I vividly recall the summer that I nagged my mother endlessly to let me have a lemonade stand. I know I was under 8 years old, but I don’t recall exactly how old. We lived in a safe neighborhood where people looked out for each other and anyone’s children. Because everyone was poor or working class on the verge of poor, property theft wasn’t a big issue. People worked hard, did the best they could making ends meet, dressed up for church, and sometimes put on a clean shirt to go to the corner tavern of which there were three in two blocks. The simple truth about a lemonade stand then was that not many people had the few cents to buy the lemonade, and no one would bother buying Kool-aid because you could just make it at home faster and cheaper. Sometimes people used a lemonade mix and added lemons, but no one wanted that either. It was the real deal or no deal with lemonade.
There must have been a sale on lemons at some point because my mother relented. I recall that she noted the cost of sugar and lemons ahead of time because my profits would have to pay that amount back. I sincerely didn’t understand that I could not afford to drink any lemonade myself because the profits would be gone. And, oh, the anticipated profits! I was quite sure that the stand would do better than break even initially and the limited success would have me rolling in cash in a matter of days.
Although I don’t recall much of the day when I learned one of the pitfalls of capitalism, namely bankruptcy, I do believe that my oldest sister was my only customer. There are a chain of memories connected to this one, however. In my early twenties I was joking with a colleague who suggested we stand on the corner to raise some more money by hold a sign reading, “Two cookies for a quarter.” The double entendre was intended. Then there are the numerous conversations my late husband and I had about seeing young people in our middle class neighborhood setting up lemonade stands with linen cloths and plastic cups that would eat all of their possible profits. We were pretty confident that their flip-flops cost more than they’d bring in a week. We’d also chuckle at the few children who offered two sizes of drink for $1 and $2.50, though the latter was possibly only a third larger than the former. Still, my current neighbors could afford to drop some coin for the sake of nostalgia.
What prompted this trip down memory lane was my recent purchase of a pair of shoes for $.01. That’s right. One penny. I went to a favorite shop in Chicago on a lark earlier in the week and scoured the racks for a buy on my favorite brand of shoes. Within minutes I found a pair marked at $59 with a label that said it was comparable to a $149 pair. Oh, the joy! You see, this particular style and brand is one I had been eyeing at full retail at $329. Clearly there was an error. I tried them on. Clouds! Snap, they would be mine. Because of my good fortune, I looked for more and found another I liked, also at a good price. I picked up socks, too. At the cashier counter, the clerk scanned the first pair three times before asking if I knew the price at which they were ringing up. I assumed he would tell me a higher figure because I knew the full retail. “No,” he said. “They are ringing up at one cent. You are in luck.”
A couple of hours later, as I walked to the train, I gave the first person who asked for change a five dollar bill. The next one got a ten. The third didn’t even ask, but was verbose in his appreciation of the twenty.
I realized that the $.01 shoes could not even be worn by these folks on the street. These double monk strap cap toe beauties would be useless and precious and stupid. I asked myself when I learned greed and the lemonade stand immediately came to mind. I would love to pretend that if the train were not coming in so soon, I would have stopped longer to meet the men I gave $35, to find out about their lives, and where they were spending the night. It would make me feel really good to know that I apologized to them for not being better at interrupting the system that keeps them on the street and me in $329 shoes for a penny. But I didn’t apologize.
I want to apologize, but I am not ready to do so. I want an end to poverty, but I am not so sure I want to do what is needed to end it. I am sorry that I have not done a better job at ending poverty. I cannot rest on the money I have given or the work I have done. It has been necessary effort but insufficient to even make a dent in what must be done. I regret that I have not done better, am not doing better at it even now. I am looking at the origins of my induction into capitalism and greed. But, I have not devoted the time and intellectual energy to land on the actions that will change things. Until I do, my apology is incomplete.