Won't you please help?

“How was it?,” Kallie asked as soon as I came through the office door. It took me a beat to even know what she was talking about. Oh, the pot.

“Good morning to you, too,” I said and laughed. “Didn’t smoke it yet. I’m saving it for the weekend, or when the mood hits me.”

“Wow, Doug, what are you waiting for?,” she said. “When I’ve got it, I smoke it.”

I giggled. Not much of a stoner, me, so I'll save it for a special treat, but I do know exactly what Kallie means. For me, it's the same with ice cream. There's never any in the freezer, because when I have it, I eat it.

♦ ♦ ♦

When I first gave to United Way, at a job perhaps 15 years ago, I was happy to do it. They do good in the world, and they rattled the tin cup with gentle restraint. One of the women in that office came around with a clipboard, and made her spiel one-on-one. People who gave got a lapel pin, and people who didn’t give didn’t get harangued. It was just, OK, thanks for considering it…

My current employer does things differently. First there’s the meeting, which all employees are required to attend, and that bugs me. I’m at work, so I expect work-related boredom and required meetings, but a mandatory meeting to hustle us for charity seems, well, pushy. 

The second thing to put me in the wrong frame of mind is that this meeting wasn’t in our office, or even in our building. It was a block down the street, in the vice presidents’ palace.

Long sigh, short explanation: 

Because of all the layoffs, there’s half a square mile of empty space in the building where I work, but the top-level executives don't work there. Our building is 80 years old and looks it, so the superstar execs are housed in a swankier building up the street. I’ve run errands there, and it's jawdropping. Everyone calls it the Taj Mahal.

That’s where the United Way meeting was, and walking from our dungeon-like windowless department to the executive suite — where there’s plush carpeting, air conditioning, and hallways wider than my apartment — does not engender a spirit of charity.

Next thing that set me on edge: Department heads are in competition with each other, and there’s a prize for the boss who gets the highest percentage of workers signed up to donate. The prize is not a set of steak knives. It's an all-expenses paid weekend for two at Lake Tahoe.

Before I get too worked up, I should point out that the company, not United Way, is underwriting this prize. But that’s also an annoyance. If management cares about charity, give the money to charity. Nope, they're buying plane tickets and resort reservations, meals and car rentals and casino chips, as yet another perk for management.

The meeting started with a long lecture from Babs, who is not the poster face for charitable giving — she dresses like “Upstairs” in Upstairs, Downstairs, she rarely says “Good morning” to people of my dour rank, and she's the boss or boss's boss of everyone in the room. I have never heard her say anything that’s not work-related — which isn’t even an insult, because management is supposed to be about work work work — but suddenly she's telling me and my co-workers about our social responsibilities? What the hell does she know about social responsibilities? She’s not my minister. She’s not my conscience.

“Of course, giving is voluntary,” she said, but she said it as a senior executive, addressing staff, at a mandatory meeting, and bubba, it started gnawing at me.

“Last year, our office had the second-highest percentage of employees contributing in our California operations,” she said at one point. “This year we’d really like to be number one.” You tell me. Is that a plea for charity, or a woman who wants to go to Tahoe?  

Then a tape got popped into a video player, and noted singer and babe Natalie Cole started telling us how great United Way is. She makes commercials for the store, and they sell Natalie Cole-branded tennis rackets or tampons or something, so it wasn’t a big surprise, even when she started singing.

The video was effective, too — a pro-made mini-movie with heartwrenching scenes and swelling music designed to manipulate your emotions and yank at your conscience, and it worked. I wasn’t the only one with a leaky nose, as all the sad stories on the video came to happy endings, all thanks to United Way, and won’t you please help?

The third and final video vignette backfired, though, at least for me, when the troubled teenager got his life turned around by United Way and became … a policeman. No doubt there are a few good apples in the rotten bunch, but I’m not wild about cops, especially uniformed police officers who know they’re being filmed as they kneel down and smile big at little kids.

Then came the Q & A session, and I was disappointed that nobody asked about United Way’s recent embezzling scandal. And then, hooray, the guiltathon was finally over, and I went to pee — not because I had to, but because you should never miss a chance to use the executive washroom.

Oh, man. It’s huge, it’s clean, there’s privacy even at the urinals, and the whole room smells like oatmeal cookies. When I was done, I washed my hands with their fancy pineapple-shaped soap, and dried with the genuine cloth towels, and remembered that the men’s room where I work had been out of both the cheap powdered soap and paper towels when I’d peed there this morning. 

When I left that heavenly john, most everyone from my office was already gone, walking back to our building. It was just me and one woman I sorta know, waiting for an elevator. We talked about Natalie Cole and then United Way, and then she said, “I wonder whether Peter will contribute this year.”

I figure, whether someone gives or doesn’t give is his concern, not ours, but before I could find the words to tactfully say that, she added, “He’s the only person who didn’t give last year.”

“How do you know?” I asked.

“Well, it’s common knowledge,” she said, and the elevator doors opened and the conversation closed, but my mind was whirling. Required meeting. Taj Mahal. Guilt trip from senior executives. And then there’s not even any privacy if someone decides not to give?

You can say it’s for a good cause, and it is. I’ve always given to United Way, so don’t give me that helping-others crap. I’d been ready to sign up again today, same as every year, until that meeting. Maybe until that moment at the elevator. 

Peter went up a notch in my estimation, and if it’s going to be “common knowledge,” spread the word: I’m not giving either. Screw the United Way. I’ll give to charity when I choose to, not when my boss’s boss wants a weekend out of town.

From Pathetic Life #5
Tuesday, October 25, 1994

This is an entry retyped from an on-paper zine I wrote many years ago, called Pathetic Life. The opinions stated were my opinions then, but might not be my opinions now. Also, I said and did some disgusting things, so parental guidance is advised.


Pathetic Life 

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  1. You donated to UW before this? Without that clue I would think you're just justifying being cheap. It's not the poor people's fault you worked for a shitty company.

    1. I'm a cheap bastard but I'm giving to United Way now, and almost always have.

  2. This is beautifuly written but it's so depressing that the end is a decision not to give to a worthy charity. I am not second guessing you, maybe I would hvae done the same. What a terrible company you were working for.

    1. A terrible company? Definitely, but Macy's was and is no worse, certainly no better, than any other giant soulless corporation.


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