Give and take

FI-Joe-PisaniWhen I was growing up, my father always told me there are two kinds of people in the world — the givers and the takers.

It’s better to be a giver, he said, even though takers outnumber givers by five to one. Even worse, he never told me giving is painful and taking can be a lot of fun.

Since then, I’ve concluded there are actually more than two types of people in the world. For example, there are people who slow down when the stoplight turns yellow and there are people who speed up. (The people who slow down cause fewer accidents.) There are people who hold the door for you and people who let it slam in your face.

There are bad guys and good guys, although sometimes they’re not as easy to distinguish as, say, people who like their Thanksgiving turkey dry and people who like it moist. (I prefer dry.) Then there are Democrats and Republicans, who insist they’re different but sometimes I suspect they’re really the same.

But let me get back to the givers and the takers. I always thought our family would have been a lot better off if my father had been more of a taker and less of a giver. We could have been in the fabled “one percent” if he price-gouged and took advantage of people who had a problem. If he had the greed gene, I could retire at 70 instead of planning to do it at 80.

However, he was painfully honest and painfully generous — at least with strangers, as my mother often complained. If someone called him when they were locked out of their house, he was off and running. If the same thing happened to us, we had to crawl in through the bathroom window.

I was reminded of his idiosyncrasies recently while I was going through his papers and found a handwritten letter from 1978 addressed to “Joe (the carpenter)” from a woman in New York City who mailed it to Ferguson Library in Stamford, where he was working on a new addition.

“Dear Joe,

You can imagine how delighted I am with the chair seats on which you did such a masterful job. For years, I held my breath, afraid someone would sit down on one of them and go right through. I could entertain elephants now, my chairs are so sturdy. It was just wonderful of you to do this. In all of New York City, I couldn’t find a place to have this done. In fact, I had no idea where to look. I’m from Kentucky, and as a kid growing up I remember craftsmen who would have been able to do this, but even though New York City is a HUGE city, I never came across one person who could do this.

So, Joe, you can see how grateful I am to you — and Jim — for helping me out. Jim says you won’t let me pay you, but please know that I am deeply indebted to you … and hope from the bottom of my heart that someone does something as lovely for you someday. Thanks so VERY much.

Sincerely, Ruth.”

My father was a talented carpenter who could do masterful repairs and build anything he set his mind to. Whenever someone needed help, he was there and often refused payment. I thought at the time that he was insane. He could have been rich. He could have had a big business, a big house, a big car, a lot of big things. But he was a simple man who got joy from helping others and not from acquiring wealth.

When I was younger I envied men who had all the trappings of worldly success like possessions, power and prestige. They were a stark contrast to my father, who was an ordinary man with one flaw — he was a giver.

Now, somehow, I can’t forget that line in the letter, “Jim says you won’t let me pay you … and I hope from the bottom of my heart that someone does something as lovely for you someday.”

So I guess the old man was right. There are givers and there are takers. Givers are better.


Joe Pisani may be reached at [email protected]

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