Choose a size for the type: Large Medium Small
Whenever we went into the city by ourselves, my parents gave me the same lecture: Call if we need help, don’t go anywhere with strangers, be careful of the crazy drivers. This time, just as I was leaving, my father put a ten dollar bill in my hand. “Put that in a safe place, just in case of emergencies.” I thanked him, shoved it into my pocket, and left.
It’s not like the city is that big a place to begin with. But compared to the other towns in the area, it definitely deserved the title “city.” It had its own trolley system, homeless people on the street, and a section called “The Red Zone” where kids our age get really uncomfortable with what’s on the movie marquees.
I had agreed to pick up Mimi on my way to the train station even though it was in the wrong direction because I had a special mission. As I stood outside my house, I checked the contents of the envelope again. It was a plain brown envelope. I’d wrapped the bills inside with some of the special pink yarn my mother was using to knit a cap for Maddie. It had flecks of green and purple in it, and little sparkly bits, too, but it’s what was handy. I licked the flap and made sure it was sealed, and carefully zipped the envelope inside my coat. I didn’t want $20,000 in thousand dollar bills falling out into the street as I biked.
I approached Mimi’s house carefully, and snuck up to her mailbox, checking to see if anyone was looking. I put the envelope in and closed the lid trying not to make a sound. Then I knocked on Mimi’s door, probably louder than usual.
Mimi came out dressed in a green t-shirt, darker green shorts, green sneakers, and pink socks. You couldn’t get much spring-ier than that. “Hi,” she said as she stepped past me on the stoop in front of her door. Then, as if remembering something she’d forgotten, she turned back and flipped up the lid of the mailbox. She took out the envelope, looked at it, said, “Odd. No stamp,” opened her front door, and put it on the mail table. We headed off to the station. I was relieved. I didn’t want to tell Mimi about the gift until after her parents got it just in case she didn’t like the idea. But I also didn’t want her to hear about it from her parents instead of from me. Some time today I figured I’d have a chance to tell her without Ari being around.
Now was not to be that time. Ari came scooting up on his bike, lightly crashed into Mimi’s porch rail, and turned around so that together we could ride the six blocks to the train station.
* * *
We talked for the entire 35 minute trip, except for ten minutes when we went to the refreshment car where we ate terrible muffins. Mainly we talked about how we were going to spend money in the city. That was our mission. Away from our parents and other friends, we could at last just be plain old rich kids.
The city is the last stop the train makes, which is one reason our parents let us take it: it’s hard to get off at the wrong place. We emerged into the fresh air like people waking up. The day had a little bite of cold to it, making the city seem even more filled with straight lines and corners than usual.
“Where to first?” I asked, patting my front pockets, each of which held a ridiculous amount of money. I’d split the cash up, figuring I wouldn’t get pickpocketed in both pockets.
“The Planetarium!” said Ari without hesitation. Mimi and I looked at each other. Why not?
“It’s this way,” said Mimi, heading up the street. She was by far the best oriented of the three of us.
“Walking?” I said in mock shock. “Never!” I stepped to the curb and waved my hand. A taxi pulled up.
Now, there are some things about being a kid with money that you’re not ready for. I was expecting the cab driver to look at us as if we were spoiled brats. And since we were in the city in order to act like spoiled brats, we deserved that look. After all, the driver was working hard all day in order to make the sort of money that we were just throwing around. But what I wasn’t ready for was tipping. I knew that you usually tip 15% of the cost of the ride. And I could do the math. The problem is that it’s just plain embarrassing to give someone a tip. It’s not so bad when you can leave it on a table and flee, but when you have to actually hand it to someone, they get to see if you’re a big tipper or a little tipper.
So, I sat during the entire drive worrying about the moment of truth. As we got close to the planetarium, it was clear that the ride was going to cost about $6.00. Fifteen percent is ten percent plus half of ten percent. That’s 90 cents. Round it up to a dollar. Total cost of ride, including tip: $7.00. Easy. But the smallest bill I had was a ten. So, I’d give him the ten and ask for three back. But what’s $3 to the world’s richest boy? I should just say, “Keep the change,” except then I would really seem like a spoiled rich kid. But the driver wouldn’t care: I may be spoiled, but I tip well. Those three dollars might mean something to the driver. On the other hand, I could give him a twenty dollar bill and tell him to keep the change and it wouldn’t make the slightest bit of difference to me. But he’d look at the twenty and ask me if I meant to give him a ten. “No, no, keep the change, my good man,” I’d say. No, giving him a twenty would draw out the entire interchange. I could give him the twenty and then run away, but suppose he started chasing me, waving the $20 bill and yelling “Hey, Spoiled Rich Kid, you gave me too much money!” So much to think about.
So, I sat there, chewing my lip, dreading the moment when I’d have to pay. My anxiety was clearly bothering Mimi and Ari also.
The cab pulled to the curb. “Six dollars even,” said the taxi driver.
“You did a very nice job,” I said, handing him a twenty dollar bill. “Keep the change.”
He looked at it carefully, nodded once and drove off without saying a word and without looking back.
The planetarium was fun. It always is. Even if you don’t care about the universe – although, if you don’t care about the universe, what’s left to care about? – it’s just such a cool place. It’s darker than dark, and then the stars come out, and a big voice comes over the loudspeakers from all directions at once. Plus, they always have some show biz touch. This time it was a race through the solar system faster than the speed of light, taking a left around Jupiter and a couple of spins around Neptune.
We went to the museum’s gift store but didn’t want to get anything too expensive that we couldn’t explain to our parents, so I got a selection of little things: some polished gems, a light-up pen, and a foam “moon rock.”
Next it was on to the Mystery Arcade, the largest electronic game place in the city. The three of us had put in plenty of hours at the Quarter Time arcade in our town. Quarter Time was a single room in the mall with machines lining its walls. At the Mystery Arcade, you left the electronic fighting machine room and you entered the electronic fake sports room, which was to the right of the electronic pinball room. And that was just on the first floor. The three of us stood in awe, frozen in the entry way. Then I headed for the change machine.
Do you know how much $50 in quarters weighs? More than you think. But after I divided it into threes (Ari and Mimi each got an extra), they didn’t feel heavy, just comforting. We played and played, sometimes together, sometimes apart, until our brains were booping with electronic beeps and our fingers were flicking without our even wanting them to.
Even after we’d sat on the bench outside for ten minutes, we could still feel the ringing in our brains. “Where to?” I asked.
Mimi looked hesitant. “What is it?” I asked.
“I sort of read about an exhibit at the Museum of Art that sounded sort of cool. Would you be sort of interested in going?”
“Sort of,” I replied. “What is it?”
“Well, it’s this woman who takes pictures of everyday things really close up so you can see their textures.”
“Whatever!” Ari said enthusiastically.
“Taxi!” I called.
* * *
Why do museums have such large doors? What sort of giants do they think are going to be visiting?
Before stepping through them, we wanted to have a snack. Rather than waiting in a restaurant, we decided to eat from the food carts in front of the museum: roasted chestnuts, hot sugared cashews, a Super Sluggo ice cream bar and sodas all around. It was more than we could eat. In fact, it was more than we could hold. We sat on a bench, leaning forward to avoid the dripping ice cream, and ate until we were full. Then we closed up the bags of cashews and carefully placed the rest of our uneaten treats into a waste basket where a squirrel was happily feasting regardless of the large mammals next to him.
The line into the museum was short, and we had barely wiped our hands on the napkins when it was our turn. Immediately I was facing another crisis, for the sign at the booth said
“Wow, it’s free!” said Ari.
“That’s so unfair,” said Mimi at the same time.
“Because you have to decide whether you’re going to be a cheapskate.”
“That’s why they have the suggestion,” I said.
“But it’s just a suggestion.”
“That’s what they expect you to pay.”
“No it’s not. That’s why they call it a suggestion.”
I turned to the woman in the booth. “Excuse me, but do most people pay the $7?”
She had been listening to our discussion and smiled. “About half do.”
“And does the other half go in for free?” asked Ari, a little too eagerly?
“Some do. Some people put in more. Some put in a few dollars, depending on what they can afford.”
“Thank you,” I said and stepped out of the line so that other people, less confused than we were, could enter. The three of us stood next to a giant statue of a man, a woman and a child made entirely out of nails.
“So, let’s pay our money and go in,” Mimi said.
“You heard her,” I said. “Some people pay less depending on what they can afford, and some people pay more.”
“So?” asked Ari.
“Do you know what I could afford?”
“So pay $10 each and let’s go in,” said Ari.
“Because it’s more and it’s not $11.37.”
“What’s wrong with $11.37?” I asked.
“It’s not round. No one gives un-round numbers, unless they’re putting in all their change.”
“So why not $20?”
“Ok, $20,” Ari said. “Let’s go in.”
I shook my head. “I don’t know how to figure this out.”
Mimi put her hand on my shoulder and said, “There’s nothing to figure. There are no rules. You’re the world’s richest boy. You’re an exception to the rules about money.”
“So, what do I do?”
“Put in a thousand dollars.”
“What?!” Ari said, in shock. “A thousand dollars? Why?!”
“Because he can without even noticing it. You brought that much, didn’t you?”
“Plenty more than that,” I said, feeling both front pockets to reassure myself that the money was still there.
“So, a thousand dollars is nice round number.”
“So why not two thousand?”
“Because, well, that’s too much,” Mimi said with such decisiveness that ended the conversation.
I turned away so I could pull out a thousand dollar bill without attracting attention, folded the bill up so you couldn’t see how much it was for, and strolled casually back to the booth. As if I were just dropping in a couple of bucks, I dropped it into the slot and walked in. Mimi and Ari each put in a $10 bill I’d given them.
No one noticed. When they counted the money up that evening, I imagined someone saying, “Hey, Myrtle, that’s one generous person!”
Of course, I’d never know. And I’d never be thanked. That shouldn’t have mattered to me, but, strangely, it did. A little.
We stepped out into the light with a half day left. The museum had been a museum: walls and walls of stuff I didn’t care about with occasional items that carried me like a crumb being washed down a drain. The rooms with the photo exhibit were good. Because the photographer had taken pictures of things in extreme close-up, you had to stand back from the wall to see what they were, but as you got closer and closer, the textures of the thing became more interesting. So, like everyone else there, we walked backwards and forwards in front of each photo as if we were on a rubber band.
When we got outside, we realized we were hungry again. That junk food feast hadn’t filled us up for long. I opened up the tourist information I’d gotten from the Web. “Grande Fleur,” I said, pointing at the entry. “That’s where we’re going to have lunch. Taxi!”
The tourist guide said that the Grande Fleur was the finest restaurant in town, featuring French menu items that I couldn’t have pronounced even if I’d had my jaw hinges oiled. The service was reported to be perfect, with waiters in white gloves attending to your every need. The décor – the insides – was described as opulent and elegant, which I figured meant that they didn’t have photos of the owner’s nieces and nephews on the wall. But it didn’t matter because the Grande Fleur was full. No amount of money was going to empty the place any sooner.
“You want to wait or find somewhere else?” I asked.
“I’m getting hungry,” said Ari.
So, we looked in the guide again. The Salzburg Grille was ranked almost as high as the Grande Fleur and it was only a couple of blocks away. It was a beautiful day and spending money on a cab to go two blocks didn’t even feel like fun, so we walked.
“There it is,” I said. The Salzburg Grille has a dark blue awning with its name written in gold script. Two doors before it was a jewelry store that had gone out of business. The lights were off and the store was empty. Sitting on a blanket in its doorway were a homeless woman and a man and a little dog. A sign written on a crinkled flap from a cardboard box said “Homeless and hungry. Give a hand?” Probably because we were kids, they didn’t look at us as we approached. “Oh, look at the dog,” said Mimi, giving me a wide-eyed tender gaze.
“I don’t know,” I said, panicked, in a soft voice. I didn’t want to be forced into a decision right away. “Stay away,” I said, “and we’ll talk about it at lunch.”
“Please,” I said urgently. “I don’t want to talk about it in front of them.”
We waved and passed by. “Cute dog,” Mimi said to them. They smiled back at her.
The restaurant was beautiful, all brick and brass and plants. The waiter who seated us only looked at us funny for a moment, and then must have figured that our parents had sent us here with money. His hair was slicked back, he wore a white shirt that was so clean and white it would probably have stayed lit even if the lights went out, and he walked so straight you could tear paper along his edge. “Right this way,” he said, leading us to a table near the window looking out on the homeless couple.
“I don’t feel good about this,” said Mimi. “Those people are hungry and here we are…” We looked at the menus silently. Even the appetizers cost more than ten dollars. I did the math and figured we’d be spending about $150 here. Although that wasn’t even a drop in my bucket, it was still a lot of money to spend on a lunch for three.
“Ok, Mimi, I don’t feel good about it either. But whatever we do, it doesn’t have to affect our lunch. It’s not like I have $150 that I can spend either on lunch or on them. So, let’s order a nice lunch. I’m really hungry.”
“Me, too,” said Ari, putting half a roll into his mouth all at once, and, worse, leaving the other half sticking out from his mouth.
The waiter who had seated us came over and said that it was going to be his pleasure to serve us this afternoon. (Yeah, I thought, if it’s such a pleasure, why do they have to pay him to do it?) It turns out that the Salzburg Grille is a grill, and grills feature meat, making it tough to order an all-vegetarian meal. But we managed: French fries, salads, grilled cheese, fried mozzarella sticks, onion rings, a portabella mushroom sandwich, ginger broccoli stir fry, garlic bread, stuffed potatoes and brownie sundaes for dessert.
As we waited for the food to arrive, Mimi tapped out a rhythm with a breadstick. “So what are we going to do for those nice people?” she asked.
“How do you know they’re nice?” asked Ari.
“Because they smiled when I complimented their doggie. Besides, the doggie looks happy and friendly, so they must take good care of it, which can’t be easy when you’re homeless and begging on the streets.”
“He didn’t look that happy to me,” Ari protested.
“I can tell,” said Mimi.
“You think you can tell.”
“It doesn’t matter if the dog is nice,” I interrupted.
“You're going to give them money anyway?” asked Ari.
“Yes. Maybe. I don’t know yet.” I was thinking about what “Beech” Sadler had told me: I should know who they are instead of just dropping money in their lap.
When the waiter brought our food, I ordered three hamburgers to go, except they of course don’t call them “hamburgers” in a place like the Salzburg Grille. No, they were “ground porterhouse,” and you had to ask to get ketchup.
“We don’t generally prepare take-out meals,” the waiter said. “I’m so sorry.”
No he wasn’t.
As he was about to turn away, I said, “Ok. Do you do doggy bags if we can’t finish our lunch?”
“Yes, certainly, sir, we can packaged your uneaten portion for home consumption.” He didn't look happy that I had called them doggy bags.
“In that case, I’d like three hamburgers to eat now because I’m really really hungry. And if I can’t finish them, I’ll ask you to pack them up for me in a doggy bag.”
“Why don’t I just put them in a carry-away carton for you and have it ready for you when you’re done with your meal?”
“Good idea! Thank you.”
And when we were done, there was our waiter with the bill. Only after I had paid in full did he hand over the bag with the three hamburger lunches in it. “Thank you,” I said, leaving a $100 tip. No, I didn’t like him very much, but he was working hard.
* * *
I still wasn’t sure how much I was going to give the homeless couple when Mimi began petting their dog. The dog got all excited the way little dogs do, skittering about on his little dog feet as if the sidewalk were just too hot to stand still on. “What’s his name?” she asked.
“Spunky,” said the man.
“Short for Spunkalator,” explained the woman.
“He’s adorable,” Mimi said.
“He’s a good dog,” confirmed the man.
Mimi looked at me and said to the couple, “We were wondering if you and Spunky would like some hamburgers from that restaurant.” I stepped forward with the bag.
“From the Grille? Sure! I've always wondered what their food is like.”
I handed the bag to him and he carefully laid out its contents: fat hamburgers on hard rolls, a container of ketchup, a large bag of French fries (or, as the Grille called them, “Crisp Juliennes of New Potatoes”), thick paper napkins and three heavy-weight plastic forks as if anyone would use forks to eat French fries and hamburgers. He pulled at one meat patty until a large chunk came off and gave it to Spunky. It was gone in two shakes of a small dog’s tail.
“Oh, he likes that,” said the woman.
“This is a very nice thing you’ve done,” said the man. “This is our regular spot, but I've never had food from there.”
“It’s good,” said Ari.
The man took a bite. “Hmm, yes it is. It’s very good.”
“Do you want some?” the woman asked.
“Oh no,” Mimi said. “We just ate. Thanks though.” Also, she was a vegetarian.
“So,” said Ari as the three of them ate their hamburgers, “How’d you end up here?”
It’s good to have Ari with you if you want something blurted out.
“Not that you’re ‘ending up’ here,” said Mimi, awkwardly.
“No, no,” said the man. “That’s a fair question. And the answer is pretty simple.”
“I’m schizophrenic,” said the woman. “My name is Caroline.”
“I’m Philip,” said the man, and we introduced ourselves to him.
“Yes,” said Philip, “Caroline is schizophrenic. Do you know what that means?”
“She thinks she’s different people,” Ari said with all the confidence that ignorance can give a person.
“No, that’s what it means in the movies. But in real life, a schizophrenic is, well, a crazy person. Caroline sometimes hears voices that aren’t there.”
“Not in a while.”
“Not in a couple of days,” Philip said. “And when she hears voices, she talks back to them.”
“Yeah, I’m nuts,” Caroline said. “It scares me.”
“Can’t they do anything about it?”
“Not much,” said Caroline. “You know the Carlton Center? I was there for a couple of years. And then the state stopped paying so they kicked me out.”
“They just put you on the street?”
“They tried to help. I was supposed to come in every week or every two weeks or something, but I kept getting confused. Never made it back. But then I met Philip and Spunky.”
“I was living on the street,” Philip said. “And it’s easy to tell you how I got there: drugs. I was a heroin addict. I probably still am.”
“Don't you know?” asked Ari.
“I’m not using now, but I may be tomorrow. That’s the sad truth. Can’t get a job and couldn’t keep one if I did. I’ve tried and I always end up back using. It’s a bad thing, but I guess they teach you that in school.”
“Yeah, we did a whole unit on it in Health,” Ari said a tad too cheerfully. I looked harshly at him to keep him from describing the report he’d done. It had been in the form of a humorous skit.
“So now you both live on the street and live on what people give you?” I asked.
“Sometimes we save enough money to get ourselves a little treat,” said Caroline.
“Mainly we just drink up the extra money, to tell you the truth.”
“That’s not true, Philly. We got this sweater for me with money we saved.”
“That was over a year ago,” Philip said gently.
“So,” I asked, “What would you do if you won the lottery?”
“Well, that’d be too much to drink,” said Philip.
“I’d stay in a hotel and get room service,” said Caroline.
“I’d invite our friends. Have a party.”
“Fun!” said Caroline.
“Or, we could try to get off the streets,” Philip said, rubbing his chin. He pulled Spunky into his lap and stroked his head and back. “That’d be the smart thing to do. Of course, I didn’t get here by doing smart things.”
“Oh, don’t say that,” said Caroline.
“Hard to say anything else,” Philip replied. “So, what would get me off the street? I could get myself cleaned up with that type of money. Some new clothes so I wouldn’t look like a bum. We could rent a little place. Maybe I could get a job if I didn’t look homeless.”
“A lot of it is the clothing,” Caroline confided.
“I could get a cell phone so I could apply for a job and give them a way to reach me. But I haven’t been good at holding jobs,” he continued.
I looked at Mimi. She nodded. “Ok, this is going to be hard to believe,” I began, “but I want you to have this.” I pulled an envelope out of each of my front pockets. “That’s $10,000.” I held it out to them. They didn’t move. “It’s for you. You can’t tell anyone where you got it, but it’s totally legal.”
“He won the lottery. The big one,” said Ari. “Really.”
“Really I did. I won more money than anyone could spend in a lifetime. So, please take this. But I hope you don’t spend it on a hotel room or…” I didn’t want to say “heroin.”
Caroline took one envelope from my hand. Philip looked at her and then took the other envelope. They looked in them as if they were peering through a telescope at another world.
“I don’t know what to say,” said Philip.
“It’s really awkward for all of us,” I said.
“Not for me,” said Caroline. “Thank you. Thank you.”
“Thank you,” said Philip. “We’ll try to do something with this.”
“Spunky thanks you,” said Caroline, waving the dog’s tiny paw at us.
“Ok. You’re welcome. And remember, you can’t tell anyone where you got it.”
“Won’t tell a soul.”
We were backing away when someone approached the blanket they were sitting on and dropped a bill into the couple’s cup. “Thanks, Martin,” said Caroline. “Ooh,” she said. “It’s a twenty! He must have had a good day.”
“He’s a regular. Everyday he drops in a buck or two,” explained Philip.
As Martin continued down the street, we saw that he had been our waiter at lunch.
* * *
“Well, I feel really weird about that,” I said when we were a block away.
“About what?” Ari asked.
“About giving them the money.”
“I know what you mean,” said Mimi. “It’s just so weird that you have so much and they have nothing. And you get to decide.”
“Yeah. I could have given them $5,000 or $15,000. No difference to me. A huge difference to them.”
“Or you could have given them $12,000,” chimed in Ari.
“Or $16,300,” he said.
“Ok, Ari, we got the point.”
I wanted Ari to stop before he said, “Or $20,000.” That’s what I gave Mimi’s family. My stomach knotted as I thought about how Mimi would react when she found out that I’d given her parents money as if they were a couple living on the street.
We walked down the street, not in the mood for a taxi, until we got to the Barrymore Theatre in the center of the city. I chatted about everything I could think of in order to keep the topic off of charity and money. When we got to the theatre, I ordered three of the best seats for the matinee performance of “Magic and All That,” a show that combined magic and comedy. With Ari between me and Mimi, I felt safer, but even so I read the program guide studiously until the lights went down to avoid talking with her. I just felt awkward. And I hoped the feeling would go away soon.
At intermission, Ari went to get candy. The seat was getting uncomfortable, so I stood. “Mimi,” I said, “there’s something I have to tell you.”
She looked up, waiting.
“You know that envelope in your mailbox this morning? The one without any stamps?” She nodded. “That was from me. I gave your parents some money to help them out. But you can’t tell them it was from me.”
“How much?” she asked. Her voice was neutral, like she was asking how much a candy bar cost.
“I didn’t know how much would be right, so I gave them $20,000.”
She didn’t say anything,
“So,” I asked, “what do you think?”
“What do you want me to think?”
“Nothing,” I replied, confused.
“Ok, I think nothing. You did it. It’s done. I won’t give away your secret.”
Ari came back with six candy bars. “I didn’t know what you’d want, so I got one of each.”
The show was good but not great: many of the tricks were familiar – he actually sawed a lady in half – and the comedy sketches were sort of dumb. Nevertheless, as we left I found myself saying “That was great! Fantastic!” because I had discovered, in the program guide, the right way to give away money.
Mimi didn’t speak to either of us during the entire ride home.
"She must be tired," Ari said to me.
I didn't reply.