Monthly Archives: February 2011

City Love: My Own Two Feet

I love walking in the city. The tag-line for this site, “Long walks on concrete” comes from the fact that I always want to list walking around the city as one of my interests, personals ad style. Sometimes I channel a friend of mine who used to get offended when things were not in walking distance.

What do you mean I have to take the metro? I have two legs, why can’t they get me there??

My actual own two feet

I appreciate pounding the pavement as practical (no traffic), environmentally friendly (no exhaust fumes), healthy (get that heart rate up), and therapeutic (one foot in front of the other). I’m in a grad program that is heavy on the delayed gratification. You sit in class all semester and eventually produce an exam or paper at the end. But in the vast middle, I often feel an intense need to accomplish something. This is why I knit (more on that another day), but also why I walk to do my errands. There is something about the self-propulsion, the timing of traffic lights, the toting of things home on my shoulder that is so satisfying.

I have journeyed, and I have returned home victorious. My job is finished.

I live in a beautiful city where this is possible, and I hope I never stop appreciating that. Sure, walkable cities make all kinds of policy sense, but day to day, I appreciate them on a much more personal level. I don’t have to get in Rosie the Mini to pick up dinner, or get to school or go to church, and that’s pretty cool. My own two feet can carry my there, and I can enjoy the scenery while I go. Sometimes, it’s just the relaxing break I could use. One foot in front of the other gets you there, and then gets you home.


Hard Things: Handouts

Here’s how it happened for me. I would be walking down the street and see someone asking passersby for money, and a flood of possibilities as to my response would crash around in my head.

Do I hand over a dollar and feel good about it? Do I toss them my change and worry that it will be ill spent? Do I rationalize keeping my wallet shut by thinking that I don’t want to make it profitable to sit on a sidewalk all day? Do I keep walking and pretend I didn’t hear or see them? Do I answer that I don’t have any change to spare at the moment? Does it matter whether I do or not? Do I stop and buy them lunch instead? Do I look them in the eye?

Is there any possible way to get to the other side of this intersection and feel good about what I chose? Why is this person doing this to me? I’m just walking to work, I don’t want to have to think about all these things right now. I’m running late and I don’t want to have to decide. Why do I have to?

At various times, I acted on every one of these responses and probably more. It’s one of the most persistent moral dilemmas for city dwellers who have some resources. How should I react to people on the street asking for money? On one level, the answer seems easy. What is a dollar to me, really? I think I can make it if I lighten my wallet by that much, and it might make the difference for whether this person eats or not. I think I should probably hand over this dollar. And I’ll probably feel guilty if I don’t.

But it’s never that simple, is it?

We all know that many people on the street struggle with addiction, and it’s so easy to see that dollar going for booze or drugs rather than food or shelter or bus fare. And that can bother us enough to hold back and not give it away after all. Or make us feel guilty if we do give some change. Oh no, I’m just feeding their habit. I’m not really helping after all.

Of course, we also think, panhandling is dangerous and keeps people from doing other things, so there’s no reason to encourage it. Dropping a quarter in someone’s cup could mean they spend another day out in the elements, and no one really wants that. This has made me feel guilty for giving too.

To tell you the truth, I used to feel more than guilty. I used to feel heartbroken by the fact that there are people in wealthy, developed countries who have to beg on the streets. I would walk down the street devastated by the state of our society and of us as individuals that we would allow this to happen. More often than not, I wouldn’t give to panhandlers, because all I could think in my heartbroken state is that it wouldn’t make a difference. Giving a dollar or not wouldn’t help at all, because what was wrong was so much bigger and deeper and longer-lasting than my little choice of what to do with my change. And it made me feel awful, just awful a whole lot of the time. So I took the only logical step. I started working in homeless services. And now I walk down the street and don’t feel terrible any more.

So there you are, friends: the answer to that daily dilemma that’s been tugging at your heart strings is to quit your job and spend a year serving breakfast on the streets.

No, that’s probably not the answer. For one thing, there aren’t enough non-profit jobs for everyone. Practically it just wouldn’t work. And truly, I do not know how you are supposed to spend your life. I know I I’m profoundly grateful for that year serving breakfast. It formed me in important ways and affirmed a lot of my suspicions about how I should spend my life. But it’s probably not what everyone needs to do.

What I really think is that interactions with people who have different life situations from ours is profoundly important. As uncomfortable as it is, it makes us recognize that the world is bigger than our daily to-do list, and, if we’re lucky, makes us think about how we’re living and how we can live better in a world that contains both people like us and people not like us. Here’s something to think about – it’s not pleasant for anyone to sit on a street corner and ask for money. I’ve heard that this act of swallowing your pride to beg from strangers is incredibly painful, and I know that there are some people who could definitely use your spare change who will never ask for it because of that. If we recognize that, when someone asks you for money, it can be a moment to see each others’ humanity instead of just feeling bad.

There are no easy answers for whether you should give the guy on the corner your change or not. If it makes you feel bad that he’s even asking, it’s because it’s a terrible thing to live in a place where not everyone has a roof over their head, and some people have so little and others have so much. It’s not the way things should be. We should take better care of each other, but we haven’t figured out how yet. That situation should make us feel bad, but it shouldn’t make us feel helpless or despairing. If nothing else, we can wish the guy on the corner good morning, donate to local service organizations, volunteer, cook for each other, and yes, maybe once in a while give someone a dollar to get on the bus. Even if you’d rather they didn’t ask, remember they’d rather not be asking too. On good days now, when I get asked for money, whether I give or not, I think, that’s right, we’re all in this together, I hope you stay safe, and I’ll remember to think about what I can do. Be well, be warm.

Here’s wishing you a safe and warm February evening.

City Love: Enfranchisement

I walked to register to vote today

Just because I can.

Practice: Lightening my load

Today I got to do something wonderful, beautiful and exciting. I got to drive away from Goodwill with fewer things than I arrived with. It felt amazing. Let me explain.

I recently got married, and amidst the joy and laughter and tears and excitement and big wonderfulness, there came a lot of stuff. First it was just my stuff, which fit rather comfortably in the one bedroom apartment I moved to (when I realized the tiny basement apartment I shared during my first year of grad school was not big enough for the three of us). Then there was my then-fiance’s stuff, which he slowly moved over throughout our engagement so as not to overwhelm me. We fit that stuff in OK. Then we got married and there was all the rest of his stuff, which fit, in that “well, as long as we get one more bookcase, we’ll be fine” kind of way. And then there were the wedding presents. Which I ADORE, and do not fit.

(See? So precious! And here they are. This is not where they belong.)

For me, getting to a place of love for the wedding presents took some time (and this post). We struggled mightily over the wedding registry. That may be a post for another day, but suffice it to say that, were it not for the help of my wonderful sister, we probably wouldn’t have had one at all. I’m generally uncomfortable owning things (I know, it’s decidedly un-American of me). I have trouble taking good care of them. I move a lot, and then I have to move them. I have to clean them, keep them organized and remember to occasionally use them, so I don’t feel dumb for having them in the first place. I know, right? So challenging! My life is so difficult! Right. BUT, add to that the weight of the world I feel the need to carry on my shoulders, and the sinking feeling that I get sometimes that I simply have too much, when others in the world have so little, and I am usually ambivalent at best about most of my possessions.

The wedding gifts for me, though, are nothing short of pure love in object form: little reminders from everyone in our lives to say that they wish us all the best. So they can stay. Something else has to go.

In short, combining close quarters, wedding presents, and first-world guilt means that there is nothing like a trip to Goodwill in Rosie the Mini to make me feel like I’m on top of the world. Why yes, you may have all the twin bed sized sheets in my house! I can go through the world now as a person who is not hoarding sheets she does not need. I am a lighter, friendlier human when I remember that the things I have are only borrowed anyway, and there is simply nothing else in the world like setting them free to keep them from weighing me down. And there are more important things than stuff. Like love. Preach it, Sister Maya:

“I have found that among its other benefits, giving liberates the soul of the giver.” Maya Angelou


City Love: Corner Store

So. Today was an Inside Day. The magic of President’s Day brought me no class whatsoever, and I indulged that precious luxury of accomplishing every single task that I could while still wearing my pajamas. (envy me, my pajamas are a red, flannel, and polka-dotted). Then, at the ripe hour of 4:30, I was thrust from my apartment by an unavoidable need for brownie ingredients. So I doffed the jammies, donned my fake-ugg boots and walked precisely 1.5 blocks to my favorite local grocery. This is no ordinary corner store: it’s a full-on market with an impressive selection of dried chiles and bizarre meats.

(There was one day when I was there with the Darling Husband and got distracted by proclaiming that I wanted to try everything in the store, and then reading him the names of the increasingly strange cuts of meats. To which he said, predictably, Ew. Gross.)

As I was walking in the cold drizzle, thinking about how I hate cold, drizzly February, I was interrupted from my internal grumbling by an intense love for the fact that the world of chiles and odd meats is only 1.5 blocks from my front door. I love the city for being a place where people are so jam packed together that we can’t help but share our various cultures, ideas and preferences all by sheer proximity. Maybe I’m not shopping for chicken feet or pork jowl, though my inner Antonio Bordain totally wants to try them, but someone is, and it’s pretty cool that I get to be their neighbor. I don’t have to travel to El Salvador to find out what a pupusa is (answer: deliciousness) or eat Bibimbap (more deliciousness), because people have brought these genius culinary ideas here.

It’s a pretty humbling thing to know that few places and the world get this kind of spectacular, overwhelming wealth of diversity, and to know that I seldom appreciate it, or appreciate the struggle of those who left their countries to come to mine. Another day, I’ll have to think deeper about how I can honor that journey, those sacrifices, but today I just have to say that the stir-fry in my stove’s future beckons, and that diverse cities make my little life richer. And that urban density meant I only had to walk 3 blocks today through the February outside. That, friends, is a blessing.

And with that, I leave you with my fake version of stir fry, my go-to meal. It’s pretty corner-store friendly, and very apartment living, grad-school-budget friendly. Almost no culinary skill required.

For a more legit version of stir fry, you’ll have to see Bethany.

Amy’s Easy Stir Fry
Frozen Veggies
Soy Sauce
Can(s) of Beans

Note: There are no measurements. You can make one serving of this, with a little rice and a not too many frozen veggies, or enough for a week, with lots more of everything. I usually do a cup of uncooked rice, a bag of frozen veggies, and a can of black beans, and it makes about 3 servings.

Start water boiling for rice, and proceed to prepare the rice according to the package directions. About 5 min before it’s supposed to be done, move on to the veggies.

Grab the biggest skillet you can find and start heating it up (med-high heat). When it’s hot (hold your hand close to it to tell), pour a little (1 to 2 TBS) of oil into it, and heat until flicking water off your fingers into the oil makes a satisfying sizzling sound. This shouldn’t take long. Throw the frozen veggies right from the bag into the oil. Stir them around until they seem significantly less frozen (about 3-5 min). Drain the can of beans and dump them in. Stir. Pour in some soy sauce. I usually do a couple of slow turns around the pan. You want the veggies covered but not swimming. Dump in the Rice. Add sugar to taste, a spoonful at least, and let the whole thing hang out until it’s heated through, nothing is frozen, and nothing is burnt. Eat. Keeps beautifully for leftovers.

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