Tuesday, March 13, 2007

making a deposit at the Bank of Karma

A couple of days ago, while Jesse and I were cooking dinner, I heard a faint knock on our door. It was our neighbor, Mrs. Velasquez. I know her mostly from waiting at the bus stop together and making small talk (always in Spanish). She is an older woman (late 40s to early 50s) from El Salvador. Her kids live in the States too, but her parents and siblings still live in El Salvador. She sends a good portion of her paycheck to help support her family back in El Salvador, especially now that her father has been gravely ill and out of work.

I was surprised to see her when I opened the door. Mostly because she’s never come to visit except for that time we didn’t have air conditioning for two weeks in the middle of last summer. I had left the condo door open so that the cold air from the hallway could cool down our place. She had come in and we bonded over our inability to get management to do anything about our AC. Today, however, was different. She asked me (in Spanish), “I am having some problems and I was hoping you could help me. I need help with a money order.” I didn’t really understand her. Did she need money? She replied, “No, no, I need help with a money order.” I answered, “Oh you need help filling out a money order.” “Yes, yes,” she said, enthusiastically. Of course I’ll help her. At that, she said that she would return with her stuff.

After dinner, Mrs. Velasquez came back. She came in with a plastic bag full of papers and a check book. We sat down at the dinner table and she showed me a letter that she pulled out of the bag. “I have many of these types of letters and I don’t understand what they mean,” she said. I took a look at the letter and it was an angry letter from a lender saying that if she didn’t pay them X amount of money, then they would stick a collection agency on her. I explained this to her. She was confused. “But I’ve been making payments. I don’t understand.” If what she was telling me was true, I didn’t get it either. So, she showed me the check book and asked me to fill out the check with the amount in the letter and she would sign it. I did so and told her, “If you had sent in payments already, you need to talk to your bank to see if those checks had been cashed.” “Ok, ok,” she replied. “Is there someone at the bank that speaks Spanish?” I asked. She said there was. I told her, “You need to call them tomorrow, ok?” Ok, she said.

I addressed the envelope for her (I had to after I saw that her writing was tantamount to chicken scratch). She pulled out another envelope, sealed and containing something, that was addressed to the same lender. Mrs. Velasquez asked me to open it for her. I did and found a check payment inside with an invoice. The payment was due the next day. She had a little freak out in front of me: “Oh no, what should I do know? My payment will be late.” In my calmest voice, I told her, “They’re just asking for their money. All you have to do is give it to them. The worst thing that could happen is that they charge you a late fee.” This seemed to calm her down.

After we were through, she packed up her mess of papers and threw them in the plastic bag again. She turned to me and said, “Thank you so much. You were so helpful. I really appreciate it.” I gave her a short smile and told her, “Don’t forget to mail your payment first thing tomorrow. Call your contact at the lender and tell her your payment is on its way. And call your bank!” “Ok, ok,” she said.

And then I told her, “If you ever need anything, please don’t hesitate to ask.”

As I said good bye to her and walked her out (she kept saying, thank you, which was really sweet), I started thinking, What motivates someone to pick up her whole life and leave her whole family behind simply for the potential of having a better life, especially when you don’t know anyone or the language? I wondered what life would’ve been like had my mom not had my father around to help her adjust to life in the US. And what about the immigrants who come here every day, to work the worst possible jobs in the worst possible conditions? Why do these people fight for the right to live and work here?

I know there’s a greater debate here but I have a lot of respect for these people. Had my mom been alone, maybe she would’ve been like Mrs. Velasquez, relying on the kindness of strangers to get by. Maybe my life would’ve been completely different.

I hope Mrs. Velasquez knows that I’ll always be happy to help her. It’s the least I could do.

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