Friday, August 04, 2006
Grapes of wrath
He was right out of a Dorothea Lange depression era photograph. All sad shades of gray under a coat of dust, made even darker by the shadows of night. Bent over his big, black duffle bag on the strip mall sidewalk, he was carefully stitching up a gaping hole in the bag's fabric. My first instinct sent me off the sidewalk and around him at a safe distance. It was instantly obvious he was homeless. I felt a little twinge of guilt taking such a wide berth, but a lot of vagrants (thanks in part to the Reagan administration's public service cuts) are mentally ill and unable to find care. I told myself, it's always better to be overly cautious.
As I stepped into the burrito joint to place my dinner order, I thought about the street-livin' soul outside and wondered how often he noticed people heading the other way when he was in their path. I thought about the old story from my church school days about how the humblest among us should be treated like the holy trinity's only son. I ordered him a chicken taco.
Walking out with my order in a paper sack, I approached him from behind. His head was still bowed over his stitching work.
"Excuse me, would you like a chicken taco?" I began, as two Starbucks customers walked by us--me, the office girl still in her work clothes; he, the down-on-his-luck "untouchable."
The homeless man looked up at me. His slightly handsome, weather-worn face was almost empty of expression. His stitching hands froze in space.
"Where'd you get it?" he asked suspiciously. I thought: possible paranoid schizophrenic?
"Over there at that restaurant," I replied, pointing--trying to be cool like Fonzie.
"Who gave it to you?" he queried, as if suspecting it had been air-dropped by the ominous black helicopters of a secret government organization.
"Um, I bought it. I saw you on my way in and thought you might be hungry."
He looked a me a second longer, then dropped his head resolutely and continued his patching.
"No, thanks," he said, voice monotone. "I'm not that hungry right now."
"OK. Have a good night," I said, walking away. I felt a little funky about it--wondering if he'd taken some kind of offense, or if he actually thought I might give him tainted food--but at least I had tried.
As I started to unlock my car I heard someone say, "Good thought." I almost ignored it, but then looked up. The two Starbucks dudes who had walked by during the exchange were standing by their pick-up truck across the parking lot row, looking over at me--almost curiously.
"It was a good thought," the one in a baseball hat said to me in a sincere tone--almost consoling in a quiet, resigned way.
"Oh!" I answered, startled--my heart leaping a little in appreciation. "Thank you! Goodnight."
I got in my car, set down my burrito bag, and started to cry.