Doing good. The phrase sends a small shudder up the spine -- up this spine, at least. I
like to think I recognize a good deed when I see one, but I'm not always sure. I can read a plaque as well as the next person, of course, and as I pass through the grand foyer of the Kennedy Center and read the names of this corporation or that philanthropist magnificently chiseled in the marble there, I am always suitably grateful that the tax laws encourage (deductible) contributions to the good of the many over (taxable) dividends for the benefit of the shareholders. This is called doing good, and the results are very pleasant for the rest of us. However, I have very limited experience with it.
In fact, my experience with the whole subject is very limited. Once, back in the age of innocence -- 3 or 4, in my case -- I was moved by the imagined plight of the streetsweeper and gave him a nickel. I was sitting on the curb looking with longing at the far side of the street that I was strictly forbidden to cross or even to step into. Across the street was a field. Later I discovered there were hazelnut bushes in it.
There was, as usual, no one in sight; not a hint of excitement in the still air. Of course, there rarely was. It seemed a remarkably uneventful street. And then came the streetsweeper, inching slowly toward me, pushing his broom before him and pulling his cart along behind. Every so often he would stop, take the dustpan from the cart, sweep some dirt into it and drop it into the can. He looked foreign but friendly. Perhaps we would talk, but what did we have to talk about? Very little. I had never seen him before. I was young; I did not have a lot of conversational ploys. And then the inspiration struck: he must be poor. The logic seemed unassailable: if he weren't poor, he wouldn't be sweeping the street. There must be a coin or two my mother would never miss, and in a flash I ran into the house and emerged with a nickel clutched in my hand, waiting for my prey to approach all unaware and me to pounce in triumph. It would be like a fairy tale. And so I plotted my course.
I do not recall who began the conversation, the streetsweeper or I. I don't, actually, think we had much of a conversation. I do know that when I first tried to give him the nickel, he refused it. Refusal was not in the script the Brothers Grimm had given me. He was supposed to take it. He was supposed to be pleased. He could buy his children a crust of bread, maybe some candy. They would be so happy, if only he would take my nickel.
I pressed, relentlessly, recklessly on. He said, in a very nice way, that he couldn't take my nickel, that I should buy myself a treat instead. But I wouldn't have it. Please, I said, crestfallen. And he looked into my face and smiled. It was a very nice smile. I think he even laughed. He thanked me very much and took the nickel. I felt very good.
Though I didn't know it then, of course, it was pure Marx: from each according to his ability, to each according to his need--and virtually painless as well. I was doing good and I knew it. It gave me a nice warm feeling. In those days, matters of good and bad, right and wrong, seemed more clear.
I was not, however, immediately acclaimed as a young philanthropist. My mother, when I told her about it as I did within minutes, did not applaud because, although you were supposed to help the poor, you were supposed to help them with your own nickel; moreover, you weren't supposed to embarrass them by reminding them of their humble condition. He didn't look at all embarrassed, I said, but my recollection is that I was punished anyway for embarrassing the streetsweeper who was only going about his business -- although my recollection may be faulty, as so many childhood memories are, particularly of punishment.
My recollection of the streetsweeper, though, is quite clear. He couldn't have
been more understanding.
He understood, in fact, a great deal more than I, the little boy who lived in the white house with the big porch behind the maple trees. Years later I understood who had done the good deed, and who had gotten the benefit.
The English philosopher Thomas Hobbes told me, albeit indirectly. When he was observed giving alms to a beggar, he explained the putatively uncharacteristic act by saying that it not only relieved the beggar's distress (depending on the extent to which alms might alleviate his misery), but also relieved his own distress at being confronted with the beggar's. If there's no beggar handy, it's necessary to find a needy-appearing surrogate, if only to relieve our own endemic distress. Thus is doing good reduced to an act of reparation in the Hobbesian war of all against all -- or, as a friend put it the other day when we were discussing the subject, "the war of all against it." "It" he explained as our own natural propensity to sloth, despair and death.
"That does take the fun out of it," I said.
"Fun?" he asked. "Did you ever make turkey soup for a bunch of drunks and derelicts who've not only never uttered a simple thank you, they don't even understand the concept?"
No. I hadn't. "Once I took a boy from the projects to dinner," I said. "He'd returned my wallet. He said he found it. His sister said he stole it. His mother wasn't clear about it. Anyway, he returned it. He wanted to go to Roy Rogers, but I didn't have enough cash. He said, 'That's OK, we can go to McDonald's.'"
"So we couldn't go to McDonald's, either. We had to go some place that would take a credit card. Yes," I said, forestalling any comments, "I get the irony. He didn't like the pizza, either, but he liked the restaurant. He said he'd never seen a place like it."
"Where'd you take him?" said my friend. "Maison Blanche? Did it give you a nice warm feeling? Did you put it on your expense account?"
There was a pause.
"Well, look," said my friend, "maybe you learned something. You saw the inside of a housing project. You got a look at his world. Maybe he learned something about yours. At least you got your wallet back, and he got to go to dinner. If he'd kept your wallet, he might have taken himself to dinner -- on your credit card, of course. So he did you a favor. You know," he said, "like your streetsweeper.