He sat at a picnic table shaded by an umbrella typically used by employees and the public, and he waited. All of the picnic tables, situated at the entrance to the grocery store, were sturdy and black, and bolted to the ground to prevent anyone from stealing them. They had purpose and function. Employees and the public alike sat at the tables to have a quick bite, take a break or check a shopping list. His purpose wasn’t any of these. He only waited.
I could have easily walked by him except out of the corner my eye, I saw him and stopped. He had a pleading look, but he didn’t say anything. From the get-go, I saw that he was out of sorts, clean enough, but it looked like he hadn’t slept much and his hair was sticking out in every direction; he had that electrocuted-frizz look going on. He was Caucasian, wearing shorts and a t-shirt, but uncomfortable as if hadn’t showered or had a decent night’s sleep. He looked like he slept on someone’s couch or in his car, or even somewhere less desirable.
“Do you have some money for some food?” he asked. I sensed his hunger. Sitting outside a grocery store was a prime spot for asking such a question. Indeed, clearly he was on target.
“I don’t have any cash, but I can buy you something.” He raised his chin and we made eye contact. I sensed relief or disbelief or maybe something close to joy. Who am I kidding? He was probably so hungry he was beyond any rational thinking. I suspect I was the first to make such an offer. I live in Folsom, California, an area where you simply don’t see many down on their luck. It’s mostly hidden from view, and when you do see it, it’s just as easy to look away and pretend you didn’t. It’s a seemingly wholesome place (wholesome Folsom), although I know there are pockets of drugs and crime. It’s hard to escape that anywhere I suppose. This guy wasn’t strung out on anything from what I could tell, although he may have been at some point in the not too distant past. It was hard to say.
What I knew for sure was that the guy was starving. He knew exactly what he wanted from inside the store as if he had been going over it in his mind for hours, thinking of nothing else. What did he want? Frozen bean burritos and Gatorade. You could get two burritos for fifty cents, he told me. He asked if he could go in with me to do the shopping.
Inside the store, I asked if he knew the store well enough to know where things were. We walked for a bit and I introduced myself and he told me his name was Daniel. He was cautious and open at the same time.
He selected an assortment of burritos from the frozen section.
“Do you have a microwave?” I asked.
When they thawed, he would eat them, he told me. They’d keep until then, I guess, but not for much longer. Being August, the days were still pretty hot. I didn’t want to feel as though I was lording over him or that he had to shop with me, so I left to get one of those lazy, bagged salads you throw together. My plans had been for an unusually quick shopping trip.
When I was on my own wandering the store, I thought about my brother who went through meth rehab three times before pulling through. Now he’s a sponsor for many and wants to be a drug rehab counselor. What would he tell him? Would he offer advice? Would he get his story? Was I ready to hear his story and, if I heard it, would there be anything that I could do to help him? Did he want help? Would he ask for it if he did? He was starving, and that was the priority, but these questions floated through my mind.
I spotting him in the drinks aisle. Icy burritos were spilling out of his hands and now he added two large Gatorades to his load.
“You can get those drinks cold, you know,” I told him. “Don’t you want them cold?” There I was again remarking on the temperature of his items and, as soon as I said it, I saw how pathetic it was and how little I understood about his desperate situation. It seemed like it was the only thing I could say to show I cared, and it was trivial and weak.
He shook his head, “No, this is fine.” The temperature was not a concern and probably hadn’t been for some time.
We walked together with our items in hand.
“I was working at the Rubio’s, at the India House,” he went on to say. I had never asked questions, not because I didn’t want to know, but that I didn’t want him to think he had to explain in order for me to buy groceries. “Sometimes when I don’t eat, I do crazy things.”
“Well, no one should go hungry.” I never asked what crazy things.
I have a difficult time determining age these days; everyone just seems young to me. His need to survive dimmed any youthful recklessness he may have had in him. He seemed ageless to me then. He just needed to eat.
I did something and he truly appreciated it, but really it wasn’t very much. About five bucks is all. I left feeling I could have done a lot more for him or at least bought him something fresh. I’m not in a great financial position to feed other people and I didn’t do it so I would feel good about myself. I simply recognized that everyone should be able to eat, shouldn’t they? And yet, so many don’t and we may watch them suffer because it seems easier to look away. For once, I had compassion, and I have to tell you, it did make me feel good. Mostly, it made me feel human.