Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Luck for the New Year

Many New Year's rituals concentrate on how to be lucky in the new year: eating a grape on each of the twelve strokes of midnight, or making sure that a tall, dark, handsome male is the "first footer" in your house on January 1, or wearing yellow underwear (most charming, don't you think?). I was thinking about good luck rituals the other day while I was going about my errands, and wondering if I was going to be panhandled while I was out and about.

Unlike most people, I think of being asked for money by a needy person as a very good sign. It expands my soul to give, reminding me that in the big picture, my own moderate life is actually quite full and fruitful. If I can ease the way for someone who, for whatever reason, has been reduced to begging on the street, it's my pleasure to do it. I also believe giving is lucky.

My belief has two sources. One is "A Christmas Carol," when Scrooge--before his transformation--is described as a "tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, . . . a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner." He's the kind of person whose very appearance guarantees that no friend ever greets him on the street, and no stranger ever asks him for the time or for directions. Scrooge never gets panhandled: you can tell that's a lost cause, just by looking at him. Given those options, I'd like to think my face reflects a kinder nature.

The other source for my belief is the history reflected in "Mary Poppins," when Bert the sweep makes it clear that chimney sweeps are lucky and "good luck will rub off when I shake hands with you." In Victorian times, chimney sweeping was rather a sinister occupation and a miserable life for its child laborers. The idea of a snooty Victorian gentleman shaking hands with a sooty sweep, as though with an equal, is quite powerful. Again, it's the willingness to interact with others who are very different that makes the ritual work.

Anyway, I was thinking about that the other day as I was tucking away a little extra cash, just in case. It didn't seem very likely that I would wind up with a handshake. It had never happened before and might be more-than-appropriate in the etiquette of panhandling, if there is such a thing. Really, we want to bestow a gift, exchange good wishes, and move along, right? Truly addressing the problem takes place in other ways, under other circumstances. The on-street interaction is more symbolic than anything.

Sure enough, as I was fueling my car, a man approached me. I have to say, this guy had his elevator speech down. In less than a minute, I knew his name (almost too good to be true, but catchy--I still remember it), he was not trying to rob me, he was an artist, he was originally from Hell's Kitchen in New York, he'd just gotten out of jail, and he could use a little help. He was wearing a clean white t-shirt, black pants, and a black beret. He was clean-shaven, spoke in a clear voice, and made great eye contact. After I handed over my cash, he thanked me and then he offered his hand for a handshake. His handshake was as firm and crisp as any I've ever received.

I'm still not sure how that happened . . . . It's not often that the very thing I'm thinking about comes to pass in such immediate, dramatic fashion. But I figure I'm in good stead for the new year.

May you put a safe and happy finish on 2008, and here's to good things (and good luck!) in 2009!


  1. It sounds like you are off to a good start for the year. I like to consider myself a giver but I never give cash to panhandlers. I'll buy them a hot coffee, a sandwich or something like that, but not money. It's just some wacky notion I've got in my head I suppose. It still feels good to share.

  2. Absolutely. The sharing is the point. Everyone still wins!


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