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Monday, September 07, 2009

Money In Motion

The other night, I was both bored and restless, and feeling a bit burned out. So I decided to take a long walk with my camera and see if I could find interesting things and/or people to photograph.

Danny: Homeless but productive, cleaning drains keeping the bootyI was one block away from the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia when I came across a group of homeless folks sitting on the sidewalk. One guy was very busy, working very hard scraping dirt from coins and other metallic objects. I stopped and asked him what he was doing. He introduced himself as Danny (pic to the left), and told me that he was recently homeless. He said that he made an arrangements with a friend of his who owns a local laundromat. Danny explained that his friend lets him stop by the laundromat every once in a while and collect whatever he can from the numerous washing machine drains, and Danny can keep whatever he finds. Danny told me that he finds tons of coins, from pennies to quarters, and often finds jewelry and other valuable items. He showed me a clutch of gold necklaces. He let me keep a very worn out penny.

Worn Out PennyAt this point, a small crowd formed around Danny, attracted by the bright flashes from my camera. One passerby asked Danny why he didn't simply wash all the items at once with water. Danny explained that he liked scrapping the coins on the ground. Kept him busy.

After chatting with Danny for a few minutes, I thanked him for his time and for letting me take a few pictures. I then walked over to the Philly Federal Reserve Bank. The bank was advertising a "Money in Motion" exhibit from a large banner at the corner of Arch and 7TH streets. Admission was free.

I was embarrassed for the Bank.

Here we have the most powerful central bank in the world, a bank that has been printing money out of thin air in an effort to "save the American economy," a bank that wants the world to believe that giving money away to people who have amassed much of their obscene wealth by figuring out ways to get very rich without providing useful goods or services, is the best way to extricate America from the Great Recession. I see "Money in Motion" and I think, "Hmmm, our central bank actually wants to show off how it helps the masters of greed who caused the financial crisis get even richer by sucking untold billions from taxpayers pockets. Hmmm...."

Many Americans know that the federal government spent hundreds of billions of dollars to bailout the insurance giant AIG. What many don't know -- because most mainstream media outlets don't want to go there -- is that the investment bank Goldman Sachs got about $12.9 billion from AIG's bailout bundle. Don't believe me? Read about it here. Just as sickening: foreign banks got billions of that bailout cash as well, including Barclays PLC, Societe Generale, and Deutsche Bank. Money in Motion, baby.

The AIG bailout was a crony capitalism, plain and simple. Goldman has never been a vital part of the American financial landscape. Without AIG's bailout money, Goldman would have taken a huge loss, but would have survived. Meanwhile, countless commercial banks, the ones that lend money to businesses and consumers and help keep Americans employed, are still failing at an alarming rate.

A laundromat owner -- someone who makes money by providing a useful service to her community -- lets a homeless guy clean out washing machine drains and keep whatever he finds: that's my idea of money in motion. It's honorable, civilized and far more American than any multi-billion dollar crony bailout.

Here's an idea: why doesn't the Philly Fed Bank open a small office that's open to the street where people like Danny can connect with business owners who are looking for simple services like cleaning laundromat drains or sweeping floors. They could call it the Informal Services Marketplace. Could help a lot of people who can't find work in the formal economy, or people with mental issues who aren't mentally fit enough to hold down a solid job. Criminal background checks would be mandatory, of course.

Homeless in Philadelphia
I'm glad I bumped into Danny that night. It's so easy to feel overwhelmed by an anemic and dwindling income, healthcare inflation and child support payments. It's good to get some real perspective every once in a while. Helps to rejuvenate the entrepreneurial spirit.

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Monday, August 25, 2008

The $4000 "Free" Trip to Paris

My oldest child has retinitis pigmentosa, a degenerative eye disease that slowly erodes her vision. She is now legally blind, but eventually, she will lose all of her sight. Her world will go dark forever, and there’s not a thing I can do about it. Some day, medical science will hopefully find a cure, but until then, we deal with the situation as best as we can.

My daughter has had a fascination with Paris ever since I read the Madeline books to her when she was very, very small. When she got older, she told me quite often that someday she was going to go to Paris. I smiled, but I just kept my thoughts to myself. One day, she came to me and point blank asked me to take her to Paris so she could see the Eiffel Tower before she went blind.

My heart just broke because as a single American mother of 4 children going through a horrific and costly divorce, Paris was just not on my “can do” list. There simply was no way I could even dream of affording such a trip. I tried to do the best I could for her—I got her French lessons and books on Paris. I bought her an Eiffel Tower 3-D puzzle and helped her put it together. I hoped that she might accept this instead of the real deal but all of these things made it actually worse.

I was homeschooling my children at that time and they were attending a local homeschool co-op where I taught. My daughter was taking French lessons there and happened to mention to her teacher that she wanted to go to Paris before she went blind. The teacher had actually lived in Paris and still had contacts there. She didn’t say anything to my daughter or me, but she began to work on that Paris trip.

The group began to do fundraisers and spread the word that they were raising money for a community service project. The project: granting a wish to a handicapped child which would allow her to see Paris before she lost her sight. Our community rallied behind this project and the group collected enough money to send both my child and I to Paris for 2 weeks along with the French teacher as our guide. Another mom in the group agreed to keep my other children for free.

When the French teacher told my daughter and I that we were going to Paris after class one day, my child cried tears of joy. She was SO happy and I simply couldn’t believe it; maybe the world wasn’t such an awful place after all. The teacher bought tickets for the airline as we assumed (wrongly) that my ex would be excited for his child to go to Paris, especially since it was free, and would help in any way he could.

I went to my ex and told him about the trip and asked him to sign the paper for the passport. He refused. I went again and again and went with friends and he still refused. I had my lawyer write his lawyer a letter and they never responded. The Paris trip was approaching.

I know it sounds stupid. I mean, why wouldn’t the man just SIGN the paper and be done with it? To understand that, you’d need to understand a little bit more about the relationship the ex and I had. My ex was a very abusive, controlling man. He also had been diagnosed schizophrenia, borderline personality disorder, and oppositional defiant disorder.

Another thing that happened shortly after I left and filed for divorce was that my daughter had admitted to a counselor that he’d been abusing her during her court ordered visitation. Because of this, he’d lost his visitation privileges for a time. They’d been recently re-instated, but he was furious. He was angry that I’d left him and filed for divorce; he was angry about the abuse charges; and he was mad that we were moving on with our lives without him. We were going to pay for what we’d done to him, and this was the perfect opportunity for him to demand payment.

My lawyer advised me to sue him in court and ask the judge to order him to sign the paper. The only catch—it would cost me $3000. I signed the papers and charged the 3k to my credit card. I remember how angry and embarrassed I felt. I simply couldn’t believe that one nasty man was spoiling this wonderful thing for everyone. Strangers had, out of the kindness of their heart, given of their time and money to make this possible for our child and he was going to spoil that. Another thing, how can you deny your child her wish to see Paris before she went blind, if the trip is FREE? How? He was a cruel, heartless person indeed.

The day of the court hearing arrived and we argued our points in front of the judge. The ex’s lawyer argued that our daughter should not be allowed to go to Paris for a whole bunch of stupid reasons and asked the court to deny my request. My lawyer argued that our daughter should be allowed to go to Paris for a whole bunch of reasons and asked the court to grant me my request. Many of those who had contributed to the wish fund were present observing the court session. They too were shocked that things had gotten to this point.

After a brief recess, the judge agreed to grant me my request. He ordered my ex to sign the passport and allow our daughter to go to France and then the judge left the courtroom. This is when the ex, his sister, and his lawyer made a break for the exit. They had no intentions of obeying the judge’s order.

I lost them in the crowds as the different courts let out. I can not even describe the amount of anger I felt at that point. Well, maybe I could describe it, but my description would be peppered with a lot of not so nice words. I saw that across the hall, the ex had taken the elevator with his lawyer and I ran for the stairway followed by a bunch of the people who had supported me. We ran down the stairs and found…nothing. He and his lawyer were gone. I ran out of the courthouse and there they were, talking in one of the gardens in front of the courthouse. I ran up to them both and they were shocked.

“The judge told you to sign this. Do it now.” His lawyer started to argue that he couldn’t and make a whole bunch of excuses when the rest of the group of my supporters caught up with me. The ex and his lawyer were surrounded by a group of us…all very, very angry.

“Sign it. Or I’ll call the judge and report you to the Bar Association.” His lawyer, seeing we meant business, told him to sign.

The crowds started cheering and the ex and his lawyer left. We walked to the parking garage, and the ex’s sister came out of nowhere and tried to hit me and get the passport paper away from me. My friends helped me to fight her off and we continued walking.

I know, it’s incredible, but it really happened this way.

I expedited the passport application, which cost me several hundred extra dollars, but I did get the passport back in time for the trip. The judge had also ordered that my ex be allowed to contact his child for regular phone calls of 1 hour 3 times per week. It was my job to pay for these expenses too. This cost me several hundred dollars as well.

If my experiences were a commercial, it would read this way:

“Free” trip to Paris for 2: $4000
Knowing that your child has seen the Eiffel Tower before she went blind: PRICELESS

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