Monday, November 29, 2004

Dear Target

Until I met my husband Luis, the happiest time of my life was during my son’s infant, toddler and preschool years. My first marriage had crumbled, but I was euphoric to be a mother. With Chris at the center of my universe, my life was finally in balance. I left our house and most of its contents to my ex and moved back into my old bedroom at my parents’. I had only a few material possessions and could not afford much more as I was working part-time at the public library. I enjoyed putting Chris in his stroller and walking for miles to the park, to the market, to the local Target for the occasional toy and everyday sundries or to the Salvation Army thrift store across the street from Target if we needed clothes. Life was beautiful.

Now Chris is grown and we are not hurting for money, but my frugality is intact despite our close proximity to the retail hub of Orange County, California. Our house is surrounded by a mall that is too chi-chi frou-frou for my thrift store sensibility, big name chain stores, acclaimed restaurants, theatres, the Performing Arts Center, hotels, a major airport, a venerated community college, the county fairgrounds, two freeways and the toll road my husband takes to work – in short, all the modern inconveniences. Life is better than ever although busier than ever and we do our recreational walking on the treadmill in the den.

I still enjoy the hunt for a bargain, so this weekend I made my weekly pilgrimage to Target, my absolute favorite store for more than two decades. I have been pondering the controversial decision by Target management to ban the Salvation Army from collecting donations in front of their stores in response to customer complaints. I am not one who would complain about the bell-ringers, as I search for them when they are not handy. In late winter I always see Girl Scouts selling cookies near Target’s entrance and, this being California, all year round petition carriers sit at tables there, soliciting signatures for ballot measures. I noticed that they are gone now as well. But I cannot recall any Salvation Army volunteers at the Target stores I have frequented in recent years. Luckily, I located my first two Salvation Army volunteers of the season in front of Wal-Mart last week and Big Lots discount store on Saturday, so they are out there if you want to find them and I hope you will.

‘Tis the season for employer-sponsored charity at work, where our annual tradition is to adopt needy families in our community to give them the Christmas they could not have otherwise. This year we are also collecting donations for Toys for Tots and I am serving as the United Way campaign coordinator for my building. United Way helps to support several charities close to my heart such as Goodwill Industries, which hires the handicapped shunned by other employers like my brother Richard who worked for them in the 1960s and 1970s; the American Cancer Society; the American Diabetes Association; the National Multiple Sclerosis Society; and the Salvation Army. Like many families, we give as much and as often as we can where we think it will do the most good.

When Chris was 8 years old and not as grateful for his blessings as I thought he should be, I took him to a church soup kitchen to help prepare a dinner for the needy. After he opened his Christmas presents, I made him pick one to donate to the children we saw there. We tried to help the homeless we met in our community, steering clear of those suspiciously clean and tidy panhandlers who seem to appear in shifts at bustling intersections throughout the county. Then we noticed a bedraggled looking man and woman with a shopping cart full of clothes, blankets and a cat hanging out regularly by the supermarket where we redeemed our cans and bottles. We were having our own rough patch but decided to donate our monthly recycling cash to the couple, along with some canned food items, which continued until they disappeared suddenly. I used to keep extra food in the trunk of my car in case we saw them again or others in obvious need. Clearly I am an impulsive donor, the kind upon whom the Salvation Army depends.

One day a few years ago during my lunch hour, I picked up some groceries we needed for dinner. The deli clerk was letting a man who seemed in a very bad way feast on a tray of sliced meat and cheese. I grabbed some canned fruit and vegetables to give him, but he left quickly before I paid for my purchases. The following evening Luis and I were dining out when I saw the man stop in front of our restaurant. He was wearing the same clothes, but his pants had holes that I had not observed the day before. With Luis’s permission, I wrapped our uneaten bread and baked potatoes in a napkin and took them out to the man.

As I walked back into the restaurant, I could not miss the disapproving looks I received from the hostess, the wait staff and other diners. "Everyone is glaring at me," I told Luis.

"You know why, don’t you?" he asked me. "They think you’re a Democrat."

Luis is not merely the wittiest person I know, but he is also the wisest. He is one of six children raised in poverty who had to share a bed and clothes with his brothers. By share, I mean that he and his brother would wear the same pair of pants on alternate days and those pants were a gift from some charitable organization. His father worked second and third jobs rather than ask for a financial handout. Luis made me understand that my naive act of human concern contributed to a public nuisance and likely perpetuated self-destructive choices by the stranger who needed more help than I was equipped to give. Of course, with Luis's support, I still react emotionally to those in need, but I try to be smarter about how I do it.

I know plenty of compassionate people who contribute generously to their pet causes but do not appreciate being accosted by strangers when they shop or dine or drive down the street. Do you remember one of the funniest scenes in the movie Airplane? The pilot Kramer, portrayed by Robert Stack, started punching solicitors who waylaid him as he strode through the airport. Donations for the Reverend Moon? Jews for Jesus? Read about Jehovah's Witness? How about Buddhism? Help Jerry's kids? Scientology? Avoid nuclear power? I understand why that elicits such therapeutic laughter.

Before Rudy Giulani became a hero of 9/11, he was lauded deservedly for cleaning up the streets of New York City, filled for years with panhandlers, garbage, and human waste that frustrated the natives and repelled tourism. In Southern California, the wandering homeless are not the common sight they were ten years ago. So where do the destitute go when they are swept off the city streets? To the Salvation Army and other rescue missions where souls are fed, too, that’s where. If we do not support institutions that can change the lives of those in the direst need, we will run into many more of the broken and hungry when we shop at Target and elsewhere.

So here I am sending a letter to Target, my favorite store, and Target Visa, of which Luis and I are dual cardholders, asking for reconsideration of this new policy, which will surely depress the size and quantity of impulse donations by holiday shoppers this year. If Target will not reconsider its policy nor make a remedial donation to the Salvation Army, I will have to reconsider my loyal patronage.

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