A couple of weekends ago I pulled out one of the old suits and accompanied my wife, who is a VP for United Way, to a gala benefit dinner for a local nonprofit. I hadn’t been to one of these dinners in almost a year. I used to attend them on a fairly regular basis when I owned a small business.
More than a thousand people crammed the ballroom. And not just any people. I feel comfortable saying a substantial percentage of Detroit’s richest were in that room. After dinner, they began an “auction” that offered no prizes. Just give us the cash, they said, and we expect everyone to participate. The opening bid was set at $50,000, and they worked it down (thank goodness) from there. Get your paddles ready.
The event honored the nonprofit’s founder, who had recently passed away, and soon became more of a revival meeting than a fundraiser. Gospel singers, tearful testimonials from corporate officers and the charity’s clients, hand holding, giveaway pens with lights at the ends that we all waved like teens at a rock concert, and pressure, pressure, pressure to give, give, give. Until it hurts. Because the poor folk whom you would never deign to talk to in your daily lives need it. Because our dear, departed Eleanor expects it.
Apart from massaging the bruise in my wallet, I spent much of my time not getting caught up in the fervor, and instead thinking about the writer’s role in philanthropy and society in general. Why didn’t I become wrapped up in the emotion of the evening, or the one-upmanship of live video check writing? The nonprofit does valuable work with young people, and yes, there is a part of me that aches to join the euphoria, and be accepted into this little world of good feelings. But I couldn’t. I saw the money flowing, and yet I knew that at least half the people in the room live in places where if they saw the people they’re supposedly helping coming up their driveways, they’d call the cops. I knew the event was about creating a heartwarming façade to cover the wealth and greed that keeps this once great city divided, and being able to give more than the couple on the other side of the table and about doing it in front of that live video feed.
So I remained outside. I am a writer, and my role, as distasteful as it may sound to some, is to observe (although I do plenty of volunteering for programs that promote writing, if that helps) and write about what I experience in a way that subtly illustrates the way things really work. Because my fiction is committed to an impartial truth. (And fiction tells a hell of a lot more truth than journalism, baby.) Because writers are our conscience—sometimes suppressed, and always nagging.
Sorry to be so heavy this week, but stuff like this bothers me.