses of others and ignore our own. For example, I was taken aback by my dinner bill the other night. The tab was at the far finger-tip reach of my idea of the appropriate price for sake and sushi, but I don’t find myself or my dinner companions reprehensible. I may not return to that restaurant, but I won’t be advocating for it to be shuttered and the proprietor reprimanded.
I’m reminded of a joke: One guy says to another: “If you had two houses, would you give one to the poor?”
The second guy responds: “Yes, definitely.”
First fellow: “If you had two cars, would you give one to the poor?”
Finally, the first guy asks, “If you had two shirts, would you give one to the poor?”
The second guy scoffs, “No way, that’s ridiculous.”
Answer: “Because I have two shirts!”
We think we are in the reasonable center, right? We have wiggle room in both directions, but we consider ourselves and our views to define the reasonable spot, where reasonable people stand. Anyone who bathes more than me is a clean-freak, and anyone who bathes less than me is a slob. Anyone with less money than me needs help, and anyone with more money than me should provide that help.
I know that compared with many people on Earth, I am rich enough to make strangers’ dreams come true. And I’m hardly the first to sting with shame over my own comfort and unearned luck, my own two shirts. I like to imagine that I’d be infinitely more generous than I am, if only I had more to spare. I like to believe that after I bought myself a few absurd handbags at $100,000 a pop, or erected a grand garage for my fleet, I’d grant wishes at will. But I too am human.
So what did I do for that sweet stranger who took care of me last week? Did I turn a pumpkin into a carriage and have her whisked off to the ball of her choice? Not even metaphorically. I just thanked her, went home and wrote this op-ed.
Amy Koss writes young adult fiction and lives in Los Angeles. She wrote this for the Los Angeles Times.