The Best $20 I gave away
New York City. Manhattan. 2005. I had a presentation in Philly and extended the trip to visit my family of origin.
It’s a humid Tuesday afternoon, and I’m picking up my niece at her Spanish language summer School slash day camp. Maya is almost 5. I love her hard.
She is just fabulous. I know so. And, so does she. In fact, Aunt Jane, my wife, taught her to look in the mirror and say, “I’m fabulous.” It’s adorable.
We visit an ice cream truck and sit in the shade of a building on the southwest corner of 91st and Broadway. She has a red, white, and blue ice cream cone. Mine is a rainbow-sprinkled vanilla wafer.
As we walk downtown, we pass a McDonald’s and she comments something about Happy Meals. Another avuncular opportunity. I take her in. She has the Happy Meal. I have a Coke.
We take the fries she didn’t eat to go.
At 79th Street, in front of the church on the corner, a man has a small, cardboard sign.
“What does it say, Uncle Brian?”
About 10 feet away, I ask, “What should we do?”
“Can we give him the French fries?”
“No. I want them.”
I explain that we are walking home, had ice cream, and will have dinner soon after getting home. I explain this person has neither a home, a place for dinner, nor a dinner to eat.
“Well,” she starts slowly, calculating, “We can give him all of them. Except for three.”
I approach the man and say, “It seems, after some negotiation, that we can give you all but three French fries.”
“It’s alright, man,” he replies. “I’m not really too hungry right now. ”
“God bless you.”
He blesses me with a hardened, “Have a good day.”
Maya and I walk on.
She explains, “You can’t say ‘God bless you’ unless someone sneezes.”
“Well, that’s not true,” I counter. “Of course you can.”
I think about explaining to her what I do for a living or about my title. But I don’t.
We cross the street, and, passing a bank, we approach another man on the ground.
He says, perfectly timed to be within hearshot, “Sir, in the grand scheme of things, could you spare me a dollar?”
A great question. I quickly mull it over in my head.
“Say that again,” I request as, hand in hand, we approach him.
He says, slowly, knowing that the fish has bitten at the worm,”Sir, in the grand scheme of things, could you spare me a dollar?”
I take out my wallet. I have three twenties—no singles.
I think, “In the grand scheme of things, can I give this man $20?”
The answer, again, is yes.
I hand it to him.
He shakes my hand (this is pre-covid) and tells me his name is Lester. I tell him that I’m Uncle Brian and introduce Maya.
“God bless you, Brian. God bless you, Maya,” he intones. “You have a good uncle here.”
“Lester?” I ask.
“Can you explain to Maya why you are allowed to say ‘God bless you’ whenever you want?”
Lester looks at Maya.
It is a moment, like in the movies, when a person is bathed in a warm glow.
“Maya, my love,” Lester says slowly and deliberately, “God loves you very, very much. Always know that. There is nothing wrong with asking for God’s blessing.”
Maya squirms a little—like she did when Aunt Jane and I did the “We love Maya dance” in Central Park earlier in the day.
She reaches into her diminutive pocket, pulls out a nickle and hands it to Lester.
I choke up.
Lester takes the coin in his hand, reaches into his pocket and
removes a $1 bill. His dirty fingers unfold and he hold it out for Maya.
“I want you to have this,” he says.
As we continue walking downtown, a tear comes down my face,
“Would you put this dollar in your pocket and give it to me later?”
“Of course, my love.”
When we get to the apartment, I tape the dollar to a piece of paper and pin it on her bulletin board. I write on it, “Maya’s magic $1 bill. With love from Lester and God.”
Rabbi Brian Zachary Mayer resides in Portland, Oregon. He is the founder and head of Religion-Outside-The-Box rotb.org, an internet-based, global group of 3.2K+ digital-age seekers. ROTB produces excellent spiritual content.