LESSONS IN GRATITUDE FROM THE CAN-LADY
What began as a typical Thursday became a life-changing moment that nearly brought me to my knees. I was up early, preparing our daughter’s breakfast before school, racing to run the dog out, rushing to get ready for work as a health coach and writer in NYC and had a brief, but not uncommon, squabble about money with my husband. The financial frustration the American middle-class feels is alive and kicking in our home. Our oldest is getting married, the middle one is in college and the youngest a senior in high school with college creeping over the horizon like a big-ass thundercloud. Of course these are marvelous milestones and we are full-throttle involved in every detail, but the financial obstacles we face on a daily basis sometimes drain the simple joys of life.
After my first appointment I grabbed a bite at the local diner, still thinking about money the whole time. How are we going to pay for all of this? Why does it cause so much angst? My mind was a pin-ball game of dollar signs as I pushed scrambled eggs around my plate and drank too much coffee.
With breakfast completed, I headed to my next appointment when I remembered I had lost my favorite lip-gloss. I had time to grab a new one, but the practical side of me thought, “did I need to spend the money on a new one?” I didn’t need it, but I did want it and I was right by Duane Reade where they sell it. Oh, shit, I thought, it’s just a freaking lip gloss. I rounded the corner towards the store and there she was, the tiny Can-Lady. I’ve seen her in my neighborhood for years. She’s out on the street the nights before Sanitation makes their rounds to pick up the recyclables, neatly going through the garbage, extracting all of the plastic, glass and aluminum bottles and cans and stashing them into her own massive clear bags. This is a laborious process that I can only imagine takes hours and hours. She had two ginormous bounties full to the brim, resting just outside the doors of Duane Reade ready to cash in. I paused as I passed her at the entrance, wondering if I should offer help. I tried to catch her eye, but she was busy trying to signal the cashier just inside.
I went in and made a bee-line back to the make-up section and found the only tube left of my color, “Rosy Dawn”. HOORAY! Meant to be, right? I grabbed it and checked the price, nine bucks, then headed back up to the cash registers. By now the Can-Lady was inside speaking in Spanish to the lone cashier. There seemed to be some problem as the manager was needed to “approve” her can count before she could be reimbursed, but he had disappeared. I heard them paging him over the loud-speaker.
The cashier motioned me forward and took my sale while the Can-Lady stood next to me, waiting. I peeked over my shoulder and snuck a closer look. She had beautiful, twinkling brown eyes and seemed even tinier up close. Her back hunched from age, gathering cans, and life. I felt like a spoiled brat as I paid cash for that my lip-gloss. While putting the change back in my wallet I picked out a five dollar bill, folded it and lightly touched the woman’s shoulder. As she turned to me I reached for her small hand and pressed the money into her palm. She looked into my eyes and it was like looking into pure love. She said “gracias” and the next thing I knew we were hugging each other, my head buried in the nook of her shoulder, her whispering in my ear, talking a mile a minute. I have no idea what she was saying but I felt a holy presence. We held on to each other for what seemed an eternity. She smelled so good. Not like perfume, but clean and fresh. When we finally released our embrace we looked into each other’s teary eyes and smiled. She thanked me again and I slowly turned to leave the store. I was swirling in emotion, trying not to openly sob, clutching my stupid lip gloss.
As the automatic doors swung open, I heard a voice behind me shout out, “How many?” The cashier answered, “One hundred and eighty”. One hundred and eight cans, I thought. How much is one hundred and eighty cans? I whipped out my phone and through my tears did the calculation. Nine bucks, the same price as that stupid lip-gloss. Hours and hours spent outside, digging through garbage for nine bucks.
Back on the street I had a simple but impactful realization. I didn’t need a new lip-gloss, I needed a reality check. I was so stunned and weepy I had to pause on the side-walk to get my bearings. I took in a deep breath, looked up at the sky, and then slowly back at the faces passing me by. I wiped my eyes and began to smile. I turned around, went back in and returned the lip-gloss. The Can-Lady was still there, finalizing her transition. I pocketed my nine bucks and gave her another hug on the way out.
Her lesson to me, this wonderfully tiny, strong woman: Be truly and humbly grateful now, in this very moment. Stop worrying so much because you’re missing the best parts! Is nine bucks going to change my world? Maybe, maybe not. But the people we meet, the connections we make, the love we can give and share spontaneously with a total stranger, that absolutely changed my world.