How People Eat

grocery

The check-out lane extended into the cereal aisle, illuminated overhead by a harsh florescent light.  A couple pushed a cart filled with fresh fruits, vegetables, meat and paper towels forward and took their place at the end of the line.  They inched forward at a pace only tolerable by those with an unlimited amount of life.  Unfortunately, it did not appear that any of the patrons in line had recently tasted of the sweet waters from the fountain of youth.  

The couple spoke in low voices, discussing meal planning and their weekly budget.  At the register, a man with a silver pinky ring and basketball shoes dropped an armload of goods onto the conveyer belt.  A can of peas rolled backwards as the cashier picked up a bundle of green bananas and swiped them across the scanner.  She wore a massive Afro picked out in every direction; her hair was loud and proud.

A woman in baggy jeans and a cat sweatshirt was next in line.  She dropped a bag of cat food onto the belt and unzipped a purple fanny pack from around her waist and started to dig around, while muttering something about coupons.   

Behind the couple, a thick woman with mascara heavy eyelashes rolled up with a cart full of breakfast foods: bacon, eggs, muffins, croissants, Poptarts, cereal and milk.  A chubby girl with her hair pulled into sections by colorful barrettes sat in the front of the cart, while an even chubbier boy stood at the end of it.  She was a distracted driver; the woman focused on a cell phone letting her cart find the way.  Meanwhile, the kids chattered back and forth in their own language, like birds on a wire.  

The boy looked around and rested his hands on his protruding stomach like a wise old man.  He was tall and nearly as wide as the cart.  Rolls held his head up, and gathered at his wrists and elbows.  The extra weight prematurely aged him as much as his surrounding environment, punishing and unfair to someone so young.

An elderly woman in large, round glasses and neatly bobbed grey hair, who looked like an elementary school teacher in a not-so-distant, pre-retirement life joined the line with her cart and stood behind the family.  She saw the boy looking so worldly, so bold and bright in that moment, she couldn’t stop herself from striking up a conversation.  

“Oh, hello there, you’re a big boy.  I bet you’re in…” the woman paused thoughtfully considering his age, “third grade,” she said triumphantly.

“Yup,” the boy agreed, nodding his head.

“Sure am.”

“K, you stop it.  You know you a kindergartener,” his mother said.

Without looking up from her phone, she took a few steps forward with her cart, not seeing her son’s crestfallen face and or his apologetic shrug towards the elderly woman.  The boy knew shame in that moment and pushed it down, deep into himself where it would stay with so many other hurts long after he became a man. 

The older woman looked at the boy through her thick lenses with love and appreciation.  She sought out his sad eyes and winked, bringing a quick smile to his face. 

This is how people eat.    

Just a Friday

clogged-gutter

My heart is heavy with the events of the day and the trauma of the people with whom I work. Like a gutter clogged with leaves, the sadness has no place to run off.  The weight threatens to break me in half.  It’s a bit much for a Friday.

A woman came into the office wearing knee-high pleather boots with heels that clacked as she walked across the wooden floor. She plunked herself down into a chair, her body exhausted from the ugly side of life.  She had just spent the last forty days and nights in jail.

“When you cage people, they become animals.”

She witnessed her bunkmates leap from their beds onto a woman for allegedly taking a pack of unattended donuts, “Nobody hits the panic button or they get it,” the leader declared.

As she sobbed from her bed, another bunkie glared up as her and threatened to wrap her head in a towel later that night to give her something to really cry about.

Her toilet paper, toothbrush, and backup pair of underwear were stolen on the first night. Only the toilet paper was restored to her by a guard.

She got tired of saying, “I didn’t do anything,” when the other inmates asked, “What’d you do?”

“Sure,” they laughed. “Me neither, but really, what did you do?”

Insisting on her innocence did not help her to win any friends, so she started saying, “Murder, I killed a guy,” which turned out to be a much more effective strategy in the jailhouse relationship department.

After she got to know her neighbors, she learned their stories, their pain and regrets.

“They’re just left alone with their rage and frustration and half of them are still coming down from drugs. One woman was shooting up heroin and left her kids in the car.  They died of carbon monoxide poisoning.  Can you imagine how she’ll feel when she sobers up and realizes what she did?  Her kids are dead because of her and she has to spend the rest of her live knowing it in jail with nothing to do.”

This is real life and now we have a leader who may or may not make things worse for these people without voices, forgotten and locked away.  Truly, it’s a bit much for more than just a Friday.

At a time of feeling lost, I take comfort from books and reflect on the words of Kurt Vonnegut.  I offer it as my consolation for readers who may be equally as emotional and unsettled, angry and sad.  Its my one guiding principle that continues to make sense in a world that seems otherwise made.

 “Hello, babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you’ve got about a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies—God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.”

A rare day

sun 3It is a rare day that my office is quiet. I am looking around with a strange wonder at the silence. Soon, one person will come in followed by three more with paperwork to review, an emotional crisis from a jilted lover, problems with work, and so on. The list of needs is endless, as is their ability to surprise and delight, disappoint and frustrate.

Their future is limitless, unless one takes into consideration the difficulty in navigating through government benefits and broken systems. The world is their oyster, aside from the series of trauma based experiences that brought them to the point of living in transitional housing.

This work is not easy, but it is not about me. Ego must be checked at the door each day because this is not where one comes for validation or even that warm, fuzzy feeling. My supervisor described my role in terms of the tangible.

“You have to be like jello over razor blades that will cut you at some point.”

Yet, it is worth the cuts and the chaos. At the end of the day/week/month, there is always a victory, someone breaking through another barrier that was previously impossibly impassable. The quiet gives me the time and space to remember that, there is always a small victory.

Believe in each other, believe in humanity.

Humanity has to win because if it doesn’t we are no better or more evolved than our fore-monkey mothers and fathers picking fleas from the furry backs of one another.

On Rubber Necking

Rubbernecking is the act of gawking or staring, usually stupidly and slack-jawed, at something of interest.- wikipedia

When I see flashing red and blue lights, I can’t stop myself from trying to get close enough to see what’s the cause of the commotion.  I change lanes and slow down as I pass by the nearest point, just to get a good look.  Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to be involved in the mess.  I just want to have the knowledge of what happened tucked into my mental file labeled “I’m glad it wasn’t me.”

Unfortunately, the “I’m glad it wasn’t me” file is getting to be rather bulky, filled with images of accidents, ambulances, people getting tickets or arrested, and broken down vehicles on the side of the road.  Each year brings another set of things to file away that used to bolster my spirits to not be the person on a stretcher or reaching out to take a speeding ticket.  Now, it does just the opposite. I feel instant sadness to realize how little control we have over these things.

A few days ago, I saw those irresistible flashing lights straight ahead of me at the end of the street.  As I approached, I took in the whole scene.  Two police cars were parked on either side of an old car that was slowly being destroyed by rust and neglect.  A shirtless man lay on his back with his arms handcuffed behind him surrounded by several officers.  They wore dark sunglasses and long faces like it was part of their uniform as they stood around the man with their arms crossed over bullet-proof protected chests.

Suddenly, the man started to jerk and twitch like he was being bitten by a thousand fire ants.  I watched his skinny torso writhe in the grass without the use of his hands to brush off the antagonizers.  I’ll never know if it was ants, a seizure, or the side effects of a nasty drug because I kept driving, like always.

As I drove off and left the man to his fate, I kept thinking.  I wondered if that was his worst day.  I wondered how many choices and random events away are any of us from our worst or best day.  We can control our speed but we can’t control the truck that blows through a stop sign.  We can choose happiness but can’t avoid the tragedy of life.

When I see the flashing lights, I’ll keeping looking, if only to be reminded of my own humanity and vulnerability.