Ethical Consumerism

I think he wanted to rent to someone like my boyfriend. Someone young and ambitious with a solid and steady income. I wonder, though, if a family needed that space more.

Living in New York it feels like you’re solicited 1,000 times a day. Whether it be from people in need, from flashing billboards, or from eager salespeople, the world is constantly asking for your money, and the less you have the more and more expensive and demanding the world gets. Food and necessities become increasingly difficult to find. And with so many options, it can be difficult to figure out where you should spend your money.
A few months ago, my boyfriend moved to New York City, which means I too (essentially) have a new home. I love his (my) neighborhood. It feels like Europe in the middle of my New York. The neighborhood is primarily filled with Italian, and some Polish immigrants. It’s littered with happy families.
Small children skip through the streets clinging to their parents’ hands. Old women push their laundry carts. At one café near the apartment, old and middle age men sit all day and night drinking espresso and gesticulating at one another. Flyers hang at local businesses for Polish punk-rap bands.
One of my favorite establishments is a tiny grocery store calling itself a “farmer’s market.” It’s a non-yuppified health food haven. All of the prices are cheap and not just for the city. Most produce is organic, and there are yummy European treats abound.
Sometime last week, I noticed that the market doors were tightly shuttered. I thought it must be a fluke, maybe the market was just closed for the day. But it still has not reopened. While walking past it, I caught a young woman coming out of the building and asked her what had happened. Was the market permanently closed? She told me it was. She didn’t know why; she just lived above it.
I felt so sad, not just because it was the most affordable grocery option, but because I felt as though my boyfriend and I were partially responsible.
We hadn’t gone to the market in a few weeks. It didn’t have as many options as two neighboring, larger, grocery stores.
Lately, I’ve been traversing the neighborhood alone, and I realized that my sweet little market wasn’t the only business heading out. For rent signs hang out of a few windows, including a small clothing store with luxury fashion items. A man, who I assume is the owner, stands outside the shop every night looking stony. He wears a large Indiana Jones type hat and stares me down as I pass. Occasionally, he waves. But usually, I’m too intimidated to meet his eyes. I want to know his story. Why his little shop of beautiful gowns is moving. Is it gone? Is it done forever?
Many people in my neighborhood do not speak American English. When I drop our laundry off, the woman at the counter kindly smiles and communicates with single words and hand gestures.
The man who runs the local hole-in-the-wall diner speaks more English, but we can’t always understand each other’s accents. He gave me a free cookie once because I said it looked good. My welcome into the neighborhood was kind, though I was a clear outsider.
I wonder if it will soon lose its sweet charm as more and more outsiders move in, demanding full grocery stores and the trappings of American suburbia.
When my boyfriend moved into his new apartment. The landlord, a 25-year-old Queen’s native, whose parents helped him buy the building, told me he didn’t think it was suitable for a family. The apartment, which is larger than the three bedroom I pay rent at, seemed plenty large enough for a small family to me. I think he wanted to rent to someone like my boyfriend. Someone young and ambitious with a solid and steady income.
I wonder, though, if a family needed that space more.
As I was walking past the empty farmer’s market one night, to another grocery store, a young woman approached me holding four single roses.
“Excuse me,” she said bluntly.
She had a Jersey accent and was thin, her energy rapid and urgent.
“I just lost my job and I have a four year old I have to support,” she said. She asked me to buy a rose. I paused. I’d feel hypocritical not giving, especially on a week where I had money to give. I asked her how much.
“Whatever you find it in your heart to give, $5, $10.”
I internally winced. As I pulled out my wallet and rifled through it, knowing full well I had a $1 and a $10. I didn’t show it to her as I rifled and tried to decide what to do next.
I barely make enough to cover my bills. And after I pay rent, there’s been a few times where I asked my dad, or mom, for $20 so I could make it until the next paycheck. Only a few weeks ago, I spent 10 days relying on my boyfriend for food because I didn’t have a consistent $5 in my bank account. In addition to not making enough income, my money management skills are hardly something to be proud of.
But I knew the rose the woman was holding cost more than a dollar and this week, I had money. So, I handed over the $10 feeling guilty as I parted ways with it. And in return, she handed me a rose died blue, before rushing away.

I wondered if I had been scammed. My thoughts about the woman weren’t kind. she reminded me of people I had known and disliked. But at the end of the day, wasn’t it better that I gave her something? The likelihood that I was being scammed, I reasoned, was slim and, even if I was, the woman obviously needed it.
I walked towards the overpriced grocery store, with less spring in my step, wondering if it was the sort of place that deserved my money.

When does charity become problematic?

She smiled up at me in a way that reminded me of my little brother’s teenage girlfriend. It was a polite, good girl smile. Like she wanted to be likable.

Stepping outside of my office building after work, I noticed a girl sitting on the sidewalk with her back against the wall. She had a sign that read, “Please help, I’m sorry to ask.”
It was an especially cold night and I felt shocked seeing her there. I don’t remember seeing any other homeless people posted in that spot before.
She was young looking, she couldn’t have been that much older than me and she was pretty with a long skirt, a frail figure, and long straight hair. She was wearing a long billowy skirt and a hoody.
As people passed her by, she avoided eye contact. A businesswoman stopped to put money in her cup, a rarity in busy midtown Manhattan. My eyes teared up watching the scene.
I, not having any cash, turned towards my office building and went to the vending machine. Trying to go for the healthiest items I bought about five different snacks and headed back down.
When I neared her spot, I felt nervous. I suddenly realized that all of my items contained nuts.
I approached her with my items. Putting on my most cheerful and most feminine voice. “Excuse me,” I said. She smiled up at me in a way that reminded me of my little brother’s teenage girlfriend. It was a polite, good girl smile. Like she wanted to be likable.
I stumbled over my words suddenly feeling ineffectual. “Are you allergic to nuts?” I asked. She could see the abundance of granola bars I was carrying.
“No,” she said smiling back at me. The smile was understanding and reassuring like she could feel the anxiety I felt. I suddenly felt like she was doing me more good than I was for her. She was comforting my awkwardness.
“May I give these to you?” I held the snacks out suddenly realizing that I had not asked her what she needed and if she could ask for anything it probably wouldn’t be granola bars.
She nodded and, clumsily, I passed the snacks to her.
I started pulling out my phone, poised and ready for what came next.
“Feel free to say no,” I started, “but I’m a journalist and I was wondering if I could ask you a few questions?”
She looked at me, her smile not faulting but her eyes hinting at fear, or sadness, or something I couldn’t quite touch. She shook her head no.
Embarrassed, my cheeks flushed. I wished her a good night and left.
The exchange left me feeling guilty. I had wanted so badly to be a savior and here was someone who was the epitome of vulnerability. I felt creepy for my eagerness to help her and even worse because my idea of helping felt ultimately exploitative. If I weren’t writing this blog would I have given her a second thought? And would I have been so eager to help if she were ugly, or old, or a man?
I wondered if my help had even been wanted. Maybe she didn’t need food. Maybe she needed money for a room or ticket out of the city. Maybe she only needed money and why had I assumed that anything would have been better than nothing? In the future, I resolved to ask before I gave.