I'm still exploring my new town and probably will be for some time. Actually, that's kind of how I like to live, generally: curious, and with my eyes open to the little adventures that may come my way. When I'm in a new place, it's as much a survival strategy as a way to entertain myself. Right now I'm trying out different places to shop. Eugene is home to second-hand stores and discount markets of every description.
I was in a discount grocery picking up a few items for Thanksgiving when I saw him. He had a big grey beard. He wore a broad-brimmed hat and quite a few layers of clothing. And he was pushing a cart with bags and bags of stuff attached to it. The beard is pretty normal around here, but from the other signs I guessed the chances were good that this man wasn't just carrying all his stuff around to keep it handy; he probably had no place to put it. Oregon has a lot of people who live on the streets or spend much of their time there. The place I've lived the last 16 years had almost none.
When I was ready to buy my groceries we ended up in the same line. He was actually finishing up his transaction, so I got in line behind him thinking I'd get out more quickly than if I were at one of the other check stands, each of which had several people waiting.
The bearded guy was trying to chat up the grocery clerk as he stashed his stuff. Only he was trying to come up with "Have a happy Thanksgiving," in Spanish. I wanted to help him with that but I couldn't think of how to say it either. Nor was I certain this girl was a Spanish-speaker, though she might be. The clerk, for her part, didn't say a word or crack a smile. She just waited.
I thought he was done when he tied the last bag to his cart–the one with two pomegranates ($3 apiece), package of fancy goat cheese, and box of gourmet ice cream sandwiches.
"I hope I have enough for this," he said. Uh oh. She swiped the card that represented his food stamps. He only had $31 on it, but he had $39 of groceries. It seemed to take an eternity for him to choose which items to put back. I thought about covering for him, but struggled to overcome my hesitation over his food choices–as if people on food stamps are unworthy of pomegranates, and that somehow I'm more worthy of the things I purchase and enjoy just because I'm blessed with a steady income.
In the end he was still $1 over, but the man now behind me in line did what I could not: he pitched in a dollar.
The bearded guy was so gracious and appreciative. "You are far out and solid," he said. "As are you," the man behind me returned. "As are you."
How do you think you would feel or respond in this kind of situation? I'm still pondering it. As I said, I haven't had to deal with poverty close to home in a long time. I want to be wise but also compassionate. I really don't want to be the kind of person who puts people into categories and decides how they are supposed to behave–who lets myself treat them as objects and dismisses them as persons. The kind of person who looks down on homeless people for wasting their food money and murmurs, "Get a job!"
At the very least, I want to make a plan to respond. And when I adjust my budget for the new year I'll put in a line item for "giving to the poor," even if it just means an annual check to the Eugene Mission. What do you think? Any tips?