A Lesson on Money
When the blaring sunshine awoke the residents along the two-way avenue that had seen its fair share of loud trucks, illegal motor bikes, and swelling buses during early morning rush hours, these city dwellers had little recourse but to put on their worn clothes for yet another day of dead-end work.
Some wore uniforms in keeping with the dress codes that the factories, scrap-metal junk yards, recycling plants, and shipping docks enforced down by the river, where the bustling avenue led and suddenly ended. Many worked as mechanics in the neighborhood, tending to the overflow of damaged cars that the residents of the town valued far above repairing homes that they didn’t own to begin with. Some worked in the local retail shops and food stores, mostly to lift heavy boxes from the trucks that hurried and wailed down the avenue. These trucks parked into the backs of buildings that continued to crumble despite the best attempts of proprietors to make these shops more presentable. The rest hung around the convenient stores and smoked pot, dealt heroin, or even gulped down cans of cheap but precious beer as the light of the sky strengthened.
Regardless of what others did that day, the Lowrey family – Paul, Rita, and their young, bright son, Javar – were so ready for the workday that they no longer needed to set alarm clocks or argue about who gets to shower first. Rita oversaw breakfast after her shower routine and made a pan-full of buttery scrambled eggs, crisp sausage links, toast, and orange juice in the kitchen area for the man and boy in her life. Since she preferred the lifestyle of a housewife, she was often the first to get up, followed by Paul, and then by little Javar, who could best be described as precocious and irreversibly cute.
Actually, Paul feared that such a baby face would follow Javar the rest of his life. He hoped that he would at least learn how to play a little football at his local elementary school, just to scuff up his face a little as well as sink his disposition that pitted him as too spiritual and much too generous for a young boy his age.
Rita wanted to end Javar’s terrible habit of giving away his lunch money to the local needy. Aside from the gangs that dealt drugs, there were plenty of broke and out-of-work disabled drunkards that kept asking little Javar for change on his walk to the school from where he lived. The Lowrey family lived in a three-bedroom rental on the second floor of a house that needed flipping to prevent it from toppling down and collapsing into the street. The Lowrey’s were poor, but somehow young Javar preferred giving his lunch money away every day. On his way to school he was often the easy target of these panhandlers as they capitalized on his sweet innocence and the couple of dollars Paul and Rita had given him for lunch.
For some reason, young Javar was always ready to give. He thought it important to alleviate world suffering as his teachers said to do. The best way he knew how to do that was to give up his own milk and sandwich at the cafeteria at school to come to the aid of many of the neighborhood’s homeless. His teachers praised him for this, but Rita, his mother, found this habit reprehensible. She needled Paul to do something about it and do it soon.
Young Javar needed to learn from his father how to be more confident and useful, not just by giving away his money, but by working and understanding the value of work, so that he wouldn’t give away the monies that he earned through the everyday struggles of his labor. He had to learn the value of a dollar, and how the money provided him was as precious as warm water or hot soup on a frost-bitten day. Rita believed that it was Paul who should teach him how to keep his money instead of wasting it on the con-artists in the neighborhood. It must have taken a severe psychological sickness on the part of these panhandlers to prey on such a sweet boy, she often thought. Rita was so angry over it, that she had even thought about it the night before, and the night before that. It was Paul’s responsibility to teach Javar how not to be such a sucker.
For this, Paul took the day off from work. He had some vacation time collected from the cargo docks downtown that he could afford to take a day to teach his son a new approach to this money business. All three of them finished breakfast, and it was there that Paul took over from Rita and prepared to instruct his son about the money he and his wife provided for him every day for school. Paul, for starters, gave him a five dollar bill.
“But why so much?” asked Javar.
“I want you to save a little. I’m telling you when you walk to school this morning, do not give your money away. Do we have that clear?”
“Good. When you return in the afternoon, I want to take you some place.”
“The movies?” said Javar excitedly.
“Don’t worry about that for now. Just go to school and come back with some savings, okay?”
“Okay. See you later.”
“Not without giving your mother a kiss goodbye,” said Rita from the kitchen.”
“Now get on to school,” she said.
Both Paul and Rita stayed at home while he was away. While Paul slept in the main bedroom, Rita opened up a novel and read for a few hours. Paul had always been both impressed and mystified by how much his wife could read. She visited the local library often. Paul assumed that there was no other way to satisfy such a high-powered and curious mind. She seemed to be reading a book all the time, even while in bed before they slept. Paul slept until lunchtime, though, and then after lunch he returned to bed. Working at the docks made him exhausted in a general and world-weary sense, and so a full morning and afternoon of sleep was quite common for him on his days off. His sore muscles needed time to recuperate.
By the time Javar raced back home from school, though, Paul was ready for him. He told him not to take anything off, because they were walking to the local convenience store. Javar didn’t know why, but he was a good boy who rarely questioned his father or his mother. Paul often sensed that there was something not right with his son, especially due to his generosity. It was that and his inability to accept how much his parents tried to spoil him. The lesson needed to be taught, and so, just after Javar returned, both Paul and he headed out onto the smog-glazed avenue, the afternoon traffic still unbearable as any city rush hour.
“What are we doing, Daddy?”
“Did you save any of that money I gave you this morning?”
“People needed it.”
“On my way to school, I gave it to a man who wanted coffee.”
“So how much did you give him?”
“The whole thing?”
“But I told you to save some of it.”
“Sorry, Daddy, but he was cold and hungry. He needed gloves and a hat. The only thing I could do was buy him a cup of coffee.”
“But you know that no coffee ever costs five bucks.”
“It doesn’t matter how sorry you are to me and your mother. You’re giving away all of our money can’t continue. Do you understand?”
“Yes, Daddy. Please don’t be mad.”
“I’m not mad,” said Paul, as the two of them left the house and headed towards the convenience store a few blocks away.
“You sound angry.”
“I’m not. I’m concerned. I’m concerned that people are playing you for a sucker, only you’re not old enough to know that yet. You give away money whenever some bum or low-life asks you for it. That’s not fair to your mother and me. We give you all this money for a decent lunch, and you go spending it on people who take advantage of you. You see, you have a good heart, but you are young and naive. You have to start handling your money better, or else Mom and I won’t give you anything. Understand?”
“Yes, Daddy,” said Javar.
“Good. Now you are the first in your class as far as grades are concerned, but I have no idea what they’re teaching you at that school. I feel like yelling at those teachers you have.”
“Please don’t, Daddy.”
“Why shouldn’t I?”
“Because they are nice.”
“See, that’s the problem. They may be nice and all, and I know you like them, and they like you, but they may be teaching you the wrong things. Food first and then morality, you understand?”
“Don’t worry about that now, okay? Let’s walk to the convenience store.”
The two re-bundled themselves in warm winter clothing, stepped outside, and walked slowly towards the food store. Paul wanted to test his young boy.
“Now you see that guy coming down towards us?”
“What does he seem like to you?”
“Sure you do. It’s obvious to me that an older, messed up man with a cane coming towards us is going to ask for money, right?”
“Sure, you do. Just look at him up ahead. You should be able to sense it - that this man will ask us for money. Everyone on the block is at work except for him. What I want you to do is simply say ‘no’ to him. People suffer. People are poor, but they don’t have to drag you down to their level. There’s nothing we can do about the poor. There’ll always be poor people in this city. You must say ‘no’ to him. Understand?”
The two walked towards the old man up ahead. The old man wore an old tattered pair gloves and a fuzzy scarf that had seen years of use. He walked with a cane, as Paul and Javar walked along the broken and uneven sidewalks, the weeds growing between the cracks of the pavement. What could have been warm sunlight had been negated by a fierce dip in the temperature.
“You got a dollar on you for a cup of coffee?” asked the old man.
Paul could feel the anger bubble up inside of him. He hated panhandlers and hated them even more for taking advantage of his young boy.
“Okay, Javar. What do we say?”
“What do you need it for?” asked Javar of the old man.
“I need some coffee to stay warm.”
“Do you want my gloves? They’re pretty warm.”
“Just tell the man, no,” said Paul.
“But he’s cold.”
“And? What the hell does that have anything to do with you? He wants your money. He wants your food. He’d rather sleep where you’re sleeping. Do you think he’s gonna take that away from you? Hell yes, if you keep on giving him money. Don’t act all wounded. He’s one of the worst panhandling bums out here. Look him straight in the eyes and tell him ‘no.’”
“Sir,” said Javar to the old man, “my Daddy doesn’t want me to give you anything.”
“Can’t you leave my boy alone?” said Paul to the old man.
“Anything you can spare. If not a dollar, then how about fifty cents?”
“I have a dollar.”
“Oh, you do, do you?” asked the old man. “How about helping me out? I’ll get you back.”
“Say what needs to be said, Javar. No joke. You tell him ‘no.’”
“But Miss Hillsdale says that we have to take care the poor. We have to take care of people. Not let them starve in the street.”
“You don’t even have any money to give him, do you?”
“I may have it,” said Javar.
The young boy reached into his pocket and pulled out a wrinkled dollar bill. He then gave it to the old man.
“May God bless you, kid. No thanks to this asshole here.”
“You talk like that around my son, and I’m gonna kick the living shit out of you, you understand?”
The old man folded the dollar and put it in his pocket. He then walked away, probably onwards to the next guy he asks for money.
“What’s wrong with you?” said Paul to his son. “That man just got the better of you. You’re not helping him out at all by giving him that dollar. And I thought you had no money left. Is this where all of our money is going? I could have killed that guy. And when I tell you to do something, you damn well better do it. You say ‘no’ from here on in. You got that?”
“Sorry, Daddy. He was freezing to death.”
“And how is that your problem? He’s a grown man. Let him get a job if he’s so concerned about money.”
“He can’t get a job. He probably never went to school. We have to take care of our own people, because they’ve had bad things happen to them.”
“I don’t want to argue with you. Now see,” he said pointing up the block, “there’s another one. When we pass by, just say ‘no.’ That’s all you have to say, understand?”
As they walked towards the next solitary figure on the block, young Javar was ready to say ‘no’ like his father wanted him to. But as they walked closer, they could see that it was a woman who stood there near an empty bus shelter, her face and head covered with threadbare scarves and an even more threadbare winter’s coat that had holes in it. Paul recognized her as they walked closer. She went by the name of Gypsy, ever since Paul and she dated and went to the prom together in high school. Paul swallowed hard as she asked him for some money.
“Paulie?” said Gypsy. “Paulie is that you?”
“What are you doing here, Gypsy. It’s cold as hell out here. Shouldn’t you be on the other side of town?”
“Who’s this, Daddy?”
“Stand behind me, Javar.”
“Aren’t you gonna introduce me to your son, Paulie?”
“What are you doing out here, Gypsy?”
“So you still care about me? Oh, Paulie. I’ve always known you still love me.”
“I do not. I have a wife, y’know.”
“How could I forget?” she said. “I was supposed to marry you. Remember?”
Paul swallowed hard again, and said, “well, that was a long time ago. And now I find you on another street corner turning tricks again, eh?”
“If you had some money, maybe I’d go elsewhere. I’d bet you’d like nothing more.”
“Have you been taking care of yourself? Or are you always on street corners, waiting for the next John?”
“Oh, now that’s really bright, Paulie. It’s like we’re rediscovering ourselves for the first time.”
“I know you still love me, Paulie. How about a few dollars?”
“Go on, Daddy. It’s freezing out here.”
“Oh, how cute,” said Gypsy, bending down to see him as he hid behind his father’s legs. “You’re as cute as your father.”
“That’s enough, Gypsy. But my boy is right. It’s freezing out here. What are you doing out here?”
“Makin’ money. That’s what I do.”
“Can’t you find a legitimate job? There are so many around here.”
“That’s all bullshit money. You know that as well as I do that no one can survive on those wages.”
“I don’t want you out here,” said Paul.
“Sweetie, aren’t you the one who put me out here? Technically speaking anyway.”
“You’ll freeze out here, Gypsy. Can’t you go back home?”
“My home is in other people’s beds right now.”
“Why? You’re mother kick you out?”
“I don’t need a lecture, Paulie. You should save it for the other girls you dated after we broke it off.”
“How about we buy you a cup of coffee?” said Javar, his hair fingered by the cold wind.
“I think it’s a good idea,” said Gypsy.
“Well, I don’t.”
“That’s because you’ve always loved me, Paulie. I can see it in your face.”
“You left, and this is what happened to me. The least you could do is toss me a few dollars.”
“Do it, Dad! She’ll stay cold otherwise.”
“Yeah,” she said. “Why don’t you listen to your son. The son that was supposed to be ours.”
“What does she mean by that, Daddy?”
Paul reached into his pocket and fished out a five dollar bill. He placed it on Gypsy’s palm, but not without her closing her hand on his.
“You still love me, Paulie?”
“Cut it out.”
“I need to hear it if you do. Maybe we can start over again? Two young people in love? Do you remember how it was?”
“Once was, Gypsy. Once was.”
“And now you’re married to that fat Rita. The woman who broke us apart. Look what it’s done to me,” she said as tears leaked from her eyes.
“I’m sorry, Gypsy, but you’re the one who’s doing this to yourself. I never wanted you to be out on the streets like this.”
“I know you didn’t,” she said. “Can I at least hug your son?”
Paul looked at his son, and he nodded affirmatively. Javar removed himself from his position behind his father, went up to the woman, and hugged her briefly. Gypsy could only leak heavier tears that ran down the side of her face.
“I’m so sorry, Gypsy,” said Paul. “For everything. How it turned out.”
“You don’t need to say your sorry to me, Paulie. Just remember me is all I’m asking.”
Paul and Javar left Gypsy standing on the street corner on what now appeared to be a death march down to the convenience store. Paul had no choice but to leak a few tears himself.
“Dad? Why are you crying?”
Paul stopped on the sidewalk and held his hands at his knees, as though he had just finished running sprints at football practice.
“I can’t take it anymore,” he whispered to himself. “I just can’t take it here in the ‘hood anymore. We’ve got to get out somehow. You should just run for it, Javar. Run for your life and never look back.”
“But what about you and Mom?”
Paul didn’t answer. He simply straightened himself out and continued to walk along the avenue towards the convenience store. Javar followed him closely from behind.
Paul breathed a heavy sigh of relief when they didn’t encounter anymore panhandlers or charity cases. But when they made it to the store, they encountered a white man, maybe in his late twenties, holding up a cardboard sign that said he was homeless. Without fail he asked them for money.
“Spare any change, sir?”
“I have about a dollar left, Dad.”
“Shhhh,” said Paulie. “Never tell anyone how much you have, got it?”
“I could sure use something to eat,” said the young white man.
“Then why don’t you get a fucking job instead of smoking all that crack?”
“Dad! That’s not nice to say. Here,” said Javar to the man - “take this dollar. I’m sorry for my Daddy.”
“The guy does drugs, Javar! That’s why he has no money. He spends it all on crack, and you are part of the problem too, because you are giving him money to buy more crack. Don’t you want to see him healthy? Don’t you want to see him productive and working with more confidence and greater self-esteem?”
“Then stop giving your money away, you got that?”
“But you gave some to Gypsy. Why shouldn’t we give some to him too? Miss Hillsdale always says that we should treat others as equals.”
“We do not have enough money to be spending everything we have on these panhandlers, you got that? These guys prey on our better nature. They prey on the kindness of others. They make good people sacrifice so that they can smoke more crack, you understand?”
“I don’t think he gets it - Thank God!” said the white man.
“You be quiet, before I beat the shit out of you,” said Paul to the white man. “C’mon,” he said to Javar. “Let’s go back home.”
They turned around and walked back home, but not without Paul getting even angrier with several more panhandlers that blocked their path.
The two Lowrey boys were both out of money now, and so it wasn’t much of a joy to return home to Rita who stood on the front porch and waited for them. Paul gave her a big, tight hug when they returned, and young Javar ran upstairs to watch his afternoon cartoons.
“It didn’t work, did it?” asked Rita.
“Not exactly, no,’ said Paul.
“How much did my son spend?”
“About five bucks. All that he saved from school is gone. I think we should move, Rita. Just pick up and leave. We’ve got to get out of here. I can’t stand it here anymore. I can’t put up with it - what it’s doing to Javar especially.”
“And leave this wonderful place behind? Honey, the boy has to learn about money. Hell, we have to learn about money too. Maybe our son is right?”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“I don’t know. Maybe we can’t teach him shit. Maybe God is in control of him.”
“Satan is more likely.”
“Oh, Paul, we don’t have to move. We have to be stronger, that’s all. Let’s try again next week. This time I’ll take the boy out. I’ll teach him a thing or two about giving money away like that.”
“Good luck with that. This neighborhood gets harder and harder, Rita. I wouldn’t be surprised if you came back with no money either.”
“We’ll see, sweetie. We’ll see. I’ll have a go at it next week, okay?”
Harvey Havel: "I am a short-story writer and novelist. My first novel, Noble McCloud, A Novel, was published in November of 1999. His second novel, The Imam, A Novel, was published in 2000.
"In 2006, I published my third novel, Freedom of Association. I have published my eighth novel, Charlie Zero’s Last-Ditch Attempt, and his ninth, The Orphan of Mecca, Book One, which was released last year. My new novel, The Thruway Killers, is my latest work.
"The Orphan of Mecca, Books Two and Three, has just been released next year as well as a book, An Adjunct Down, which I just completed. My work in progress is called Mister Big, about a Black American football player.
"I am formerly a writing instructor at Bergen Community College in Paramus, New Jersey. I also taught writing and literature at the College of St. Rose in Albany as well as SUNY Albany."