At first glance, this is a story about a hat.
Like many Red Sox fans, I bought a hat to commemorate our world series win in 2004. I don’t wear hats often, so it mostly lived in the back window of my car, displaying outward. Over the years it became very faded, but I never tossed it.
The hat ended up in Singapore because it had been residing in a box of stuff I hadn’t had the energy to go through before the move. As I began to go through boxes that have sat unopened for two years in our office, I came across it. I decided that it wasn’t something that I needed anymore, so I threw it down the trash chute.
Several days later, I saw the hat again…on the head of one of the women who clean the common areas of our condo.
I will confess that my visceral reaction was to feel uncomfortable-not violated, but as though my privacy had been disturbed. After what happened with B, I am extremely sensitive about the idea of someone going through my garbage (among other things she had an expired credit card of mine in one of her wallets–which is on me for not shredding it, but it was one of many things she’d removed from the trash and taken into her possession). I even wondered if I should say something to the building manager. I didn’t because I didn’t want this auntie to lose her job. I didn’t actually care about the hat.
This isn’t about the hat.
I am aware of my privilege. The privileges I have by the accident of birth that is my skin color and my nationality. The privileges I have because of my academic success and subsequent university degrees. Most specifically I am aware of my socio-economic privilege, which is related to my husband’s success in a field upon which the market places a high compensatory value. I understand that I am no better or more deserving than anyone else. I grew up poor, and my life today is so far away from my wildest dreams that it boggles my mind when I sit down and actually consider it.
Having said that, I have no idea what to do, if anything.
Part of me wants to ask her about the hat. Apart from it being too faded for me to consider it appropriate to donate, it is a perfectly serviceable hat, and part of me is happy that someone has found value in it. The flip side is my extreme discomfort that anyone feels the need to go through trash, even clean trash (It was tossed with assorted unecessary paperwork–directions to things we no longer own and nonsense like that). I wonder what her life is like.
Part of me wants to “help” her, whatever that means. This is a woman who has been constantly kind to me and my family. But even saying that sounds so elitist, I can’t stand it. How arrogant of me to think that she might “need” help. How much dignity would I rob from her to point out that she got that hat from my trash?
I understand dignity. I once had a teacher pay for a field trip because I couldn’t afford it in high school, and I remember the shame and relief I felt when she offered. I didn’t have to be “less” than my classmates. I remember selling back bonds that my grandparents had bought for college and borrowing money to afford the trip to Washington DC to compete in a national competition after I won a statewide competition in public speaking (and the lack of effort I put into practicing that speech is something I am so ashamed of, today–that I repaid my mom putting in extra hours at work to help pay for the opportunity with a complete lack of respect and regard). It was so important to me that people not look at me differently because of economic factors. I didn’t want their pity or “help.”
Maybe I’m overthinking it. I have owned my share of stuff that I took off a street curb in the US, or freecycled. Is this really any different than my saying “that’s a perfectly good table–the paint is just chipped” and putting it into my car? I wasn’t desperately poor–I was doing okay, but I wasn’t going to turn down perfectly good free furniture. Need it imply anything other than she liked the hat, and it was in a bag of clean trash (that might not even have been tied closed–it could have been in a handled bag that I just put into the dumpster–I don’t recall), so she gave it a new life?
I’m not completely sure what this about, but I do know it’s not about the hat.
What would you do?