midpoint (2007-12)

Social conscience for sale

Hello, Dolly

by Stephanie Piper

Paging through a toy catalog, I came upon a curious item. I guess it's the perfect gift for the over-entitled child: a Depression doll.

No, she doesn't come with her own tiny bottle of Prozac. This is the other Depression, the Great one. The doll, whose name is Kit, is a spunky girl who helps her family through hard times by selling apples. All she wants for her birthday is to pay the light bill. She's meant to be a molded-plastic role model for today's youth. Affluenza missed her altogether. Parents quoted in the catalog copy say they hope that Kit will teach their kids something about gratitude.

It's a lot to ask of an inanimate object. And maybe it's asking a lot of the average kid, immersed in the culture of acquisition, to imagine such a life. It's impossible to live in America in 2007 and miss the desperate clamor on every TV screen and billboard. Bigger. Better. Thy thing-dom come.

I grew up in a leafy suburb where everyone had plenty of everything.   I didn't need a Depression doll, though. I had Depression-era parents.  

They had grown up on scholarships and macaroni and cheese. They wanted more for us, and they delivered: good schools, nice trips, freedom from financial fear. But the bread lines and apple sellers of their youth cast a long shadow. Nothing was free, and nothing was guaranteed, and membership in the middle class was an accident of birth which entitled me to--you guessed it--nothing.

When I first moved to New York City in my early 20s, I spent a lot of time agonizing about derelicts sleeping on subway benches. I regularly gave money to panhandlers. A friend who was a social worker told me to cut it out. They chose that life, she said briskly. It is not up to you to rescue them.  

It was a mindset that worked for a while, until I really thought about it. I hadn't exactly chosen my life. I hadn't chosen parents who rooted out the weeds of entitlement, or set an example of hard work.  

I bumbled along for the next couple of decades, alternately taking a hard line and slipping $5 to the ragged guy on the corner. I lectured my children about privilege one day and planned spring breaks in Hawaii the next. I cried at Save the Children ads and wriggled uncomfortably in the pew when fellow churchgoers described mission trips to Haiti.

And then I went to work in a homeless shelter in Knoxville, and came face to face with the poor who are always with us. I spent my first few weeks alternating between a sort of faux Mother Teresa glow and sheltered middle-class horror. Some clients were shabby but clean, quiet, grateful. Others were loud and scary and medicating mental illness with crack or Mad Dog or mouthwash. Noisy or non-threatening, they were all called neighbors.

By the end of my first year, I had learned to distinguish loud and scary from dangerous. I had learned that progress was most often measured in tiny, daily increments and rarely appeared gift-wrapped and finished. I watched addicts put aside 30 years of self-destruction and patch together six months of sobriety, and I watched others throw away brand-new starts with both hands.

Because my job was to raise money, I commuted between the world of the rich and the world of the needy. Along the way, I learned that there-but-for-the-grace-of-God-go-I can either be an epiphany or a whole new level of denial. I learned about the generosity that is constantly catching its own eye in the mirror, and the faith without illusion that simply does what needs to be done. I met saints in designer outfits and rank opportunists in torn overcoats, and came to see that poverty does not guarantee humility any more than wealth guarantees serenity.

I look at the doll on the page again, consider her artfully torn dress and scuffed vintage shoes. I guess she might be considered an educational gift. I just wish she came with a little note in her pocket. The poor we have always with us. Gratitude for our own good fortune is a valuable lesson, but it's only lesson one.