Maybe You Don’t Want Me Back

 

IMG_6399For being a coastal state that believes so strongly in flip flops, not enough Californians believe in pedicures. I’ve yet to figure out the 405’s mood swings or how to properly hydrate for an expedition across the traffic of the freeways without needing to find a Starbucks restroom. I’m getting excited over finding a $12 tub of laundry detergent that can do 205 loads, checking the physical mailbox every morning, receiving the orange-wrapped LA Times Sunday paper (with coupons!), and making trips to the grocery stores. That last one could be an occupational hazard; what can I say, I was born to discover food.

As a kid, I could not grasp why we had to spend all day in the kitchen sections of department stores. My parents would peruse the shelves of pans and pressure cookers with awe (another clue to our future in retail). After spending 35 minutes in Target looking for a food processor because I got tired of washing garbanzo beans out of the Vitamix blender whenever I make hummus, I understand the obsession. Maybe it’s genetic but apparently, I have an affinity for small cast-iron skillets.

Without noticing, I’ve been away in LA for a month.

I feel like Aziz Ansari’s Master of None character, Dev, who went to Modena, a small town in Italy, to learn how to make pasta except I’m in Simi, a suburb of Los Angeles, learning how to make kibbeh. And then, I read the stories coming out of little Beirut: Roy Hamouche’s death, the Nader Saab scandal, female protesters being beaten by the army, the new electoral law, talks of enforcing the death penalty, the death of the environment.

 

In all that darkness, the light that emerges comes in the form of Cannes wins for a Leo Burnett campaign that was fighting Article 522. The irony that the only positive I see is that of raising awareness of our own country’s shortcomings is not lost on me. This is the point though: the pushbacks are the only positives. Even Facebook pictures of the latest night at Decks on the Beach don’t evoke any FOMO but rather, an eye roll. The positives are not the parties, the Jounieh fireworks, or the wineries, they’re the baby steps made to pull us out of the drudgery.

I don’t want to be an expat that takes a figurative shit on Beirut just because I’ve left it. However, in the last few years, I’ve seen even the hardcore believers in a better Lebanon start to buckle under the weight of the place that doesn’t want to climb out of the sewage-ridden gutter. I’d like to think that getting older has a lot to do with that because time becomes a main concern. The time you’ve invested in trying to wade through the trash-infested waters and the time you’ve got ahead that seems more fragile than when you were a fresh AUB grad. Priorities shift to the concrete: making a stable living, creating a safe home for your parents and future family, and, at the simplest level, being happy with what that home can give you. The more time you put into Beirut as you mature into a somewhat stunted adult due to a comfortably sheltered existence, the more you are drained and left to question: can I build my life, one like the one my parents provided for me, here? More importantly, should I?

 

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 Netflix – Master of None Season 2, Episode 9

Marie-Rose Osta’s short film, Status Quo, made it into the LA Film Festival. Considering what a moment that is to a young, aspiring Lebanese filmmaker, the US embassy felt it was not necessary for her to attend and rejected her visa. Her short was a vignette focusing on the absurdity of the Lebanese and their surroundings. While the TV is reporting ISIS border incidents and actual threats, her oblivious characters focus on the trivial worries of typical Lebanese daily life like a cockroach in the bathroom that is lit by a flashlight because the power is out. Pointless arguments between the lovers are illuminated by the TV screen’s light as the audio continues to drone on as background noise becoming just a hum. If it weren’t for the subtitles, I wouldn’t have paid attention to the juxtaposition at all. How true to reality is that? When I was speaking to her about my impression of the film, she told me that foreigners picked up on the dramatic insight more than the Lebanese viewers that it was based on. Foreigners see it because the fear that is a cast member for us is a cameo in the sitcom that is their life. It’s still palpable to them while we are so numb to our status quo that we don’t even see it when watching it unravel on screen.

If you’ve left, it means you’re fortunate enough to have that option but it also means you’re fed up. For me, it means I’m a little heartbroken. There is guilt for walking away from someone you love, like you’re abandoning them when they need you but their uncertain salvation is only done by dragging you down too. Leaving is a gross, reluctant form of self-preservation. My expat friends and the last ones still standing on Lebanese soil, who are planning their subsequent moves in the next 18 months, have all said different versions of the same thing: Lebanon is home but I can’t be there anymore. The only thing that brings me back is my parents.

It’s true, the formidable pull for me is the parental unit especially when I imagine dadboss as Atlas, cradling the Wesley’s world on his shoulders. Everything else does not seem worthy or permanent.

I attended a friend’s family iftar a few weeks back and it was like being inside a Lebanese enclave in the heart of SoCal. It started to feel like you could have that dose of home while still being in a society that was made up of humans of all shades, without the accompanying condescension that comes from growing up in a homogenous village by the Mediterranean. America has its fair share of racism but at least here, there is a spectrum of people.

It could be the current sociopolitical climate but there is something about being in the US that makes you want to either assert your ethnicity or completely ignore it. Beirut, I may be making my own labneh, hanging a map of you above my bed, and playing Arabic songs for my American relatives but those are signs of gratitude for how you’ve shaped me. Like every love that comes into my life, you’ve left your imprint on who I am but I’m on the other side of the earth and I don’t miss you the way I thought I would.

As much as I love you, maybe you don’t care.
Maybe convincing myself of that is my way of coping with this sense of betrayal for wanting to stay away.

Maybe you don’t want me back,
maybe I don’t either,
maybe that’s okay.

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My Interview with US Homeland Security

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A week ago, after being searched in CDG Paris before boarding, my sister and I were picked up upon exiting the aircraft in LAX by two border patrol cops. I thought, Excellent, we get to skip the lines! as they walked us through immigration. But it didn’t end there.

I asked them why we were getting a police escort to the baggage conveyors. “Oh, we’re just going to conduct an interview once you get your bags.” Riiiiight. I tried connecting to the airport wifi so I could notify my aunt that, after our flight already being delayed 2.5 hours in Paris, we might be with the Customs and Border Protection (CBP) for a while. It didn’t connect.

After collecting our suitcases, we were taken to a back area of baggage claim where our bags were searched, we were questioned, and our devices were confiscated.

“Could you just write your passcodes here please?”

I asked if that was legal, implied that being this invasive was a violation of our rights, and mentioned that we were citizens. “Yeah, we’re not regular cops, we’re border control cops.” Whatever that means.

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He gave me a leaflet about how they were allowed to take, copy, and keep all devices if necessary. Cop says, “it’s been like this forever.” “But we didn’t have our entire lives on our phones since forever,” I retort. I remembered the story about the NASA engineer and Rebecca Solnit posting about this happening but the legality of it all is a bit sketchy. You’re a citizen but you’re on the border so the Fourth Amendment – the right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures – doesn’t apply 100% when within 100 miles of the US border.

Moxy*, the Filipino border control cop who felt like my friend after a 2-hour interrogation, says, he “eats too much rice” and is dabbling in a little landscape photography. As he goes through my suitcases, I explain what the jars of labneh and zaatar are, why I have so many books, and “yes, that’s Lebanese wine” as he peaks into a Wesley’s bag. He asks me about my Wacom tablet and we compare notes about which is the best one to buy. My sister, a nutrition student, gives him tips on how to stay healthy and tells him how she used to be a vegan extremist. The normalcy of our interaction gets interrupted by moments like having a police-escort to go pee, not being able to contact my aunt who’s still waiting outside cluelessly, and being told that my airport-bought cantaloupe needs to be incinerated.

I asked, “is this a Trump thing?” while we waited for our devices to return from a back room. Moxy has been at his post for 5 years and says it’s always been this way. Indeed, upon further digging now, it seems that this has been allowed since the Bush administration. Read more about this loophole and the legislation that conveniently passed quietly in 2013 herehere, and here.

They seemed surprised that my sister and I were so cooperative. Apparently, most who are stopped give them a hard time. “How weird, that after +20 hours on a flight here, they’d be assholes to you guys for keeping them from going into their own country. It’s been a long flight over, just ask whatever you want,” I said with a smile.  In these moments after a transatlantic voyage, you either lack patience or energy. Given my experience with these situations, being polite with a little sass has a greater impact in getting your point across than if you were to be plain aggressive.

I slipped in a few jabs (or latchet as we say in Arabic) when I could so that Moxy understood that we were seasoned at this search process and we didn’t appreciate being treated like terrorists in our own home state. I told him that this has happened before, that I get “randomly selected” and “interviewed” upon arrival AND departure from NYC or LA whenever I’m in town even though all I do is sell Oreos for a living, that now it actually feels odd when I don’t get stopped or marked with a giant X. I told him that their teams need to communicate better so I don’t have to keep telling my life story at every airport. He laughed and filled me in on this service which is your way of being proactive to you being prone to searches: DHS TRIP.

“Isn’t that like flagging myself FOR the system?” to which he replied, “well, you know you’re getting stopped anyway so you might as well do something about it.”
Good point, my man.

According to the leaflet Moxy gave me, DHS TRIP (or Department of Homeland Security’s Travel Redress Inquiry Program) “provides a single portal for travelers to seek redress for adverse screening experiences and to resolve possible watch list misidentification issues.” Unfortunately, it also says that, “individuals who receive redress through DHS TRIP may still be referred for additional screening for unrelated reasons in the future.” Hmmm.

They asked about our social media presence. When I mentioned my blog, he asked what I blog about. “You know, my life. This will probably be on there in a few days if I ever get my computer back.”
“Yeah? If you have beautiful readers, mention that I’m single,” says Moxy with a chuckle. I tell him that, since he already has my info, he should email me his photo so I can do a full profile. Business opportunity! A Tinder for border control cops in which I do the first screening interview myself.

When I got my computers, camera, and phone back, it was clear that they had probably downloaded its contents because I had an additional phonebook’s worth of Ethiopian numbers in my contacts. Jeez, if you’re going to steal my info, at least do it right. Now I know that if my iPhone is ever on the fritz, I have another backup synced at LAX.

To all those flying in the US soon, log out of your social media accounts and your email on all devices before boarding. Whatsapp conversations could be tricky – you can backup the chat history, delete the app, and redownload upon arrival. This may all be futile but try to carry as little data or access to it as possible. Most importantly, know your rights as a citizen or noncitizen entering the States.

Despite the annoyance at being delayed for no reason, Moxy’s upbeat, humble attitude and relaxed friendliness made the 2 hours easier to endure.

Moxy: I’ve got bad news *dramatic pause* You guys get to leave me now, you’re good to go
My sister: OH GOD, I thought you were going to send us back to where we came from!
Me: Which is here, technically.

We all laughed as my sister said, “see you next year!”
It’s always a pleasure feeling like a criminal in your own country. And they wonder why Beirut feels more like home to me.


*Name has been changed

Back in California: Where is My Life Going?

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I feel like I have more headspace while in sunny SoCal. The 10-hour time difference gives me enough quiet minutes to get my to-do list in order while dadboss is snoring in another hemisphere. I don’t have many friends left here so there are less temptations and I’m not a tourist so there’s no major itinerary to follow besides work-related supplier visits. Books and sunshine are my main distractions. However, having so many tete-a-tetes with your own tete makes the content all the more daunting. This self-reflection, this attempt to answer the everlasting question of should I stay or should I go, this search for the cure of stunted adulthood – it can be overwhelming when you’re one year away from that 4-year reevaluation that just so happens to fall on my 30th year of life.

I love being here and it’s not just for the donuts. I love that my thoughts have room to expand like a soap bubble and pop when they’re done. There is no annoying toddler in the form of Lebanese inconveniences coming in to poke the bubble forcing its premature death. To be fair, that may have more to do with the distance from daily life than it does with the California weather and temperament.

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Am I the only one that thinks, okay, I’ll figure this all out when I’m away for a few weeks? As if being detached from your own reality will give you clarity to work out the kinks in your life plan. You look back at home and think, is this where you want to be/are you maximizing your potential/are you meeting the right person/is this it for me/are you okay with it if it is? It would be wonderful if the answers to those questions came in black & white but it feels like gray comes in more than 50 shades. I’m sorry I used that. Won’t happen again.

When I’m away, Beirut is on my mind and when I’m home, I’m looking abroad. Not in the grass-is-greener way but in the am-I-settling way. Being young and untethered, restless and ambitious, hungry and responsible. All these adjectives lead to one: conflicted.

“Small goals.” After a talk with a friend in London who recently had a break from life to figure out life, he said it. Small goals will take some of the pressure off. Baby steps toward moving forward on a personal level so you feel that even if you’re not on the express train, you’re still not stagnant.

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And it’s about the little things. Reading in the backyard. Getting just the right amount of milk in your coffee. Finding that Yeezus shirt on Amazon. Tacos & dancing nights with your homies. Maybe the future needs to stay in the future since we all don’t know what’s ahead, how to get there, or even where we need to go. Or maybe I’m still jet lagged and a reflection session will hit me in the afternoon. At this point, all I can hope for is another good coffee and a good book to go with it.

El-Tanein Diet Week #33, #34, and #35

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This post comprises weeks where I was in Beirut & LA. It includes more burgers than runs and workouts but I promised to report. It’ll be short post, despite being a 3-week compilation, because I’m jet lagged.


Workout Tally

– (3) 5 km runs

Outdoor Activity

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2/3 of my runs these weeks were outdoor runs around Californian suburbia. The contrast between the greenery of the residential areas in California and the outdoor runs of Beirut’s concrete jungle. The dose of green makes the time outdoors so soothing even though you’re a sweaty mess. I should give Horsh Beirut a try on a sunny Saturday soon.

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Best Meal(s) of the Week(s)

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I had some great meals in Las Vegas which I’ll be posting about separately in the next few days but In-n-Out wins for ETD across the board. I consider it an achievement that I only hit it twice in 19 days.

Other Highlights

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Charity Miles: This app allows you to run miles that correspond to donations for multiple charities. I haven’t tried using it in Lebanon yet but that’ll be a test for week #36.

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The Broad Museum: Pronounced like “brode,” the Broad is a new contemporary art museum in downtown LA located between the Disney Concert Hall and the MOCA. Its entrance is free but you can pre-book tickets to skip the line. It’s currently got Yayoi’s Infinity Room as a special exhibit which I skipped. I didn’t want to wait in line for another hour to get a selfie that everyone has. Yes, I regret it.

Good Impressions of Beirut: I was networking at some work events and was pleasantly surprised to find that a lot of Americans had been to Beirut (and other parts of Lebanon). I’d been so used to meeting people who didn’t know it was a capital in the Middle East so this was refreshing to see. Even with those who had had their hearts broken by Lebanese folk, there were good memories associated with our little country. The worst part was that a follow-up question to “do you like living there?” tended to be, “so how’s the garbage thing going?” Sigh.

Workout Track of the Week(s)

Tell JK that I’m still rooooollin. That beat tho.

Cheese of the Week(s)

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Brie & mushroom sourdough burger at Mimi’s Cafe was my last meal in ‘Murica. Worth it.

Big Questions in Brooklyn

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Being in New York City can make you feel small. And when you’re arriving from a dot on the map, it can make you feel like a speck of dust in a sandstorm. It was the first time that I stopped to think, not only about all that has happened to me in the last few years, but also where I may be heading in the ones to come. Turns out, I didn’t want to wait another 3 years to reevaluate – by then, it would be too late.

Spending a week in NYC was more of an investigative trip. I wanted to see if it could be a new frontier, the next step that would shove me out of my comfort zone and teach me more about who I am. The more I thought this way, the more I felt like a high school senior in need of a gap year, a lost guppy who wanted to find herself or was on some journey of self-discovery, a walking millennial cliche. Basically, I felt like a spoiled brat because I wanted more when I was and am already quite fortunate.

Honestly, only those who are blessed enough to have options at their fingertips have the luxury to think this way. When you are tied down with responsibilities and bills to pay, the path in front of you has limitations. But when you’re not surrounded by commitments that dictate your decisions, you only have you to answer to. The possibilities are overwhelming and have never been more daunting. It brings on inner monologues and sidewalk soliloquies that have your brain pondering things like What am I really doing? Why am I restless after 3 years at the region’s best agency? Am I satisfied with where my life is now? And if not, why am I wasting time being stuck? But where do I go?

If I were to move to NYC, or move anywhere that wasn’t my dear Lebanon, would I survive it? Am I as strong as I think I am? Like many people who were strolling the streets of Brooklyn, I found that I was having discussions with myself out loud; I was asking the big questions that come with being in a big city. Am I doing everything in my power to make sure the life I want will come to be? What is the life I want?

My closest friends are all abroad and the days are numbered when it comes to those who are still here. Most of my phone contacts have country acronyms next to their names because they’re abroad trying to make something of themselves. Am I selling myself short by staying behind? Is there more for me out there? In a country that can be so much but give so little, I am finding it increasingly difficult to pass up opportunities that would empower me as a young professional, experiences that would equip me with new skills, and chances that would expose me to hidden facets of myself I have yet to know. Can Lebanon give me that? Am I still betraying my country if I want more for myself? If I stay but don’t move forward, who am I really helping? In the end, wasted potential serves no one.

I’m grateful I don’t have parents that poke and prod about when I’m going to walk down the aisle or make them grandparents. Instead they entertain the same questions that I struggle with. My dad recently asked me if I ever give any thought to where my personal life is at. I think he worries that he instilled in me such a spirit of ambition that my careerist ways have backfired. Regardless of whether it shows or not, I do think about it. Even more now that I have entered Wedding Territory. For the next 5-7 years of my life, I will have, on average, 3 engagements/weddings to attend annually. Not out of desperation, lack of self-esteem, or fear of becoming a cat lady, but this brings on big questions as well: Will I find that person? Would I notice them if I did? Have we already met? What am I missing? and then the worst one of all: Is something wrong with me? 

If I were to move to NYC, or any other city that disconnects me from the world I’ve known for so long, would I become more guarded than I already am? Would I be so good at surviving that I become too strong? Would I be lonely? Will I miss out on special milestones for the sake of my own selfish drive? Does going solo really matter if it means you’re sacrificing moments with the ones you care about the most? If I leave, dad won’t be around to make Spanish omelettes with Kalamata olives on Sunday mornings. If I stay, I’ll never make them for myself. There’s always a fine line when trying to decide what’s best for you. In the Arab world, sometimes you have to cut the cord yourself.

I resigned from my job before boarding my flight to the States. A week after landing, as I stood on the edge of East River Park looking at the Manhattan skyline on my last morning in Brooklyn, a small voice asked, will Beirut be okay without me?

I know I want to find out.

Mistakes Made in NYC

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    • Buy a SIM card from a vending machine in JFK. T-Mobile, why no stand at the airport? How are there no telecom providers there? What’s a payphone?
    • Pay for individual metro rides. Get the unlimited 7-day card for $32 and take all the wrong trains you want, no penalties for being a semi-tourist except lost time.
    • Fail to invent an app that tells you where there are clean public bathrooms and charging stations. Every traveler’s two worst enemies are iPhone batteries and bladders. With that said, thank you Starbucks for your $7 blattery break. Get the powerbank from all those techie shops in Duty Free.
    • Assume that Airbnb hosts will have towels available because it’s basically like a hotel with a stove, right? Go buy $5 bath towels from a dollar shop around the corner. Proceed to have pink fuzz everywhere after every shower. It’s been 3 days since I returned and I still feel like a molting Furby.
    • Allow eternally lost friend to navigate. Instead of ending up at Century 21, the discount hotspot by the Empire Hotel, you end up near a Century 21 real estate office in Soho.
    • Attend Sleep No More while suffering from respiratory allergies. Although one of the most intriguing experiences and my first at interactive theatre, running up and down staircases through creepy sets with a mask on when you can’t breathe is a whole new level of nightmare. Note to self: bring tissue and a snorkel next time.
    • Eat breakfast before going to Smorgasburg. That’s just wasted space. Especially when you’re going to be stocking up on 18-hr cooked bbq beef burgers, ramen burgers, nutella banana wontons, and truffle fries. And maple lemonade. And cheese curds. And Pepto-Bismol.
    • Eat everything and justify it by saying “well, you ARE walking a lot here.” You are not Forrest Gumping through the Meatpacking District, you’re packing meat through all the districts. No, I don’t mean like that, perv.
    • Wait too long for a table at Spotted Pig in Greenwich without taking photos of the movie-set neighborhood streets because, if you walk away, you might miss Kanye walking in. Forget to ask for your burger without Roquefort cheese because you’re so hungry you didn’t even read the menu, you just said “burger, medium well” and started counting pig statues. Miss the train back to Brooklyn for the Mast Brothers Chocolate Factory Tour. Go home to slip into food coma.
    • Wear the right shoes with the wrong socks and bleed on your Nikes. Use this as a completely illogical excuse to buy a new pair and go to Lady Foot Locker when you know sneakers are your Louboutins. If you find yourself agreeing with the saleslady when she says, “you can never have too many Nikes,” you need to get out. ABORT MISSION.
    • After realizing you are part of the first two cult followings of America (Starbucks and Apple), contemplate joining the 3rd: Abercrombie & Fitch. Realize you don’t like smelling like a junior prom queen or lining up to use a flashlight to shop for hoodies. I can do both by rummaging through my own garage.
    • Pass up on a bottle of chili oil honey from Roberta’s because you got take-out since there was a wait of an hour and fifteen minutes and you didn’t want to buy it before trying the Beesting Pizza. You thought something called “chili honey oil” could actually taste bad. Fool.
    • Leave ribs on your plate at Hillstone because you’re full. You could’ve taken 4 more, weakling.
    • Going to Fuerza Bruta after ingesting half of NYC. I am a slug in human form.
    • Only spending 10 minutes at Grand Central Station and 30 in Dumbo. What are you even doing underground on the subway where you see nothing but people using the earphone protective forcefield? Swim to Brooklyn.
    • Wait for someone to ask where you’re from. Walk around with “I’m from Beirut” written on your face because people will either think you’re:
      a) a good businessperson
      b) friendly unlike the “dry Americans” and give you hugs goodbye
      c) from a place they’ve never heard of and, thus, you are exotic or a terrorist
      d) just sooo gorgeous.Upon revealing my nationality, an Ivory Coast cabbie immediately felt a connection because our countries were both occupied by the French, a Yugoslavian mother told me her life story within 12 minutes of meeting, a Turkish shop owner gave me free postcards & stickers, and a Puerto Rican gay man named Carlos said I was the Regina George of New York. WIN.
    • Send a picture of your vegan doughnut to your vegan sister. Have her jealous vibes send your cappuccino flying into your lap. Plus side is smelling like doughnut glaze all day.
    • Introduce yourself using Arabic pronunciation. Adopt “Vera” as your new name since that’s what they hear anyway.
    • Constantly move. Johnathan from HONY can’t take your picture if you don’t stand still and look pensive. I had my speech ready and everything. I even bought a hipster hat from a Brooklyn flea market.
    • Be flattered by people thinking you’re a New Yorker but then have an existential crisis about whether you are meant to be one or not. Chuckle and think, “Please. Carlos is right. I got this,” and get on the 6 humming JLo.
    • Use the excuse “I’m cold” to eat warm breakfasts like bagels, waffles, and muffins. Blueberry flavor and topped with fresh fruit because, ya know, it’s healthy. Having an everything bagel will teach you that frozen Sara Lee bagels tossed in a toaster aren’t bagels, they’re carbohydrate lies. Thank God that the cold also means your clothing layers will hide your gluttony until you go on a kale-only diet for 6 months upon return to the labneh motherland.
  • Miss labneh.

How Laguna Beach Deals with Panhandling

Some parking meters in Laguna Beach have been repurposed in order to avoid panhandlers. Making them colorful little pieces of art scattered around the artsy town, each meter has a plaque explaining that inserted coins will be collected and used toward efforts to aid the homeless. Assuming that these efforts have been effective, I believe this is a good controlled way (regardless of how minimal it may be) to help those in need with your loose change. Although most of us need coins for the actual parking meters since there are no change machines set up, maybe we could implement something similar in the future here in Lebanon.

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