What have you learned about life?
by Roxanne Owens (DePaul)
My husband’s theory is that if he does not have money in his pocket, he can’t spend it. My counter theory is that if I don’t have money in my pocket, I have to make more frequent trips to the cash station. After checking our account balance and in deference to my husband’s cheapskate attitude (or frugality as he prefers to call it) I withdrew only one crisp $20 bill on a recent trip to the cash station. I knew that was all I needed for the next few days, as long as I didn’t do anything too indulgent—like give in to a desire for obscenely overpriced coffee drinks for instance.
I left the cash station with the $20 bill safely tucked in my pocket and headed toward the subway. I had a meeting at DePaul University’s downtown campus, which necessitated purchasing a transit fare card and taking the train downtown from my usual location on the north side Lincoln Park Campus. The transit fare card machine does not give change and I really did not want to use the entire $20 on a fare card. I tend to lose fare cards so it really is a waste of money to put more than the exact amount of a round trip ticket on the card—besides that would leave me without any cash and would necessitate a trip back to the cash station. Knowing that two withdrawals in one day would cause my husband to call the bank to see if someone was illegally using our account, I thought about purchasing a cup of aforementioned obscenely overpriced coffee in order to get change, but decided that would be wasteful spending.
At that point, my boss walked into the train station. We were headed to the same meeting. I asked if she had change for a $20 bill so I could buy a smaller denomination fare card. She graciously handed me her fare card to use. We arrived at the downtown campus early and decided to prepare for the meeting over a cup of obscenely overpriced coffee. It seemed fair that since my boss had paid for my train ride, I should buy the coffee. Another colleague was standing in line ahead of us at the coffee shop and insisted on purchasing our coffee.
After the meeting concluded, I stopped in the cafeteria to buy a sandwich—partly because I was hungry, and partly to get a smaller bill to use to purchase a fare card. I ran into a friend who insisted on buying my lunch since I had bought her lunch last time we had gotten together. We walked to the subway together and I was faced with the fare card dilemma again. I still had a $20 bill that I didn’t want to use to purchase a fare card. My friend let me use her card.
I’m really not a moocher— I was actually quite uncomfortable accepting the generosity of my friends and colleagues throughout the day. On the other hand, I envisioned myself surprising my husband with the news that I had made my way around town all morning and afternoon without spending a dime. I took 2 train rides, had coffee, ate lunch, and still had the $20 safely tucked in my pocket. This frugality thing wasn’t so bad!
As I descended the stairs to the subway platform, I noticed something strange. The usual sound of voices–people chatting with companions or on cell phones– was missing. Instead, I heard violin music. It is not unusual for musicians to perform in the subway, instrument cases open on the ground waiting to catch spare change passengers might be inclined to toss. Sometimes their “talents” make waiting passengers hope the train comes quickly. Sometimes, as on this day, the wait for the train becomes a community experience rather than an endurance test. The violinist was playing Pachelbel’s Canon in D Major. The beauty of the piece and the talent of the musician created a moment of calm in the “quick get where you’re going” pace of the day. People of all ethnic backgrounds, people of all ages, and people from all walks of life stood in silence listening to the unexpected concert. I was not the only person who watched a few trains come and go before reluctantly boarding one to get to my next appointment.
I wasn’t able to tell my husband how I made it through the whole day and still kept the $20 safely tucked in my pocket. Instead, as I dropped the $20 in the violin case, I thought about how nice it would be to tell him that thanks to the kindness of those around me, I was able to save $20 all day in order to do something exceptionally worthwhile with it at the end of the day.
“Go on as you are, Mademoiselle. I can give you no better guidance than your own heart has already given you.” (St. Vincent de Paul Vincent to St. Louise de Marillac, as cited in Vincent DePaul: Saint of Charity by Margaret Ann Hubbard, 1960, p. 96)
(Reprinted from Reflections on St. Vincent DePaul: Leading in the Legacy of St. Vincent, 2010, DePaul University Vincentian publication)
Roxanne Owens is a professor and Chair of the Education department at DePaul University and project co-director of the Web-enhanced Family Literacy Initiative. She is the former president of the Illinois Reading Council.