I’ll often yell at homeless people. “Hey, how’s that homelessness working out for you? Try not being homeless for once!” Okay, ?ne. I’ve never actually said this. Coach Sue Sylvester onGleedid. But considering the ?rst line in my memoirBitter Is the New Blackreads, “Camille said you stole a bag from a homeless guy,” imagining my saying this isn’t such a stretch.
Having come within ?ve days of losing my apartment and moving back with my parents not so long ago, you’d think I’d be a little less glib about other people’s circumstances.
You’d be wrong.
The thing is, my life is good right now . . . I suspect a little too good.
I fear that I’m starting to forget what it felt like to struggle. My memories of the bad old days when the bank took our car and ComEd disconnected our electricity are fading and sepia-toned. So when Coach Sylvester offered her suggestion, I found myself nodding in agreement. Whydon’tthey try not being homeless for once? You know, get a job and such. How hard could it be, right?
Success has paved the way for me to revisit some old, bad habits. I’m concerned that my con?dence is quietly morphing back into arrogance and my hard-won humility is turning to hubris. More often than not, snotty has once again become the new black. My tolerance is nil and last week while shouting at the valet I’d deemed incompetent, I realized how dangerously close I was to asking him if he knew who I was.
This is not good.
Instead of asking someone if they know who I am, Ishouldbe asking myself who it is I want to be.
The last time I behaved in such a childish, petulant manner, Karma knocked me out of my penthouse and onto my ass. Although I learned to appreciate those lessons in retrospect, at the time, lifesucked. And I’d like to never live through anything like that again.
Thankfully I ?nally have the ability to take one giant step back from myself and right my terrible attitude before my life tumbles like so many houses of cards again.
I need to give back the good I’ve been so sel?shly taking in.
I need to repay the karmic debt I’ve incurred.
I need to actually grow up instead of just saying it.
And now my job is to ?gure out how.
You know who volunteers?
Also, people sentenced with community service after a DUI.
But mostly grown-ups.
Doing charitable work seems like it would be soup and sandwich to my desire to give back as well as my need to mature, so I’m looking into it. The only volunteer work I’ve done previously was with shelter dogs and I really enjoyed it, but it turns out I’m a “take work home with me” kind of gal. As my husband, Fletch, and I live with a pit bull, a German shepherd, and ?ve cats, we are at capacity in the stray pet department. Until we lose some members to attrition, I should stick to groups of creatures I don’t want to bring home. Like children and the homeless.
I sign up on a couple of Chicago volunteer databases, so I ?gure ?nding projects should be a snap. I mean, I’m smart, I have skills to offer, I’m willing and able, so surely there’s some stuff out there at which I’d excel. Or, barring that, at least wouldn’t hate. I log in to the ?rst calendar and begin to peruse volunteer listings. I’m free all week, so let’s see what’s available.
Okay, here’s something for Girls on the Run . . . well, nowthatsounds vaguely fun in a frenetic kind of way. Zippy and upbeat and useful. I wonder what they do? Maybe this is a charity that helps women balance their busy schedules? Or it provides gals on the go
with some kind of relaxing downtime? If that’s the case, I bet my friend Angie could bene?t. In the summer her minivan turns into a Mobile Command Unit and she stuffs it full of uniforms and pads and equipment before she shuttles four stinky boys to various sporting practices, camps, and workshops, all day, every day.
Angie’s always throwing out her back because she’s perpetually perching on steel risers cheering on her fourth track meet of the week, or hauling coolers full of enough gluten-free, dairy-free, sugar-free, tree nut–free snacks for the whole team. On away game and tournament days, she’s on the road from six a.m. until ten p.m., fueled by nothing but a bucket of coffee and a handful of back pills. How cool would it be if Girls on the Run could come out and, like, bring her some sangria or give her a quick shoulder massage? I’d de?nitely work to support those efforts.
I click over to the charity’s Web site and see that this is“A nonpro?t prevention program that encourages preteen girls to develop self-respect and healthy lifestyles through running.”
No sangria, then?
This charity isn’t what I thought, but I like the idea of a nonpro?t prevention program that encourages preteen girls to develop self-respect and healthy lifestyles. Empowering young women is never a bad idea. I’m all for Girls on the Run . . . except for the part that might include me running.
As my pro?ciency is less “running” and more “chugging along on the treadmill, sweating and swearing, at speeds no faster than
4.0 and for lengths no longer than a quarter of a mile,” I imagine
I’m not the role model these tweens seek. What amIgoing to teach them? That it’s ?ne to take a cab for three blocks, particularly if cute shoes are involved? How to pick up the remote control with one’s feet in order to avoid bending? The key to mixing the perfect dirty martini?
On Saturday I can work at the Tour de Fat, which is “a celebration of bicycles and creative community.” The project entails pouring beer for three hours and then cleaning up after people who’ve been drinking said beer. The last time I had anything to do with serving cocktails was when I worked at a dive bar in college. The money was nice, but the downside of the job was the cleaning-upafter-people-who’d-been-drinking bit. Due to the abundance of biohazards, I had to poke head and arm holes in the contractor garbage bags I wore over myDirty Dancingjean shorts and sorority T-shirt to avoid the backsplash that came from hosing down the bar.
I’m going to say Strike One on the potential for being gross.
“The Tour de Fat festival celebrates Chicago’s growing biking community.”
That may be a problem because I loathe most of Chicago’s growing biking community. I’m infuriated at how bikers interpret traf?c laws at will, plowing through stoplights, zipping in and out between cars, and riding on the sidewalk. Last week I almost nailed some mutton-chopped, forage-capped hipster who was completely oblivious to traf?c due to his preoccupation not only with chatting on the phone but also smoking, thus leaving him with zero hands on the handlebars. When I honked he was all, “Bicycle rights, you fascist!” to which I replied, “Hey, Johnny Rebel—this car weighs six thousand pounds. Your ten-speed weighs twenty-?ve. If we crash I guarantee I’ll win.”
I check out the rest of the event description. The festival helps support environmental charities and having recently seen an incredibly guilt-inducing Discovery Channel special about polar bears, I’m on board. That is, until I stumble across a sentence that stops me dead in my tracks.
“Volunteers are encouraged to come ‘in costume.’ ”
That’s a problem because I have an irrational fear of adults wearing costumes.
By “fear” I mean “deeply seated hatred.”
I’m of the mind-set that if you’re too old to solicit candy from your neighbors, you’re too old to dress as a Ninja Turtle. I still have ?ashbacks from when I had a professional job and coworkers would show up for the day done up as superheroes and Raggedy Ann. They’d be all, “Hey, won’t this be fun when we see clients today?”
Um, you’re not coming tomymeetings, Batman.
In case you’re wondering, I despised costumes even before I gained enough weight to limit my masquerade options to Saucy Pirate Wench or Viking-Horned Opera Singer. Thank you, no. And by the way? If you’ve ever gone to a Halloween party done up as a Sexy Nurse or Sexy Policewoman, please know that you appear to be one pizza delivery/cable repair away from starring in a porno.
Strike three, Tour de Fat, thanks for trying.
Let’s see . . . would I like to build houses in Munster, Indiana, for eight hours?
Not with a fresh manicure, I wouldn’t.
Do I want to staff the gates at one of Chicago’s ubiquitous summer fests? Yeah, I’m over forty, ?ighty, and ?uffy—I’d say I’m not ideal bouncer material.
Shall I call BINGO numbers at a local church? Pfft, if those BINGO participants are as vicious as I’ve seen portrayed on television, I’d be better off trying to talk local gang members into voluntarily disarming.
What else . . . oh, looks like I could teach homeless men to use the Internet through an urban ministry charity. The notion of this intrigues me, but I can’t quite get past my cynicism that the second I teach these guys to do a Google search they’re not heading for ICanHasCheezburger.com. This is probably the root of all those Nigerian prince e-mail scams, too. Teach a man to ?sh and he might just take the opportunity to steal all your lobster pots.
Hey, here’s one about “keeping current.” I quickly scan the description and I see that participants would be tasked with having engaging conversations about current events. Hey, I like current events! I like conversations! I’m engaging! I bet if I did this one, I could practice some of the higher-culture skills I learned forMy Fair Lazy.
I jot down the contact information in order to sign up. I wonder, would I be working with kids or seniors? If it’s seniors, I’d be fascinated by their take on how the world differs today than when they were young. I bet I’d hear a lot of sentences start with, “In my day . . .” That would be totally enriching; I’m sure I’d get more out of the conversation than they would.
If it’s kids, then I’d have the chance to be the elder statesman and I could talk about what life was like when calculators were the size of bricks and we got only three TV stations (unless you counted public TV) (which I didn’t) and if you wanted to send your friend a message, you needed a pen, a spiral notebook, and the ability to do an origami fold.
I’m about to send the project coordinator an e-mail requesting to join in when I notice a few words I’d previously skimmed over. Turns out I wouldn’t be having these scintillating conversations with youth or the elderly. Apparently I’d be chatting up gentlemen just released fromprison. And this takes place in a halfway house, so their participation is likely involuntary. Suddenly this doesn’t sound like such a great idea.
To be fair, maybe these conversations are totally bene?cial to the ex-cons and perhaps they can’t fully mainstream back into society without being able to connect with regular people. I bet having the civilian perspective helps them right the thought processes that led them down the wrong path in the ?rst place. Yet I know myself well enough to say I’d be far too uncomfortable around these men and that the interchange wouldn’t bene?t any of us. Plus, I’d probably try to cross-examine them about their past crimes in order to better judge them, because even though I’ve made the conscious decision to become an adult, that doesn’t preclude me from being an asshole.
Now, hey, this one’s right up my alley.“Come be surprised by how much joy an animal can bring into someone else’s day. The XY Senior Center is a facility for seniors and other residents who need skilled nursing care. Pairs of volunteers make the rounds with a friendly cat or dog to socialize with residents in individual rooms. Volunteers without pets can pair up with pet owners.”
Yes! Score! Ding ding ding! I’ve ?nally found a use for my menagerie! Perfect! I love the idea of having old folks connect with animals. Pets are so therapeutic, at least when they’re not vomiting in one’s shoes or climbing the curtains or whizzing on the leg of the pool table because it vaguely resembles a tree trunk. I mean, when I’m stressed or sad, nothing in the world makes me feel better than spooning Maisy, feeling her scratchy paintbrush fur against my cheek and inhaling her eau de corn chip scent.
Years ago when I worked for an HMO, I had a few peripheral dealings with nursing homes. All the best ones included pet therapy programs. Lots of places even had big, docile dogs and sweet-natured cats who lived in the facilities; they made such a difference in the residents’ lives.
I absolutely adore the idea of bringing the elderly and pets together. But given the nature of my pets, I wonder if I shouldn’t try to pair up with someone? Maybe I should ask.
I copy down the contact information and shoot the organizer a quick e-mail.
I’m interested in volunteering for the XY Senior Center
project. I’m wondering, though, if I need to be paired with
someone who has a pet. I have two dogs who are seriously
friendly but one of them is a 75-lb pit bull and the other is a 105-lb shepherd mix. They’re both sweet as can be, although they tend to jump and head butt and I’d worry about them in a roomful of folks with limited balance and fragile hips.
Otherwise, I’ve got three kittens who couldn’t be more charming, although they’re still kind of feral. They’re great around our house but I wonder if they might not slingshot around a room looking for a place to hide should they encounter strangers.
My elderly cats are pretty calm, but one doesn’t groom himself and he looks like a bath mat. (He’s also missing all his teeth but that doesn’t stop him from woo?ng down dry dog food!) The other one is about a thousand years old and somehow I imagine petting the feline manifestation of Mr. Burns from The Simpsons wouldn’t be nearly as nice as touching something fat and furry. But maybe it would work because she’s spry and feisty?
Anyway, if you feel like my pets might be appropriate, let me know. And if you’d rather just pair me up with another owner, that’d be great, too. I’d love to be a part of this.
Best, Jen Lancaster
I send my e-mail and await con?rmation. Which never comes. Damn.
As always, my friend Stacey is a willing partner in crime, which is why I’m able to rope her into an Indianapolis road trip. We’re going to an event with the GlamourGals Foundation, a nonpro?t whose mission is to inspire and organize teens to provide complimentary makeovers to elderly women living in senior homes. Julia Porter, the Director of Programs, has been incredibly helpful in guiding me to various volunteer opportunities, so when I have the chance to repay the favor, I’m all over it.
We spend our day giving manicures and makeovers to the elderly residents and within ?ve minutes, I can tell what a valuable program this is. When you’re holding someone else’s hand or touching her face, it creates an instant bond and an intimacy that you won’t ?nd in a garden-variety conversation.
The thing about the elderly is they don’t dick around with a lot of social niceties. No time for that. So I can’t help but appreciate when one of the ladies grills Stacey on her marital status.
“Are you married?” Stacey’s elderly manicure client asks.
“No, but I’m dating someone exclusively,” Stacey replies.
“Are you shacking up?” I have to stop rouging my gal’s cheeks because I have to clap my hand over my mouth to keep from snorting.
Stacey smiles patiently. “We don’t live together.”
“Why not? Time’s a-wasting.”
And then I die laughing until she turns to me and asks why I don’t have kids.
However, these ladies’ ability to be blunt and articulate exactly what they want and need is why I believe this is such an amazing program. I feel like kids today have trouble expressing themselves, particularly when they can’t hide behind tweets and text messages, and knowing there’s a cadre of outspoken old ladies in hot pink lipstick forcing them outside their comfort zone makes me weep a little less for the future.
Unfortunately, with theMy Fair Lazybook tour coming up and the out-of-town locale, I’m not able to get to other events, so I search for opportunities closer to home.
Stacey and her family volunteer every year at the Glass Slipper Project, a nonpro?t organization that gives away free prom dresses and accessories to high school juniors and seniors in the Chicago area. This is another one that makes my heart smile. IfPretty in Pinktaught us anything, it’s that no girl should ever miss her prom, Blaine. Except Molly Ringwald’s dress was tragic so I’m particularly on board with the idea of needy young ladies receiving a new or gently used dress so they don’t have to bust out their sewing machines.
A few days before the event Stacey calls me.
“What size do you wear?” she asks.
I already dislike where this is going. “Why?”
“Because I need to know what size T-shirt to get you for the Glass Slipper Project.”
I feel a quick whoosh of relief. “Oh, no, thanks. I don’t want a shirt.” In my brief tenure as a professional volunteer thus far, I’ve learned that the shirts are kind of a status symbol. Everyone shows up to volunteer in T-shirts advertising other charities where they’ve worked, kind of like concert tees, only for do-gooding. It’s like everyone’s trying to one-up another;I see your 5K Fun Run for MS tee and I’ll raise you one Half Marathon for Habitat for Humanity!
Personally, I choose to break the cycle of one-upmanship by forgoing the swag.
I’m excited about the day because it sounds like fun and Stacey says everyone’s always so happy. Last year she was a personal shopper, meaning she helped various girls ?nd their dresses, accessories, makeup, etc. However, she says the best job is doing checkout because you get to see what everyone has picked, which may work for me because I’m more nosy than helpful. Mind you, I remember her story from a while back when one of her girls didn’t think to wear any undergarments—any,at all—and Stacey spent her day functioning as a human shield. So when she mentioned the checkout area was the only place with chairs and I wouldn’t have to see anyone naked, I was sold.
“Actually, you do. Everyone wears matching T-shirts to indicate who’s staf?ng the event. Kind of like they do at Target.”
Nooooooo! Wearing matching T-shirts is the ?rst step towards donning a costume. I panic a little. “What if I don’t want to wear a stupid shirt?”
Stacey’s all matter-of-fact. “You have to wear the shirt in order to volunteer.”
But I’m having none of this. “You know who made people wear matching shirts?” I ask. “Nazis, that’s who.”
“Is this really an issue for you?”
I begin to break into panic sweat. “Absolutely! One day it’s matching T-shirts and the next it’s me and a bunch of other ass-holes dressed as Stormtroopers and Ewoks and Yodas and shit going to Comic-Con. Matching T-shirts are the gateway drug to all things Dungeons and Dragons. So, no. No shirt. No, sir. No, thank you. I’m going to sit this one out.” Immaturity trumps altruism every time.
Every week Stacey and I meet our best girlfriends, Gina and Tracey, for lunch. To say that none of us suffers fools gladly would be an understatement, but no one quite takes this to the extent that Gina does. There’s a certain phrase that Gina reserves for the most obstinate, the most ridiculous, and the most frustrating among us. She reserves it for dire situations, like when dealing with a third-world call center. She’ll take whatever bullshit they spew and simply restates it so that whoever said it ?rst can hear exactly how stupid they sound. Trouble’s afoot when you hear Gina begin a sentence with, “So what you’re telling me is . . .”
Stacey pauses a moment to collect her thoughts before she says, “So what you’re telling me is that you don’t want to help needy girls with their prom dresses because you’re afraid it will one day cause you to dress like C-3PO.”
I mull this over.
“I’ll take whatever size shirt you get.”
“All righty. See you on Saturday!”Reluctant Adult Lesson Learned:
Taking feels good but giving feels great, even if you have to do it in a stupid shirt.