In March, 2004, I was in my last semester of graduate school in New York City. I was working full time in a record store and as a deejay on the side. It wasn’t a lot of money, but it paid the bills, and I enjoyed the break from a previous career in digital design. On the morning of March 4th, I was setting up for an art event in Brooklyn. We were having a fundraiser for a fellow artist who’d had an accident and didn’t have health insurance.
The event was called “The Best Idea Ever, What Could Possibly Go Wrong?” At about 10:30 a.m., I was standing up on a ledge moving a small light sculpture when I stepped on unstable flooring and plummeted 16 feet onto concrete. Things definitely went wrong. In that moment, everything I’d known as reality stopped. I was in hospitals for about six weeks and in a wheelchair for three months at my parents’ home in Florida. Eventually I got myself back to NYC but couldn’t stand long enough to work, was on too many painkillers to study, and spent most of my time in bed, or on the couch, and very sad. My friends tried to help me with money, as did my parents, but no one had much, and NYC is expensive.
For the first time in my life I had to get help from our government—food stamps, welfare to cover utilities, and social security. I spent days, and then weeks, waiting in lines, answering rhetorical questions, and having people not believe my claims. It felt nearly impossible and totally humiliating. Some of the people that work in government offices don’t seem have a lot of respect for the people that come to them for help. Maybe it’s because they are frustrated by the system and end up taking it out on others. Or maybe they are close to the edge themselves and it’s too daunting to imagine being on the other side of those high counters sitting in uncomfortable metal chairs. Whatever the reason, for every nice person I met, four wanted nothing to do with me.
As a well-educated, middle-class woman with no children, I was incredulous at the thought of the millions of people less fortunate than me, who not only struggle to make a living, but also have to support large families in the process. How do you keep three small kids entertained in an uncomfortable, fluorescent-lit cave while you wait and wait for someone to believe you need help? How do you deal with your kids seeing people treat you poorly? It was staggering and completely demoralizing.
It also taught me a lot. First, no matter where you come from, what schools you attended, and what career you may have, bad things can happen to take it all away. For me, thankfully, it was only temporary. After about ten months, I was able to get back to work (though I never was able to finish my master’s thesis). And in a year and half I was able to pay people back for the kindness they showed me during those hard times. But for many, it doesn’t go as well. And you can say it’s their fault, but often it isn’t And besides, who among us hasn’t made some unfortunate choices sometimes? A single even small mistake, or in my case a misstep, can spiral things dangerously out of control.
When you come across people that need help, be generous. This isn’t about handing out money or food; it’s about spirit. Understand that it’s difficult to ask for a hand, be it from family, friends, strangers, or the government. And also consider that the person asking you for help has probably had a very interesting life and has his or her own wisdom to impart about the ways of the world. Take a minute to ask a question. You might just learn something.
Shel Kimen is founder of the Detroit Hotel Project, an innovative space to collaborate, sleep, and learn. Coming to Detroit in 2013. www.http://detroitcollisionworks.com/