The Guy on the Stage with the Quarters in His Pockets

By Joe Pagetta

Back when I was an aspiring singer-songwriter in my late teens and early 20s, I used to take the PATH train from Jersey  City into Greenwich Village in NYC on Monday and Tuesday nights to play open mics.  It’s where I got a good part of my education as a songwriter and performer. Most of the artists were considerably older than me, and occasionally, when I’d get a compliment on a song from a seasoned performer (sometimes with a “how old are you?” questioned attached), I took it as a vote of confidence. One night, the legendary Dave Van Ronk even took the stage. Open mics in NYC at the time where different than the open mics I encountered when I first moved to Nashville.  Here, they were the bottom rung. An attempt to be seen and maybe get a song cut, or be invited back for a showcase.  In NYC, everyone did them as a way to try out new songs and see what everyone else was doing. Or maybe you just wanted to get out and play an old song you hadn’t played in awhile. No pressure to impress.

Who knows why some things stick with you. But one night, during the winter, one guy got up and before he performed, said something about how cold it was outside. He said he always fills up his pockets with quarters on nights like this, so he can hand out a few to the panhandlers and the homeless that he comes across downtown. It was a such a simple statement and it really made an impression on me. One, for what it said about the people that chose to gather at these weeknight open mics, and that I, by default, was choosing to associate with; and two, for how it framed generosity. The money was given with no strings attached – he did not give a stipulation that they use it for food or towards new shoes. He didn’t offer a plan to cure poverty, and he wasn’t making some grand statement about the social contract. He didn’t present it in a way that made those in attendance feel guilty that they didn’t think of carrying some extra change. He just said what he did. And by doing so, said something about himself. It was simple and concise. Appropriately folksy. And I’ve never forgotten it.

When I think about The Big Payback this Tuesday, May 6, I think about that night. One may not seem to have anything to do with the other. The official line on The  Big Payback is “a community-wide online giving day hosted by The Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee on May 6, 2014 that will help Middle Tennessee nonprofits raise much-needed unrestricted dollars and bring awareness to pressing needs in our communities. The way it works is that for 24-hours beginning at 6:00 a.m. on Tuesday, May 6 to 6:00 a.m. on Wednesday, May 7, donors can make gifts to participating nonprofits that are located in or provide services in the 40 counties of Middle Tennessee. Donations will be amplified by incentives, bonuses and additional prizes.”

For the over 500 non-profits participating, NPT included, The Big Payback is a Big Deal. We certainly want to win those incentives, bonuses and additional prizes.  Like everyone else. But if choosing from 525 non-profits makes your head spin, or if you’re waiting for May 6 to give to that one non-profit you always give to, I’d like to suggest you think like that guy with the quarters in his pockets. The Big Payback may potentially be a Big Deal to us, but it doesn’t have to be to you. And by that, I don’t mean, $20 or $50 or $250 doesn’t make a difference to you. I mean, perhaps don’t over think it.

The Big PaybackConsider all the non-profits in Middle Tennessee doing hard and important work in Middle Tennessee in a variety of areas — the arts, social services, health, refugee resettlement, poverty, food, animal welfare and more. Perhaps on May 6, imagine you’re heading to an area where all the non-profits live — on this day — and you’ve put $20 in your virtual pocket. That’s all you’ve got. On your way, you decide to give $5 to the organization that helps teens, another $5 to an organization that helps animals, and maybe $10 to the place that helps survivors of domestic violence get back on their feet.  Perhaps you have more than $20 and want to donate to several other organizations, or maybe you’ve got $100 and there’s one particular non-profit whose work really resonates with you.

Maybe that gentleman on the stage that night in New York City was at one time down on his luck and had to resort to panhandling, and that’s why he puts quarters in his pockets on cold winter nights.  Whatever the reason, he said a lot about himself before he ever strummed a chord.  Perhaps treat The Big Payback as a way to say something about yourself. About what matters to you. You’ll get lots of emails between now and then, and the day of, all of us non-profits wanting you to remember us. A little healthy competition is fun. In the end, though, we all benefit, because in addition to working for non-profits, we’re all citizens of this same great community and all benefit from each other’s work. Just like I, and maybe you now, benefited from the guy on the stage with the quarters in his pockets.


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