Of Shattered Visions A Short Story
This was the day when it all began. It was a Monday evening which meant Daniel had survived another Monday without any karmic reaction to his years of complacency to the world’s problems. Enjoying this good fortune as he stood in line at the local Jewel-Osco, he realized he was over his weekly food supply budget. He had run out of olive oil several weeks ago and the remaining sun-flower seed oil had finally begun to disturb his delicate palate. As the line dwindled, he reached the danger zone of the store; he was suddenly surrounded by chocolate, gum, AAA batteries, red-bull, coke and offensive celebrity magazines. But there was something that caught his eyes amongst contemporary society’s traps that contributed to the high obesity rates in his country. It was a small African boy on a card, a fly just above his left eye and an empty bowl in his right hand. He picked up the one with $20 posted on the top left corner of the card. As his food for the week began to be swiped, he quickly put the $20 card back and reached for the $10 contribution.
He swiped his Bank of America card, cash was a luxury he had not experienced in a long while, and the magnetic strip transferred his account number to a router at this local Jewel-Osco. Within one tenth of one second it landed in Jewel HQ in Itaska, Illinois. Within another fraction of a second it ended up in Bank of America HQ which was far below the Mason Dixon line. Within less than one fifth of one second, his personal information bounced around 2,000 miles on horribly secured networks; bless the digital age, he thought.
As he walked home in the calm spring rain trying his best to tuck his food under his arm to keep it dry, he felt good about his $10 purchase and using his free hand, he pulled the card out of his back pocket. It read that his vital contribution towards combating global hunger would buy this poor boy, who he decided to name Gilbert, three chickens and the feed needed to raise these chickens who would produce enough eggs to feed the child’s family for a grand total of two weeks.
“I wonder what $20 buys” he said to no one in particular.
He found out next Monday. Twenty dollars bought the tools necessary to build a well in little Gilbert’s village in central Uganda according to the card. The next Monday he bought Gilbert a goat that would give milk to Gilbert’s family for only $30. The $50 card he could not afford but was curious to see what it would buy. He started tutoring for a family on his last remaining free evening to find out. Turns out the $50 card was the most creative – the equipment and seed necessary to start a small farm. Such purchases quickly became part of his weekly food budget.
Three months since his first $10 contribution, he began to dream about Gilbert and his family. He dreamt about a fully functional household; chickens walking gingerly outside next to the three goats Daniel had bought. He imaged the well being used in the early morning to prepare showers for the children who were tasked with collecting eggs for breakfast, served sunny side up of course. They would then walk out to their farm which flourished right outside the home using the water from the well. This harmonious system he constructed in his mind during sleep only cost $220.
He was addicted to this newfound philanthropic spirit. He began to measure his meager bi-monthly paycheck in terms of the amount of chickens he could buy for that central Ugandan family. He compared the price of a dozen chickens to the amount of goats he could buy and kept a running total of the livestock Gilbert’s had on his flourishing farm to best predict the needs of the family.
One day, however, Gilbert was no longer on the shelf. Daniel stopped to search through the People Magazines, Esquires, Newsweeks and assorted candy in search of the face of that boy he had supported for so long. Daniel became anxious and asked the cashier where Gilbert had gone. The cashier’s quizzical look forced Daniel to locate the floor manager who showed him the door of the store manager. John Kiddy welcomed him in and Daniel learned too much about the local Jewel-Osco manager’s life. He had a B.A. in finance, a M.A. in Business Administration and outstanding loans worth about 4,600 chickens Daniel quickly computed in his head. This terribly over-qualified manager told Daniel that the cards were part of a temporary agreement between Jewel and a small non-profit and the agreement had finally come to an end. Daniel thanked the ex-Lehman Brothers employee and went home with an extra $20.
He could not sleep that night. He imaged poor Gilbert waiting outside for the chickens to be delivered as the flies began to gather around his famine fatigued face. All of a sudden, the compassion he had felt for months vanished as Daniel thought about the means of delivery of these chickens, a thought that had never crossed his mind before.
“How in the world do they deliver these chickens” was the thought that finally led him to abandon his attempt to sleep. Tossing aside his blanket, he got out of bed careful not to hit his head on the low-hanging rafters. He poured himself a cup of tea to drown the desire for a midnight cigarette and began to contemplate the entire scheme he suddenly felt victim of. In order for this system to work, there had to be a massive warehouse full of chickens, goats, farm tools and seed, but where? Old delivery trucks would be packed full of these products and delivered to each village, but based on what address? It was difficult to imagine a UPS system set up in Africa, the one in the United States was in debt by $4 billion and counting but then again, what wasn’t in these times. He gave a quick toast to the coming age of austerity and downed the rest of his tea.
A disconnect had finally arisen between the face on the card and the final outcome of Daniel’s weekly purchase and he could not go on living if this disconnect continued.
He began putting the money he previously used to inundate Gilbert with means of survival into a travel fund. After three months of saving and diligent research about central Uganda, he bought a ticket. Since he bought the cheapest one he could find, his itinerary was a nightmare; red-eye from CHI to ATL, from ATL he would fly over the Atlantic into Gatwick; from Gatwick to the UAE with a six-hour layover before boarding a flight to Cairo and finally to Uganda. Thirty-six hours of total travel; two states within the United States plus the UK, UAE, Egypt and finally Uganda all for $936; bless the jet engines that fuel globalization.
It was hot when he arrived in Uganda but it was nothing compared to the blistering heat he experienced during his layover in the UAE. He bought his bus pass and tried to make the best of a very uncomfortable seat for a very long eight hour ride. It was night when he finally arrived and Oku, an individual of comparable age he met online through a friend of a friend on facebook who had a twitter account that helped connect international travelers moving from the global north to the global south, brought him back to his apartment. It was a nice loft in a modern building. The lack of centralized AC was compensated by the strategic placement of two rotating fans on either end of the room. Oku made him some tea in the fully furnished kitchen and sat Daniel down at the Ikea-like dinning room table and gave him some of his leftover lamb chops in a sauce composed of diced tomatoes, onions and a spice that tasted quite foul to Daniel’s sensitive palate.
He slept well that night knowing he was on the cusp of finding that town where Gilbert and his family lived. Just as he did in his half-asleep state of mind months ago, he imagined the farm, the chickens and the gratefulness Gilbert and his family would express upon his arrival. Instead of embarking on his journey, however, he accepted Oku’s invitation to join his family’s traditional Sunday lunch. Champagne was served with the onslaught of food that they insisted Daniel eat. As the afternoon progressed, beer and a general jubilation about life consumed the family get together. Daniel embraced the atmosphere and put the search for Gilbert off until another day.
By the time Daniel awoke the next day, Oku was long gone. He was training to become a pharmacist and worked long hours. Daneil blamed his headache on the mixture of champagne and foreign beer but defiantly, he decided to walk around town before meeting with Oku for lunch. He discovered it was a lively place. Restaurants had tables placed in the early afternoon sun and David Guetta echoed through a nearby alley. He passed a local boarding school with a jungle gym and two soccer posts. He continued to get looks from the locals but none were hostile, they just couldn’t help but notice the conspicuous tourist whose face was already beginning to burn as the sun made its way to mid sky. The streets were not paved but well organized; the buildings were not fit for Michigan Ave. but contributed perfectly to the atmosphere of the town. He bought a bracelet that reminded him of Bob Marley due to the red, green and black color scheme before locating the pharmacy where Oku worked. They went out for a pleasant lunch and the hospitality and kindness of Oku, or perhaps the ease at which it flowed out of him, impressed Daniel. They departed and Daniel continued his explorations finding no evidence of the economic class he envisioned Gilbert to be a part of. But he did not fully expect to find it in this town so the next day he took a bus that took him through more rural areas. At first, his mental constructs were vindicated; small banana farms were scattered along the road with loosely put together fences, but no children were standing outside with a fly above their left eye and empty bowls in their hands, only rural farmers surviving and surviving well off the land.
He searched for sorrow, famine and tragedy that all called out for help from the developed world for the next six days. He was searching for that boy who needed his help, who depended on the compassion he expressed in 10, 20, and 50 USD denominations one week at a time but he could not find that face, that dependency and therefore that gratefulness he felt entitled to. All he found was life being lived out in a different place.
The six days came and went. Daniel suddenly found himself in an airport terminal about to board the first of five flights that would bring him home. He spent months planning his travels around finding Gilbert and that connection he craved but nothing was found. Maybe this non-profit had mistakenly said central Uganda was where the funds were going. Maybe they were geographically impaired Westerners who meant South instead of Central and Sudan instead of Uganda. Yes, maybe the recently established state of Southern Sudan was the home of Gilbert! But Daniel knew it would take months of saving to embark on what could overwhelmingly be another misguided adventure. No, instead he would visit this non-profit himself and demand to know where these enlightened cats were sending his money.
The non-profit’s name was Global Hope for a World Without Hunger through Individual Acts, or GHWW/oHIA for short. How all of this fit on those cards in Jewel-Osco he was not sure. Through some research, he found out that there was already a non-profit called Global Hope, another one took the World without Hunger title back in 1994 but if you combine the two and highlight the preeminence of the individual, voilà, an original idea was struck! Bless the world of 501c3 tax status.
It was based in Washington, D.C. off of Connecticut Avenue and this destination became the modus operandi of Daniel’s new travel fund.
Ten weeks later and 90 denied chickens to Gilbert, Daniel boarded the flight which took him directly from Ohare to Dulles which was outside of DC; the metro would not connect the airport with the District until 2014 if all went well. The value of three chickens bought him a ticket from the detached airport to the city. It was August and the blast of heat he felt reminded him of his six hour layover a few months back. The only difference was that the UAE was a desert and D.C. was a swamp. The humidity made it feel like he was swimming through the air so he swam and swam until he found the red-line and took it to the outskirts of the beltway where a couch being offered by a young couple with high reviews on couchsurfers.com was calling his name.
The next day he easily found Connecticut Avenue but finding the exact building which housed GHWW/oHIA was not so easy. By the time he found the correct building, sweat had crept into every crevasse of his body and filled every fiber of his undershirt. The AC was blasting in the lobby which was a welcome alternative to two rotating fans. He asked the man behind the desk where the Global Hope for a World Without Hunger through Individual Acts was in the building and then took a much needed breathe. The elevator stopped at the seventh floor which smelled like a dental office. He walked down the hall looking for room 726; he passed by the Business Council for International Understanding, Women’s Peace Forum, Conflict Resolution Incorporated, Development Diagnostics for a Digital Age and Singh M.D. Dental Office before finding room 726 which had an extended plate on the side of the door to accommodate the lengthy title. Before opening the door, he wondered if every floor of this building was filled with similar organizations and if every building he had walked past earlier in the blistering heat was filled with similar floors.
He opened the door to a fluttered office. Two chairs sat in the corner with a coffee table separating them. A bowl of heresy kisses sat atop the coffee table but Daniel did not dare eat one for risk of their age despite their decade long shelf life. Several abstract paintings littered the wall and just past the small entry were two rows of cubicles. Just beyond the cubicles were two offices, the open doors of which revealed higher management had not arrived or did not exist. The silence was only broken by the sound of rapid typing. As he walked further into the small office, one of the women noticed his presence and kindly introduced herself as Shelby. Daniel calmly and cordially began the story he had been writing in his head for the past week. Shelby listened and nodded her head occasionally to show interest.
After he finished, Shelby took a moment to think and then said; “why don’t I offer you some coffee and we can discuss a few things in the Deputy Director’s office, he’s at a conference in New York so he won’t mind.”
The coffee was stale and did not belong in the hot summer heat but he drank it anyways.
Shelby began; “Let me explain what it is we do here. We are a non-profit that deals with micro-finance via micro-loans. Your contributions do not necessarily buy chickens or goats; those are just examples of what those in need can buy using the loans we provide.”
Daniel felt slightly better as he thought of poor little Gilbert having a credit line. If everyone else in the developed work had the ability to experience indebtedness, why should such an opportunity be denied to Gilbert?
Shelby continued “but we stopped the micro-loans several years ago due to financial troubles.”
Another quickly shattered vision.
“The donations we received were placed into an account that we used as collateral to take out a much larger loan. We basically leveraged existing funds to provide even more families with micro-loans. We then entered into a partnership with Morgan Stanley and they spread out our risk by bundling all of the micro-loans into several different financial packages mixed with other types of financial instruments. They would then underwrite the risk of these collateralized debt obligations through credit default swaps and since Standard & Poor gave us a AAA credit rating, they became very easy to sell on the international market.”
It was 2012 now and Daniel, although a social recluse who rarely read the news, knew what was coming next.
“But when the collateralized debt obligation market bundled, so did our diversified micro-loans packages and we had to pay the full value of the loans we took out. We used what assets we had in our donation account but this was not nearly enough to cover the value of the loan so we had to call in all of the micro-loans. We had to notify the families that instead of paying $1 a month for 30 years, it had to be paid back immediately and in full. That was a long week for us.”
“I’m sorry but what if they couldn’t pay back these loans?” Daniel asked in attempt to elicit some simplicity amidst this financial madness.
After stifling a laugh, Shelby said “are you kidding, nobody could. Well, at least those that we were able to get a hold of. We had the bank breathing down our necks so we had to hire a third party to seize assets.”
He suddenly pictured all of his chickens, goats, farm equipment and even that well placed into that improbable delivery truck and driven to that warehouse that most likely did not exist and then flown to New York City. Wall Street must be full of chickens and goats Daniel thought.
Shelby ended with “it was a really sad time for us but I think we all learned a valuable lesson about the free market.”
Amid his confusion and disbelief, he asked how Shelby knew all of this – it all seemed so technical to him.
“Well, I have a background in financial management, a Ph.D in Economics actually.”
“Of course” Daniel responded as he thought of John Kiddy. But this must mean his contributions were used to help pay this well-intentioned women’s salary. At this point he was willing to settle with this connection albeit far from his original expectations. So this was what he asked Shelby who was unable to stifle her laugh this time around.
“No I am an unpaid intern here at GHWW/oHIA and so is everyone else in the office today.”
Damnit! Daniel thought. Okay, what about the Director of the office, surely he was on salary – someone must be on salary at this place! “By the way, where is the Director of this organization?” he blurted out.
“Well he was indicted for tax fraud in 2010 and we have been scrambling to find a replacement. Our Deputy-Director Gregg is doing the best he can to keep us from bankruptcy.”
“Okay…and you said earlier that he is in New York today, right?”
“Yes he is at a conference about how non-profits can file for bankruptcy” she responded candidly.
How in the world a non-profit could file for bankruptcy Daniel was not sure but then again, he felt less and less sure about everything as he sat in this office. He had learned long ago that when conversation becomes forced, it is better to abandon ship and get the hell out of there. Shelby gave him her business card before he left. On his way out, he noticed boxes piled upon boxes of those cards with Gilberts face.
It was a Monday evening and Daniel found himself in the danger-zone of the Jewel Osco yet again. Exactly where he first found Gilbert over a year ago there was now a picture of a little girl with a flower behind her ear wearing a cute yet run-down pink dress. “Won’t you help Lilly find a home” it read on top. He reached for the Peoples Magazine.