Living and travelling for five weeks between suburban Columbia, Maryland, and New York City, I was finding myself always meeting people engaged in some kind of fundraising for a good cause. Europeans, and Germans in particular, perceive America as a country where everyday life is ruled by greed and the greenback. So where have all the Scrooges gone? Should I find them farther West? I have my doubts.
“Donate your car”--when I first read this ad, I thought it was some kind of Halloween hoax. Who in his sane mind would give away his car? I thought, with a German perception. Soon, however, I learned that this was no hoax at all, and that last year alone more than 1 million cars were donated to charitable causes. Take it from me: Nobody in Europe (maybe excluding the Brits) would donate a car to charity, no matter how big the tax deductible effect of such a donation--you’re still losing money!
So what drives Americans to give? Is it out of bare necessity, because government has gradually sneaked out of its responsibility to look after those in need? Or is it rather part of American community life? I’ll choose the second (now Mr. Puttnam, the author of Bowling Aalone, might have his objections to this, but I advise him to spend some time in Germany and give it a second thought).
I choose the second reason not because 70% of all American households donate on average $1,800 per year (in Germany, it's $100 at most). It is because of how Americans deal with each other in everyday life. I have never encountered so much politeness and readiness to help as in these five weeks--be this the old black bus driver in downtown New York who spent ten minutes in rush hour traffic assisting a handicapped white woman to get on the bus with her electro cart, or the lady who gave us incorrect walking directions and, realizng this, actually followed us to apologize and then even walked us to our destination, though it was out of her way--I could give numerous examples.
Maybe it’s because of some diffuse heritage from early pioneer days, when we each depended on one other on those precarious treks out West, that make Americans simply care for one another: knowing that one day, I myself might need the help of a stranger. Or maybe it’s a deeper insight, that communities work better and prosper, when we all give our share. Whatever the reasons may be, the past five weeks were like an unexpected and heartily welcome warm rain shower and relief from the European ice box. So let me say “thank you” to my American brethren--and please stay as you are!
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This story was published on November 29, 2005.