Thursday, January 19, 2012


And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing.
I got home this evening with enough time before dark to shovel the three inches of snow that had accumulated during the day. Armed with shovel and broom, I made my way outside.

About five minutes into the job, a woman came by with a shovel and started talking my ear off.

“I’m just coming by to say hello, know what I’m sayin’? What a pretty dog you have there! I have a dog too, a little terrier named Pepper. She got a brown patch by her eye and a red one on her back, you may have seen her. There’s quite a lot of snow isn’t there? I came home today and had to do just what you’re doing here now. Now I’m just going around and saying hello, preaching the word ya know, and I got this shovel here, but I don’t mean to shovel no snow. I’m just going around spreading the message. I live over on Portland near the Mayor’s house, but my real home is over at Bethel Baptist, at all the Lord's churches really. You can ask anyone there, they all know Sister Mini. Have you ever seen my dog? Her name is Pepper. That way if you ever see her running around you’ll know who she is...”

As she proceeded and I wished she’d hurry up and ask me for money so I could get back to work, I had time to prepare my response.

“ I’m wondering if I could shovel your sidewalk for a little money,” she finally finished.

“I got this under control,” I told her. “But ya know, the folks next door are two single mothers with a ton of kids, and I’m sure they’d appreciate it if someone would shovel their place for them. I'd pay you for that.”

“Oh, I can do that!” Sister Mini beamed. “I’ll get their driveway and porch and shovel the sidewalk on both sides so the kids can get to the bus.”

“How much do you want for that?” I asked, quickly assessing that it was about a half-hour of work.

“Ten dollars,” she chimed right away. Ten bucks, huh? I decided not to be stingy, and agreed to the price. It was more than I’d expect to earn for a job like that, but I’d consider if a gift to my neighbors and to the Sister Mini at the same time.

Finally able to get back to work, I proceeded to shovel my porch, sidewalk, and driveway in the amount of time it took her to do the neighbors’ driveway. As she worked, she rattled on and on about her ministry and children who were all in higher education (though one was apparently in jail, which is why she needed twenty dollars to send him) and about how she wouldn't normally do this except that she could help a sister in need, allowing me occasional moments to say nothing more than “Yeah” in response to her “Ya know what I’m sayin’?” Her work was delayed every couple minutes when she stopped to talk to anyone who walked by.

When I was finished with my shoveling and she was just getting to the porch, I decided to shovel the empty lot beside me to be social. Finally I went inside as she was just starting the sidewalk.

In a couple minutes the doorbell rang. “I’m done,” she announced. “I’m ready for my twenty dollars.”

“It’s ten dollars,” I said. “You’re done already?”

“Yes ma’am I’m done,” she said. “But look ma’am, that snow on the porch was real deep, and I need twenty dollars. I gotta send it to my son, ya know what I’m sayin’?”

“We agreed to ten dollars,” I maintained. “You really did both sides of the house? You got the other side too?”

“Yes ma’am, I did,” she maintained. “Look, I really need twenty dollars.”

“Let me go see,” I said, walking over to the corner while she rattled on about what a good job she had done and how deep the three inches of snow had been. When I arrived at the corner, I saw that she had not touched the other side. “We agreed to both sides of the house,” I said. “You haven’t done the other side like you said you did.”

“Oh, my bad,” she said as she headed around the corner. “I got it.”

I returned inside, not at all amused (or surprised), and planned my response to her inevitable demand for a double-payment, twenty dollars for a job that took 45-minutes.

When she returned asking for her twenty dollars, I was ready. “We agreed to ten dollars...” I began before she cut me off.

“Yeah, but that snow was real deep,” she insisted. “How ‘bout we split the difference and call it fifteen?”

“We agreed to ten,” I repeated, “but ya know, the house on the other side is abandoned, so no one’s gonna shovel that sidewalk. If you get the sidewalk from the alley to the other side of the house, I’ll give you twenty.”

“I see you’re a sharp businesswoman,” she complemented me. “You got yourself a deal.”

Not too sharp a businesswoman, I grumbled as I went back inside. She gets an extra ten dollars for an extra ten minutes of work? She’s making a killing on this. I don’t even get minimum wage.

I had hardly sat down and picked up my books when she knocked on my door again. “I’m going home,” she proclaimed. “I want my twenty dollars.”

“You already got that sidewalk?” I asked dubiously, knowing it was impossible to have done it in two minutes.

“Yes ma’am,” she said firmly, “and I’m going home now to let my dog out. I didn’t want to shovel no snow at all today, I was just doing it to help a sister and proclaim the word.”

I looked at the sidewalk and saw that she had managed to clear a shovel-width path. It was not at all worth what she was getting for it, but at least it was something. By this point I was too annoyed to argue, and thought it worth paying the full price just to get rid of her.

“Here,” I said, handing her the money with obvious frustration.

“You’re welcome,” she chirped with deliberate cheerfulness, adding a bow for dramatic effect. “This isn't Egyptian slavery, ya know? Ya know, I wasn’t even plannin’ on shovelin’—I just came by ‘cause I always admired you. Have a nice day.”

“Thank you,” I said too late as she left.

“Goodbye,” she called to my dog. “You know, I always liked that dog of yours better than you.”

“Bye,” I said with the edge having left my voice now that the damage was fully done. “You really did a nice job at my neighbor’s house. Have a great evening.”

After she was gone I sat on the porch and admired her handiwork next door. I hoped the neighbors would appreciate it, which would salvage at least the other half of my ill-fated ‘good deed.’ Whatever point it was where I went wrong, it was clear to me that as far as Sister Mini was concerned, I had given a gift without any love behind it. It was also clear to me that she had known it. And it profited me nothing.


Anonymous said...

So I'm not sure, what was the "right" thing to do, therefore?

Em the luddite said...

Beats me... these issues always do. Sending her away from the get-go would have involved just as little love, I assume. The problem with giving to people without any love behind it is not the giving to people, of course, but the lack of love. The right thing to do is to love, and all I know to do is to pray that I grow in love.

Anonymous said...

I guess "tough love" would stick to the original deal, which was fair. It's not helping her (or loving) to let her keep doing this? If you care long term.

Em the luddite said...

Perhaps it would... I've never known how to define the term. All I was noticing the other day, however, was that the begrudging annoyance I had from the beginning eventually outshone my do-gooderliness. You're right to suggest that love might involve actions that don't seem nice. Right now I suppose I'm less concerned about what I should do in these cases than I am with the fact that I tend to resent the folks whom I try to help. That was what seemed to shine through the other day.

Christian H said...

"Right now I suppose I'm less concerned about what I should do in these cases than I am with the fact that I tend to resent the folks whom I try to help."

This sometimes afflicts me, too. I wonder whether there is a connection between helping someone (especially when they ask for help) and resenting them. We think of things generally in terms of trades, even if we don't intend to. When we help someone, we expect something back on some level--that something might just be respect or recognition or, in this case, the work she promised. When that relationship is damaged (ie. when we don't get our side of the bargain), we get grumpy. But charity is not supposed to be a deal, fair or otherwise. I don't know how to overcome that sense, though.

Anonymous said...

waiting for Lent II