Amazing what you see when you 'pay attention'

Opinion: Arlene Jones

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By Arlene Jones

Columnist

If there is a mantra that all of Chicago — and especially those of us in Black Chicago — need to keep in the forefront of our minds, it should be the words: Pay Attention. I know sometimes we get so caught up in our lives that we fail to see what's going on. But when something catches my attention, I do think about it and more often than not, share it with you via this column.

Last Saturday afternoon, I stopped and spoke with some guys who hustle for a living. They sell oils, T-shirts, pictures and all sorts of paraphernalia. The eek out a living, but they aren't doing any harm. They don't sell drugs, loose cigarettes or alcohol. As we stood around shivering in the cold because there were few takers that day, a huge truck pulled up. At first we thought the two white guys in the truck were going to set up a stand to sell mattresses. But that wasn't the case. They were there to empty the "clothes and shoes" bin they had dropped off on the lot days before.

I watched as they opened up the wood bin and took at least 15 black bags filled with clothes and shoes out of the box. After re-securing the box, they drove off laughing and waving at me and my two friends as we stood in the bitter cold. I didn't laugh back or even wave because I immediately knew what was funny to them. As my friends stood outside hustling to make a dime, they had just picked up several hundred dollars worth of donated goods that they would sell to recyclers to make their money. Their laughter let me know what a bunch of chumps we were.

Now here's a photo of that box. I'm sure many of you have seen them all over the place. In fact, I had a young girl tell me how her grandma had put about 50 bags of clothes in one of those boxes on North Avenue.

I wonder how many of us have "paid attention" to what is done with used clothing. Far too many of us don't "pay attention" and thus are unaware of the huge market for your old clothes. As an example, jeans are bundled up and sent to Third World countries where your donated jeans are sold for a tidy profit.

Can those jeans make someone rich? Yes, they can. How? Well, let's say those 50 bags of donated clothing were nothing but jeans and each bag held 30 pairs of jeans. The jeans are then sold in Africa at $5 a pair. So we have 30 jeans times 50 bags times $5 a pair or $7,500.

If we subtract out the shipping cost, which amounts to about $1 a pair, your donation still netted the owner of that box $6,600. Now if he has 100 boxes all over the West Side, that amounts to more than half a million dollars. All because of not "paying attention" and our willingness to give away things we no longer want. If the donations are similar all over the city, why that can equal $2 million a month, all from folks who didn't "pay attention" and just gave their clothes away.

Yes, Goodwill and the Salvation Army do the same thing. Those two conspirators sell a lot of the clothes they get, but at least they have outreach programs that help the sick, shut-ins, disabled and elderly.

The owners of boxes like the one above only do it to make their money. No wonder the guys in that truck were laughing at us.

We failed to "pay attention."

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