The Reverse Panhandler of OKC

Doug Eaton, of Oklahoma City, used to be an insurance executive once upon a time. He was other things before and he has been other things since. But all you need to know about him, for the purposes of this story, is how he spent his 65th birthday.

As the milestone approached, Doug found himself feeling very grateful for where he was in life. Married 44 years. Healthy. And lucky: Eight months earlier he’d had a serious motorcycle crash and suffered seven broken ribs and a ruptured spleen and a cut lung. He could so easily have died, but instead he made a full recovery.

So for his birthday, he decided to flip the script on how birthdays are supposed to work. We usually get stuff on our birthday. He thought: not this time.

Doug went to a street corner where panhandlers like to stand. It’s a good spot because the drivers are sitting ducks there, waiting for a long light to turn green so they can merge onto the I-44. Plenty of time to examine their conscious and fish through their pockets.

Doug set up there, holding a sign he’d made. The sign said:

I have a home… and a car…and a job. Do you need a few bucks for some coffee?”

And there he stood handing out five-dollar bills until he ran out of his stash of cash.

People stopped for the light, and they read the sign and laughed, and they rolled down their window, and some of them let Doug hand them money and some didn’t. Some thought it must be a scam, somehow. Or that Doug was just crazy. Quite a few cars came by twice. The first time the driver played like they couldn’t see the sign, got onto the Interstate, mulled over what they’d just seen, got off at the next exit and circled back. Because, you know, free money. Whatever kind of man-bites dog story was going on here, this was definitely the most interesting thing that was going to happen to them today.

One vehicle that u-turned was an old pickup with two women and a daughter in it, the back loaded down with what was obviously all their earthly possessions. They’d shot through in the middle lane the first time, but on this second pass they were in the curb lane. The driver rolled down her window. “We talked about this,” she said, “and we want to give you money so you can give it to somebody else.” They came up with three dollars between them. Doug said, “thank you, I accept.” Then he handed them back fifteen. “Now we’re all square.”

Doug hadn’t told anyone he was doing this, but someone who spotted him had a contact at a local TV station, OKC Channel 4. They sent a reporter. The story got out.

And that’s how I heard it. I was working on the Olga book at the time, and I shared the story with her, and she was totally taken with it. “You know,” Olga said, “you’re writing this book about what people can do to slow the aging process. But so much of aging well isn’t about what we do, it’s about how we think.” What this guy’s doing, she said, is actually just the logical evolution of our consciousness. “Does it make sense to keep acquiring things we’re not going to use much or even enjoy?” We need to sort of ‘de-acquire’ things as we get older. “If you can get a laugh in the bargain, then, my friend, you have cracked the code.”

I liked that. So I put him in the book. Doug Eaton, the Reverse Panhandler of Oklahoma City.

Last week I realized it’s been almost ten years since Doug’s Big flip-the-script Day. We’re coming up on his seventy-fifth birthday. I wondered whether he had an encore up his sleeve.

He told me he’s been thinking about it. Hatching something that “will get people’s attention and give them permission to do something similar.”

But he also filled me in on some things I didn’t know about that original experiment back in 2012.

I’d asked if the reaction he got was all positive. “It was mostly positive,” he said. But there was this one guy.

He was one of the drivers who’d circled back.

He noticed there was a pretty nice car — Audi A4 cabriolet — parked all by itself nearby, and surmised it must be Doug’s.

This fellow rolled down his window, fixed Doug with a stare and said, finally: “What are you doin’, man? I mean, What. Are. You. Doing?” Are you trying to make fun of the people who really are struggling to make ends meet?”

“No,” Doug said. “I’m just trying to do something special on my 65th birthday.”

That was it, the guy sped off, leaving Doug literally in his dust. And making his life more complicated.

It’s always a little bit bogus to lay down a causal chain of events after the fact. To say that this happened because that happened. But the fact that Doug so readily recalled the guy who so pointedly questioned his experiment, who proposed that when a well-off-guy hands out five dollar bills for a day, maybe it’s really about the well-off guy trying to make himself feel good, that suggests to me that the doubter was at least a factor in what Doug did next.

He upped the anti on his charitable impulses, big-time.

He and his wife Margaret moved to Swaziland (now Eswatini), to do mission work. They helped build a couple of preschools, refurbish a hospital. When the pandemic hit, they moved back stateside. Then they learned that a dear friend back in Africa, one of the bus drivers, had died of Covid. He was 36. He left his young wife who was pregnant with their third child. Doug wanted to help her.

Through his Facebook page he raised around 16K. “But it’s tricky,” he says. “In America, through the nonprofit rules, you can’t just target a single person and give them money.” So he created a foundation, called SeaStar Initiatives.

“The name comes from that old story,” Doug said. “An old guy and a boy are walking along the beach, and the little boy says, ‘Hey, look, what’s on the sand up there?!’ The old man says, ‘Well, there’s something that happens every once in awhile where the starfish get caught up on the beach.’ So the little boy runs up and starts throwing them back in. And the old man says, ‘You know, you’re wasting your time, there are thousands and thousands of them, you really can’t make a difference.’ And the kid throws one in and says, ‘Made a difference to that one.’

Doug and Margaret are heading back to Africa in June.

So there it is, the true eventual story of the Reverse Panhandler of Oklahoma City. If it has a moral, it’s this:

Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.

And that, whatever it amounts to, will be enough.

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