Thursday, July 25, 2013

Real Talk With Rachel: A Superstorm Dilemma

Dear Readers,

You never know when a column will prompt a flurry of responses. So imagine my surprise last week upon receiving so many thoughtful notes about the letter, especially seeing all of the different ways you all interpreted the advice-seeker and my response.

To jog your memory, someone wrote in regarding an interaction in a grocery store. The letter-writer handed the clerk a $20 bill, which she promptly refused because the “God” in the “In God We Trust” was crossed out. The clerk called it an affront to God. The letter-writer, an atheist, just fished a different bill out of his wallet and finished his purchase. But the moment stayed with him, and he asked me whether he should have been more assertive in demanding that the clerk take the bill.

I advised him to let it go. Sure, he was right about the legal tender and all, but it wasn’t worth picking a fight when he had other bills so readily available.

Interestingly, many responses to last week’s column inquired about my own religious leanings, and there were incredibly divergent interpretations. Others applauded my sticking up for the supermarket clerk and her beliefs.

I’d like to say this in response -- I would advise the clerk the exact same thing I advised the letter writer -- don't sweat the small stuff. Money passes hands all the time -- what are the chances that the person with the $20 bill actually made the scribble? I like to think that God would be forgiving enough to let something like that slide. Regardless of what we believe in terms of a higher being, it’s important to acknowledge those glimmers of the divine in one another and try to extend whatever empathy and playfulness we have to share.

And now, onto a case of missing empathy!

Dear Rachel,

My cousin opened a thrift store in New York City with a few business partners. After Hurricane Sandy, there were a lot (a whole lot) of clothes that had been donated that places like the Red Cross didn’t accept. All of these clothes would have been thrown away but my cousin and some others decided to take them instead. Now they have a business thanks to it.

It makes me feel uncomfortable that all of these people gave away clothes thinking that they were helping people, but then just ended up being the start of my cousin’s business. What should I do?

Raggedy Relative

Dear Raggedy Relative,

All of the clothing donors certainly helped someone out when they gave away their old shirts and shorts -- they unwittingly provided the capital for your cousin’s new small business.

A couple of things strike me here. The first is that the clothing would have been thrown away if not for your cousin’s entrepreneurial streak. This is essentially a victimless crime. If anything, building a new business with potential employment opportunities could end up as a net-positive for the community.

But I can see why this venture emanates with “ick-factor.” There’s something unseemly about profiting off of disaster. Is that knee-jerk reaction enough to place a pox on this house of second-hand merchandise?

Perhaps probing the intent of why people donate clothes could be helpful. Certainly, in moments of crisis like Hurricane Sandy, people are thinking that their overalls and button-downs might be useful to those who have lost their own. It’s more abstract than that, though. It’s this sense that we can help, that something of ours is better off in the hands of someone else.

Your cousin’s business venture shows this to be true. It is also unquestionably benefiting from the kindness of others. So in my mind, the best way to deal with that truth is to let it guide the thrift shop. Tell your cousin that the store should make sure that it has donation boxes for clothes. It should raise money for Sandy victims, many of whom are still without homes and other necessities. And, it should try and create good jobs for people who were affected by the storm.

This store can honor its strange and somehow sordid beginnings by being a source of the same kindness that allowed for its grand opening.

All my best,



Rachel Kurzius revels in giving advice, and has provided counsel both as a columnist and a friend. She lives in Washington DC, where she works as a news producer. Real Talk with Rachel is published on All Life is Local and the Cleveland Park Listserv,, on Wednesdays. Need advice? You can write to Rachel via or advice @


  1. What a lovely answer.

  2. Rachel,

    You give some really great answers/advice in your column, but your answer to this week's query is my new top favorite, ever! <3

  3. Thanks for the feedback and kind words. Much appreciated!