Energy Exchange

I’m always leery of panhandlers holding cardboard signs. Once I saw someone offer a man a bag of food. He got irate, waving his arms and yelling. He didn’t want food. I knew a gentleman who had a regular spot on a median near the airport. An amputee in a wheelchair, he didn’t bother with a sign. When he was done for the day, he wheeled himself to a nearby 7 Eleven, where his Cadillac was parked around back. Another man with a sign attacked the car in front of me at a stoplight. Apparently, the driver said something to upset him. Snapped the driver’s window in half.

After Christmas, as I waited in the car for my husband, a woman knocked on my window as if she needed help. She had a cane and a clump of something in her free hand and told me her story in a rehearsed patter.

“Would you be interested in buying a keychain? I’m a widow with twin daughters in need of anything you can spare.”

I’d seen her around the area on other occasions. As I rarely have actual cash on my person, I could only offer some of the quarters I kept in the car for parking meters. I didn’t need a keychain but was impressed that she had something to offer in exchange instead of asking for a handout. The item was simply yarn threaded with colorful plastic beads that many folks might decline or even throw away. But when she asked me what color I’d like, I told her. And it is now on my key ring.

It’s lightweight, so my mechanic won’t fuss about straining the ignition switch, and it’s my favorite color. If it lasts only a week before coming unraveled, that’s fine. Until then, it will serve as a humble reminder that a few needy folks understand the concept of energy exchange or fair trade.

Before currency, we traded whatever we had for whatever we needed. I wonder how many unneeded items were exchanged for medical care, shoes, grain, weapons, anything. Doctors probably had a stockpile of things they never needed but accepted because that was all the patient had to offer. Also, because it helped maintain any dignity the person had left after falling on hard times.

When our exchange was complete, the woman hobbled to a man in the next row. I imagined her repeating her story. He shook his head and got into his car. She limped onto the next. As much sympathy as I had for her, I had equal admiration. Approaching strangers in a parking lot had to be humiliating, yet she seemed to be well over any emotion about it. She may have had little to offer, but she offered what little she had. And that’s all anyone could ask.

 

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