“Pay What You Like or Take What You Need”

That is what a small sign says on my table in Union Square in New York. The bigger sign reads “Creative Approaches To What you Have Been Thinking About.” What that means exactly is mysterious. People pay in varying amounts. People pay in non-currency like hugs, art, chopsticks and candy. People don’t pay.

Take what you need…that is where the mystery resides.

I have had a number of people who have pseudo-stalked the table greedily eyeing the money jar waiting for an opportunity to see how they might get the relatively few dollars that happen to be in the jar when they come by. It isn’t a regular occurrence but it does happen.

When I start to see that play out I explain that they need to do the “creative approaches” part in good faith before the variable payment plan can take effect.

Z was no different. His clothing looked like they were picked from a grab bag and they were pretty dirty and so was he. He approached the table while I was working with someone else and asked about the details of how it worked. After I explained it I confirmed that indeed, in theory, he could take all the money after we talked. I clarified for him that the sign says “take what you need” not “take what you want.”

Z stood and hungrily stared at the jar for 10 or 15 minutes until I finished with the woman I was talking with. Then he sat down and told me his story.

Z lives part time in a homeless shelter and wants some creative ideas for getting a job.

He has “millions of ideas” but never gets very far with trying to get them. He said he was interested in helping people. I asked him about volunteering at other shelters with counselors and other conventional modes of aligning your self with job training. But he was dismissive of them and said

The system wasn’t built to let you get out of it that way. depositphotos_6757290-Origami-Dragon

I wondered why Z had so little drive to try to make any of these ideas come to fruition. Z was just venting and I was just listening mostly. It felt like a bit of a therapy inspired punt but I wondered what would come from it –

What was your favorite fairytale or story as a kid?

Z closed his eyes and recalled and then softly and smilingly said

Aw, man, Jack and the Beanstalk

I asked Z if he wanted things to just magically appear in his life – to just throw out the beans of his ideas and they would just be huge in the morning. And as if that was the most obvious thing to say to him Z said

Yeah, that is exactly what I want.

It’s an interesting wish.

So I asked him if money wasn’t an issue what would he really like to be doing. Now up to this point I was taking Z seriously and Z had relaxed a bit and was having a conversation not for the chance at the money but to have the conversation. I only note that because Z’s answer shows how much he had let down his guard and was willing to open up.

Z’s dream job?

I know it sounds crazy but my real dream? To make and sell origami on the street. I know how to make one kind of dragon. But it’s messy. I want to make that dragon better and learn how to make some other shit out of paper.

I was stunned. This was so specific. So unexpected and so honest. And oddly I had a connection to the world of origami. In my youth my younger brother was deeply immersed in the origami universe and hung with and learned from true origami luminaries. I always admired high-end origami and really loved the facility and intelligence my brother applied to his pieces. I will always remember what Akira Yoshizawa said about my brother’s skill upon seeing a ram head that my brother folded:

You breathe life into the paper

For a number of years I volunteered and worked at the Origami-USA conventions. While others folded I dragged chairs around and made coffee and got to know the organizers a bit. These were great people who did anything for someone who loved to fold paper.

All this came back to me in the moment Z mentioned his dream – Michael, Jan, Alice, Jerome, Robert, Tony, Marc and Daniel. I told him that I couldn’t guarantee a job that would work but if he wanted to do origami better and find people who would support him to go to the Origami USA organization on the Upper West Side. I said to him that if he went there with a sincere desire to learn and volunteer that they would likely meet him more than half way. I gave him a name and told him that I trusted him.

Z was stunned – someone had met his dream and offered a clear door to it. It wasn’t a beanstalk but it was pretty good. Z said he would do it but he asked if he could take a dollar to do laundry because he really needed to do it.

I said he could and he took a crumpled dollar bill.

Z thanked me and we shook hands. That was worth a dollar to me.