57: Nickel Walks

57: Nickel Walks

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Tough Times, Tough People

Nickel Walks

Success comes in cans, failure in can’ts.

~Author Unknown

You’ve seen beer cans and soda cans lying pell-mell at the side of the road, the metal cylinders that litter every town’s highways and byways, tossed by drivers who can’t be bothered to find a garbage can. Well, next time you see one, say a prayer of thanks for the litterbug because that tossed can may change a life.

There was a time when my husband was out of work, a recession was in full swing, and we had two small boys to feed. We exhausted every possibility for job opportunities, cut expenses to the bone, and depleted all resources. Every day would dawn with hope that it would be that particular day which would bring a job and income. Day after day—nothing.

I knew where all the Goodwill stores were and developed an eagle eye for finding nearly-new jeans, shirts, and jackets for the boys. It was a gala event when Mommy brought home “new” clothes to replace the holey pants which little boys create. The smiles on their little faces took away the sting of what I needed to do to clothe them. I felt like I had struck it rich on the days when clothes with blue tickets were half-price.

Rummaging through dented cans on the clearance shelf in the back of the grocery store became a family sport—a far cry from throwing anything and everything into the shopping cart without a thought about price. Gone, too, was a quick stop at McDonald’s. Had we actually eaten out twice a week once upon a time? Did we waste all that money on greasy food just to get the must-have collectible toys? Canned beans never tasted so good.

Chances of finding a job were slim to none in New England in the early 1980s. Our high spirits disintegrated and we became panic-stricken. In desperation, I knew I had to keep going for the sake of our children. Despite my own promise that I would never ask for help, I held up my head and walked into a government office to apply for food stamps.

Sitting and waiting my turn, I wanted to bolt outside and never stop running. Embarrassment turned into anger when the apathetic clerk looked over my application, snapped her gum, and stated in a disinterested voice, “Oh, sorry. You DO qualify for food stamps, but you have to sell your car before you can receive them.” Without missing a beat, she turned away and called on the next hapless applicant. Stunned, I explained that we needed our car to look for work. We didn’t live near public transportation and there would be no possibility of obtaining employment without a vehicle. Without even looking, the clerk muttered, “Sorry. Next?” With that, I was dismissed.

I stumbled into the bright sunlight and swore that I would never again ask anyone for help. Never again would I be humiliated. But, the problem remained. How could I feed my family?

Knowing I needed to clear my head, I began to go for long walks. The fresh air felt good and I began to sort things out in my mind, looking at our situation from a different angle. Despair was futile, so praying was substituted for complaining. I prayed for the blessings of being out of work, for having a husband who was trying to be a good provider, for people who had less than us, for healthy children. Some days I was pretty low and could only thank God for having a pulse, but I made the conscious effort to have gratitude every morning when I walked.

Trying to avoid traffic on our country roads, I edged over into the brush and noticed all the cans on the ground. I could cash in each container for a nickel. A plastic bag tucked into my pocket became a necessity and then two bags became the norm. Soon there were dozens of sticky, dripping cans rattling around to redeem for enough money to buy a gallon of milk! A few more days of collecting and a loaf of bread was my trophy.

My goal each day was to see how many “nickels” I could find. Every week there would be enough to buy a staple, but, most importantly, my attitude improved, and being out of work wasn’t the major disaster which I had initially perceived. I began to experience the beauty around me which money couldn’t buy: Canadian geese honking their way across the sky, skunk cabbage poking its verdant crowns through crusts of snow, the sweet smell of lazy, early morning breezes—signs of spring and hope and new beginnings.

That was more than twenty-five years ago, and today we face economic uncertainty and massive unemployment again. Last week I saw a man rummaging in the underbrush gathering up cans. He became beet-red when I shouted “Hello,” and he began to make excuses as to why he was picking up the dirty containers. I waved away his explanations and said, “A nickel is a nickel,” and I bent over to help him fill his bag.

~Irene Budzynski, RN

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