The Value of $5

By: Sally Huang

This afternoon after class I contemplated studying in one of my favorite coffee shops. In an effort to save money, I had recently made a plan to only study at school or at a local university library on weekdays and limit my coffee shop excursions to just the weekends. I hadn’t been adhering well to this plan, and subsequently I found myself wavering towards the library.

I approached the stop light that would force me in one direction or the other (coffee shop or library). After selecting my lane I noticed a man standing in the middle of the road. He was a tall, well-built African-American man who looked to be in his 40’s. He had short graying hair and wore a plain cotton navy blue sweater over belted khaki slacks and tennis shoes. His glasses had round wire rims, making his round face look small. He looked tired, but not tattered; disheveled, not destitute. His portly stature and erect posture suggested a recent departure from white collar favor. Even in the shelter of my car I could feel the penetrating force of sunlight on my light skin; here was a large, older dark-skinned man standing outside covered head to toe in thick clothing. His cardboard sign read: “NEED GROCERIES FOR 2.”

I was about two lanes over from him. I took out my wallet and counted my bills: 3 $20’s, a $10, and a $5. Two quarters – change from oatmeal this morning. I mulled over the money for about five seconds and decided to give him the $5.

In the short time it took for me to take my wallet out and count my money, the man had made his way to the cars parked behind me. The light was still red. He had just started to make his way back when the light turned green. I was dismayed but didn’t want to fight the oncoming traffic behind me. I took my foot off the brake and moved on.

After passing through the intersection I drove to the coffee shop, bought a coffee for $2.95, and sat down to write.

This cup of coffee – if I bought just one less every week and instead gave it to someone else who could really use it – what kind of difference would that make?

What can $5 buy? It is one or two cups of coffee (depending on where you go). Three Snapple from the vending machine at school. Two morning oatmeals. 0.5 times parking in the ridiculously (over)priced garage next to school. One visit to an exhibit at the Asia Society.

What else can $5 buy? A box of strawberries. One large can of Bush’s vegetarian baked beans. Five bags of chips. Water. If spent wisely, one full loaf of bread and a large jar of peanut butter from the grocery store. Apples for the week.

What is the value of $5? It is a shared meal for two. It is the alleviation of churning hunger, at least until the next morning. It is an arbitrary amount, the act of giving which tells the receiver, “I care. I want to help. You are not alone.”

I know what people, even those close to me, might say about panhandlers: that they are lazy scamming leeches that can’t be bothered to help themselves. At one time in my life I believed this; these thoughts made it easier for me to ignore the suffering right before my eyes. But after working with this population through a student-run homeless clinic and a Street Medicine Outreach team, I know how inaccurate – and how harmful – the rhetoric of blame can be. And in my own experiences with depression, I know the despair that isolation brings. In the same way that my problems feel like more than I can handle when I think I am carrying them alone, their struggles – to find food, access healthcare, get housing, stay safe in the streets – are only exacerbated by the feeling that the world is deaf to their suffering. Most of them want to help themselves, but they need some help from others along the way.

I paid for my coffee with a $10 and received two $1’s and a $5 back. I’m saving the Lincoln for him.

Sally Huang is a second year student at BCM. She is currently serving as one of the BCM representative for HOMES Clinic.