Not too long ago, our health-care insurance company sent us an upbeat notice stating that our family was now eligible to fill our prescriptions through mail, a switch that would presumably save them and us some money. We could circumvent the drugstore altogether. This was presented as terrific news. When my husband handed the notice to me, after a quick glance, I dropped the notice as though its paper were laced with carbolic acid and started sputtering. “What? Why?” I demanded. “I don’t want to do this. Why would I ever want to do this?”
Our tiny local pharmacy sits just one-and-a-half city blocks away from our building. That would make it seem like a particularly convenient choice if it were open anything like ordinary hours. Suffice to say it’s not. This drugstore is a family-owned business staffed by helpful and kindly Eastern Europeans with still-thick accents. However hard-working they might be, they nevertheless stop to observe the Sabbath and major Jewish holidays. Also, our local pharmacists want a bit of rest on the weekends. Who doesn’t?
So in addition to closing earlier on Friday evenings, the owners close up shop at 4:00 pm on Saturday and 1:00 pm on Sunday afternoon. When we first moved into our New York neighborhood, I felt almost continuously confounded by this schedule. By the way – just a few blocks further was a national chain drugstore opened 24 hours a day. The staff there was not nearly as personable, though, and I wouldn’t make the trip. Some months ago, when the pharmacy announced it would be moving, I momentarily panicked.
The pharmacy occupied a small storefront already, but it was moving to an even smaller storefront, an empty one a couple of doors down the street. With great determination, they managed to squeeze themselves into that cramped space. Now they offer shoppers miniaturized carts to wind through the newer, narrower aisles. The few folding chairs in the back near the pharmacy are invariably overflowing. You really need to prepare yourself before you pick up your prescription, because there is likely to be a wait. There will be a wait, some friendly conversation, a meritorious diatribe against Medicare, Medicaid, or managed care, entirely sincere commiseration, and then, in all likelihood, additional waiting.
The thought of medication arriving without comment, through the mail, chilled me in my soul. The good-tempered pharmacist works alongside his mother, who is not getting any younger, only nicer as the years go by. Both are exceedingly solicitous after my health, as well as the health of my aging and ailing cat with arthritis and diabetes. When I call to refill my prescription, Mom always asks: “For person or cat?”
Whenever I arrive at the counter sick myself, I get a big dose of sympathy, from Mom and son alike. They’re eager to call my doctor’s office and negotiate with my insurance company, if need be. Just knowing that about the two of them immediately boosts my immune function, because here are people who care – not because I’m their customer (although they certainly appreciate that fact), but because I’m a fellow human being.
In general, I’m not a fan of e-commerce or mail-order. I prefer bricks and mortar and people. After all, I was raised by Mr. Rogers in his television neighborhood – Mr. Rogers, the undercover Presbyterian minister offering the best and biggest childhood religious education around for decades. After his theme song played to its jingling close and Mr. Rogers had changed his shoes, he was perpetually answering that question posed to us in the parable of the Good Samaritan: “Who is my neighbor?”
The owners of my local pharmacy are immigrants, family members, observant Jews, drug experts and business-owners, but they are also my neighbors, and excellent neighbors, at that. These days, do I pay more money to wait longer for my medications than I otherwise would? Absolutely! It’s worth every penny and every single minute. I consider it an investment in the local economy that happens to yield rich dividends.
For several years, I commuted each Sunday from my outer borough to a church that I served in Long Island. One year, I led worship the Sunday after Thanksgiving the same year that a local Wal-Mart employee had been stampeded to death in a Black Friday sale, at one of the massive shopping centers out there amongst the strip malls. We kept that employee and his family in our thoughts and prayers that Sunday, but I persist in remembering him each holiday season, still saddened and sickened by that tragic event.
What do I hope for at the very start this holiday season? Low bargain prices? No. Peace in our time, in our hearts and minds and spirits, in own communities, all across America.
Admittedly, my own call to ministry involves my saving souls, not money. I have little talent for accounting or economizing, as my husband himself will readily attest. Yet it is all too popular, this highly pernicious notion to think that we can “save” money. What on earth are we saving for? It’s hardly worth saving, as Jesus told us time and again in the gospels. Consider this Spiritual Economics 101. Money is merely the currency we have for investing in one another, in our shared values and ideally, in the future of this world. Therein lies our highest hopes.
In the short term, I suppose I could cut personal spending and use my health-dollars to underwrite jobs in a remotely located fulfillment center somewhere. Yet that does not seem a healthy choice for me or for my neighbors, whom I value. We have enough empty storefronts in our neighborhood already; I have no interest in emptying out one more to increase the corporate returns of shareholders who live elsewhere. Our current economic climate gives us a wonderful opportunity to reorder the value we’ve ascribed to everything in our culture. How fortunate for us!
This time, we might actually start to get some of our calculations right. Before I could count on my fingers, I was taught this hand game – familiar, probably, to most of you. Child’s hands clasped: “This is the church.” Index fingers pointing: “This is the steeple.” Thumbs pressed together, pulled apart: “Open the doors!” Happy wriggling: “And see all the people.” My earliest lesson was a subtle one, but it made a tremendous and lasting impression.
As a child, I was taught that sound structures – be they economic, political, religious, societal – exist to shelter people from the harsher elements and bring them together, at last, in joyous coordination. What else could matter nearly as much? Today, you can practice the full-blown adult version of this game at your own church or synagogue or mosque or temple, or perhaps at your local drugstore or neighboring shopkeeper’s another day of the week. On your way inside, pause. Wait a moment. Then open the doors! And see all the people.