Last weekend, the mercury crept up into the 50s. Smack in the middle of one of the coldest winters in Chicago history, we had weather more suitable for late April or even May. Our poor flora must be so confused! Ever the intrepid journalist, I ventured out to investigate, accompanied by Emma, my canine companion.
Snow, slush, and just enough ice made it challenging to rein in a sixty-pound critter intent on a snootful of spring. While navigating cautiously from sidewalk to grass to street, I wiped out on a patch of black ice. The next thing I knew, I was sprawled on the ground.
After dusting off my bruised ego, I started thinking about that world just out of sight. Black ice is dangerous, in part, because it’s invisible. But, other hidden things are quite benign. For instance, I’m in the midst of this impromptu winter wear drive. In the process, I’ve uncovered tendrils of a wondrous web of compassion. Like the black ice, it cannot be seen by the naked eye, yet, it is powerful enough to bind us together in a common purpose.
Not more than an hour after I limped home, a woman and her husband arrived on my doorstep with two huge trash bags of winter clothing. Complete strangers, it turns out that she has a friend who lives in my boss’s mother’s apartment building. Later that evening, another gentleman dropped stuff off. I still have no idea how he got to me.
Taking action to stave off feelings of helplessness
A few weeks ago, I interviewed Chicagoan Gabe Chasnoff, who made the new Katrina documentary Renaissance Village. This film churned up all kinds of powerful emotions in me. First, my stomach hurt. The more I watched, the more I wanted to hit somebody, if I could just figure out who. Once that passed, I determined to do something to mitigate the awfulness going on down there, all these years after the hurricane. In a perfect world, I would have turned off the DVD player and immediately headed to the Gulf Region, sleeves rolled up and ready to pitch in. That being impossible, I was forced to settle for turning to local needs.
So, I redoubled my efforts at the Evanston soup kitchen where I find myself every Thursday evening since Christmas. It didn’t take a rocket scientist to notice that this group is woefully ill equipped to deal with harsh, Chicago winters. Male guests outnumber females. If we had clothing to put out, it was predominantly for women. So, I sent out an email appeal to gather winter gear, with an emphasis on men’s wear. The response was immediate and gratifying. Two Thursdays ago, my trunk was completely full of donated items. It was better, but there still wasn’t enough for the men. I shot off another email. This time, I aimed squarely at what Malcolm Gladwell (author of The Tipping Point) calls ‘connectors’: key people who know lots of other people. And, boy, was I heard.
Everyone is enthusiastic about this project: people from the Y, my Feldenkreis class, Northlight, a local theatre troop, musicians from Maxwell St. Klezmer Band (where I’m office manager), high school student-musicians, neighbors, friends, friends of friends, and lots of total strangers – all have been itching to get involved. Many claim it’s an excuse to weed out clothes just gathering dust on the shelves. I think it’s more than that: it’s also a chance to feel proactive when confronting a very large, seemingly intractable problem.
Doing something is much better than the alternative – feeling overwhelmed and doing nothing. This project has apparently tapped into a huge well of pent-up, communal energy, seeking an outlet. Driving around, week after week, my car bursting at the seams, I’ve seen myself, alternately, as Earth Mother or suburban Santa. What a feeling! My minivan has been full since Sunday. There are nine large bags in my mudroom, and still more in my garage. Some people don’t want to wait until next week when I start fresh, so they’re bringing their donations directly to the soup kitchen tomorrow afternoon.
Discovering Other Great Services Along the Way
One person directed me to Freecycle, an international organization with over six million members. Their goal is to keep anything that can be used by others out of our landfills. Freecycle rightly sees one person’s castoff as someone else’s treasure and makes matches. I promptly joined the Evanston branch, posted my shpiel, and have been picking up lots of winter gear from local freecyclers ever since.
I also learned about Bottomless Closet. It’s a terrific volunteer organization that, since 1991, has been helping low-income women make the transition to the working world. They offer workshops on writing resumés, money management, life skills, and job training. BC also helps clients make that important first impression by supplying appropriate professional clothing for job interviews. BC recognizes that many of these women use their limited resources to feed and care for their kids. Spending on themselves, even in pursuit of a job, is simply beyond their reach. In response, Bottomless Closet provides all of its services, including the clothing, free of charge.
Why big coats?
For right now, I’m especially seeking large coats for men. Some of the guys who come to the soup kitchen every week are pretty big. After they layer up, they’re even bigger, so regular sized coats simply don’t fit. Yet, for those who spend so much time outside a warm, well-fitting coat can spell the difference between relative comfort and disaster.
I had a teeny, tiny taste of this when my boss Lori’s office furnace died this past week. My shearling boots, a turtleneck sweater, winter coat, and fingerless gloves, and two space heaters going full blast, were simply insufficient. I was so cold that, when I met my mom for lunch, she immediately asked me what was wrong with my mouth. Here’s the thing. My mother is legally blind. Yet, she could instantly tell something was wrong. And, she was right. When I went to the bathroom, I saw, to my horror, that my lips had turned dark blue! And this was after just four hours. It took me until bedtime to thaw out. If it weren’t for my heavenly, flannel sheets, my teeth might still be chattering like runaway castanets. So, you could say that I got an unscheduled jolt to the consciousness in this matter.
This project is gathering momentum. Next, I’d like to figure out how to crack the retail market. Places like LL Bean, REI, Lands’ End, and big department stores, must surely have extra coats this close to the end of their merchandising season (which precedes the ‘real’ end of winter by several months). Anyone out there got any connections? We could use your help.
Bottom line: Aint no Santa without us elves.
Other articles from my OpEdNews series on giving back:
• Manning the Bread Station on Christmas Day: Translating Words into Deeds
• Soup Kitchens: Part of Evanston's Network of Compassion
• How We Give Thanks