The receptionist at the office I work at (I’m still trying to transition out of that job) used to live in poverty. She still lives in poverty according to most calculations, but she has a job and an apartment and enough food to feed herself and her preschooler; in her mind, poverty is a thing of the past. She’s 24.
“If someone had given me $500 dollars when I was poor, I would’ve spent it on shampoo,” she said the other day.
We were talking about the pros and cons of different ways to give: handing money to poor people versus using that same money to fund programs for poor people. And how one method might work differently in different parts of the world. In developing Africa, for example, a family might use that $500 to buy a goat or two.
“Not me,” she said. “I mean, I’d buy some groceries, too. But shampoo, you run out, and what do you do?”
We ran out of shampoo this week. Used up every one of the three bottles that have been lingering in the bathroom for the past few months. Friday I had to scrounge around the downstairs bathroom for those little sample bottles that, thankfully, seem to breed in the drawers. Today I bought two bottles of shampoo, the expensive kind, because it was on sale. The kind of shampoo that smells of tea tree oil and promises both beauty and a guiltless showering experience.
For a few hours every week, the receptionist and I do very similar work. We print letters on letterhead, we answer emails, we input data. We answer phone calls and make an effort to sound both professional and reassuring. Poor people call us and we tell them, “Someone will help you.” I’m betting we use very different shampoo. We operate on not-quite-opposite but pretty-far-apart points of the economic scale. We both like peanut butter cups. We both want our kids to be healthy and happy and whole.
“I wouldn’t have made it if someone just gave me $500,” she said. “I needed the whole package.”
M and B just made a fort in the corner of our living room. It’s a very sturdy fort. It will probably survive the afternoon. We’ve got a fire going in the fireplace. Both dogs are watching peacefully from their posts on the couches. Later I will make fish and potatoes and broccoli for dinner, and we’ll watch a movie. Our house is not a huge house and it isn’t filled with things that cost a lot of money (our TV is smaller than yours, I can pretty much guarantee it), but we have so much. And we have plenty of shampoo. And I’m grateful to have somehow landed this place and time with these people. And maybe someday we’ll get a goat.