Friday, July 17, 2009

The Art of Giving -- and Taking

I'll admit it. I live in an upscale town. When I first moved in, I was a bit embarrassed to give out my address. I was the poor guy with the rich neighbors, and I thought people would think I was pretentious trying to live in this area. But over the years I found my happy space, and I really began to enjoy the amenities of the town - beautiful tree-lined streets, excellent schools, convenient transportation, and access to top-notch shopping. And over the years, I even became friends with some of those uber-wealthy people.

So when I got the email a few months ago from one of those upper stratospheric income earning families soliciting "support" for a board of education candidate they were endorsing, I knew I would have to put up or be put out.

I'll admit something else. I felt pretty good being part of that email list. I looked at the other names on this small and exclusive distribution. It consisted of families that were quite well off, and, in fact, somewhat influential on the Wall Street circuit, and me. I thought, wow, they consider me part of their circle. Someone they could come to for help. Despite my comparably piddly income, they were able to look beyond that and see me for whom I really was.

Actually, I had no idea what they thought of me at that time. I came to realize they wanted my property.

The solicitation was quite simple on the surface - could they post a campaign sign on our lawn showing our support for the candidate? Just a small sign, how harmless could that be? After all, I lived on a well-trafficked street so the eyeball stickiness would be high.

Well, if there's one thing my wife and I detest, it's the proliferation of campaign signs in front of people's homes. We have refused them over the years because of the clutter and because we never really felt it was anyone's business to know who we support and who we vote for.

But now, I was in a pickle. After being accepted into the circle of trust, I would have to decline my new found in-crowd with what they probably would deem some weak, lame excuse.

"So, make a donation to the campaign," my wife said.

In the email, there was a link to the candidate's website and on the website there was a link for donations. I was just an automated PayPal button away from saving face.

"How much should I give?" I asked.

"It's a local campaign, give'em fifty bucks."

So while I was at the office the next day half-listening to a conference call, I wrote an email to the original sender telling them we prefer not to post signs but would gladly support this candidate with a cash donation. It was a win-win. I can't offer the property but I'll give you something better - money. I then went onto the candidate's site, hit the donate button and quickly entered in the amount.

It was easy, it was done and I could still be on the holiday card mailing list.

Well, about ten minutes later an email popped up on my screen: "That was soooo nice! Thank you soooo much! We all appreciate your generous support. It is wonderful to see how dedicated you are to our town's education issues."

Okay, it was only fifty bucks. A simple thank you would have worked. What's with the excessive, gooey praise?

Then the PayPal receipt came in across the email. In my haste to punch in some numbers and get back to my conference call, I gave a little more than fifty. I gave five hundred!

I broke out in a cold sweat. What kind of idiot makes that type of donation?

"Honey, you won't believe what happened," I said to my wife on the phone. "I accidentally typed in an extra zero, and, well, uh ..."

"Uh, what?"

"Uh, I gave five hundred dollars instead of fifty."

Long, dramatic pause. And then, quite calmly and quietly, like a mafia hit man about to finish off his victim, she said: "Get it back."

"Get it back? You mean ask the campaign for the money back?"

"Yes. Get it back."

"I can't ask rich people for my money back."

More silence.

"You are not donating five hundred dollars. You are getting four hundred and fifty dollars back at the very least."

Just then, another email popped up from the really rich family: "Please make sure you come to our house next Wednesday. The candidate will be there to discuss her campaign with a few invited guests, and she would like to personally thank you in front of everyone for your amazing generosity. Ok, see you then."

"Hey, honey, they want to honor me next week because of the donation. That could be fun, right?"

"What kind of idiot donates that much money to a school board campaign?", she said.

I wasn't sure if that was rhetorical or not but I didn't have a chance to answer because the phone went dead on the other end.

At home that evening, my wife asked me if I got the money back.

"Not yet. I was busy today."

"I'm calling over and telling them to refund it," she said. I broke out in another cold sweat. Cold sweats are not enjoyable. You really feel like everything's falling apart. Besides, what's worse than asking for the money back? Having your wife do it in your place. I'm still shaking.

"Okay, I'll get it. I'll get it."


I got in my second-hand Honda sedan with the dented passenger door and cracked windshield and drove through my beautiful tree-lined streets, past our excellent school and into the estate section of town.

I never really saw this wealthy person's house up close. It was set so far back from the street and covered in a lush forest of trees and shrubs, I could only make out a window now and then and that was usually in the winter time when the foliage was less dense.

I drove up the winding 200-yard driveway, around a circle that had a spouting fountain in the middle and parked right by the front door. I debated leaving the motor running in case I needed a quick escape.

I knocked on the huge, wooden front door. I could almost hear the knock echo throughout the massive cavern on the other side.

The intercom against the wall crackled: "Please step back from the door."

I took a step back.

"Please turn to the right."

I turned and looked into a hidden camera.

"Oh, it's you," I heard cheerfully through the intercom. "I'll be right down."

I was thinking how that happiness was going to change in a few seconds. I was thinking I could just run now, but since they already saw my face they might find that odd. Well, they were certainly going to find my request odd, so what did it matter. Maybe they'll find the whole thing funny, a silly mistake. We'll have a little laugh. They'll invite me in for a drink. We would sit in the library and talk about the problems of the world, and then they would ask me to visit them this summer on the Vineyard.

The door creaked open.

"Well, hello. What brings you here, you big campaign donor, you?"

I chuckled a little, shuffled my feet a bit. "Uh, well you see. There was a little, uh, mistake."

"Uh, mistake?"

"Do you think I could get four hundred fifty back?"

The u-shaped lips became a straight line. The eyes drew to a slit. The forehead furrowed. I was asking a rich person for money.

"Excuse me?"

I told them about the mistake I made and how I didn't really want to give that much although I really cared about the cause and how my wife thought it was stupid to give that much and that fifty bucks is more than enough and the more I talked the more I realized I sounded like an idiot who just dug a grave.

There was some silent staring, some head shaking. I thought now would be a good time to faint to get some sympathy. I could blame my abhorent behavior on a brain tumor that was causing me to act irratically. But there really wasn't any place to fall without getting hurt. Too many steps to roll down, and getting blood on their property probably wouldn't make them happy.

"Why don't you just take the whole thing back. We'll send a cancellation to PayPal. Does that work for you?"

There was a quick, uncaring smile and a short goodnight. As the door was slamming closed, I quickly offered: "I can take one of those signs."

The door opened. I got a "what did you say?" look.

"I can put the sign on my car, if you want. Happy to do that."

We both glanced at the sad, poor, overused vehicle parked on the cobblestone. I was sure a big fat oil splotch was building up below.

"Yeah, thanks but that's not going to work." And the front door was closed.

I got in the car, trying not to feel bad for myself. At least I got IT back.

I started the engine and drove out of that circle - for good.


  1. Whether or not any of that story is true, it's damn funny and nicely crafted. Good work.