WE DESERVE A BREAK TODAY
Riceboro, Georgia, United States, not long ago.
Fade in: Interior, Fast Food Restaurant.
If this were a screenplay, I would have but a single, simple line. “What are you having?” Easy. Doesn’t need to be eloquent, or loud for that matter; the man is standing a few feet from me. I just need to speak up. I do not. I’m frozen like a fish filet. I chastise myself inwardly. I’m more chicken than those McNuggets turning stale under the heat lamp. The man I should be addressing looks hungry to me, as I eye him peripherally. None of us waiting in line have acknowledged him with anything more than an embarrassed glance as he approached the cashier. We’d all looked through the man, past him. Now we all watch him, as he mumbles something inaudible. Everyone certainly hears the young woman’s response. Her shout echoes in the small McRestaurant. “I DON’T KNOW IF WE CAN DO THAT – I’LL HAVE TO ASK MY MANAGER!”
The man trying so hard to disappear is now target of unwanted attention and judgmental frowns. He looks rough. I wonder if his dirty backpack holds everything he owns. His unkempt hair, tangled beard, and weather-worn skin are his distinct identification. He’s HOMELESS! One of THEM! He must have asked the girl for food; maybe just leftovers that were going to be tossed out. Whatever nobody else would eat. He stands silently, staring at the floor, awaiting his fate. Everyone’s waiting to see what answer he’ll get to his obvious question. I look around and see stares that are more contempt than pity.
In my mind, I form a plan. If the poor man is refused a meal, I’ll step up. Say my one simple line. “What are you having?” There’s no reason why I can’t buy him a lunch. It’s not as if he’d sit with me to eat it. I’m still a lifeless, frozen mass. I never do this. When I see someone like this man, I avoid eye contact, and avoid them entirely when possible. I never offer them anything but an apology when I’m approached. Try my best to more sorry than relieved as they move along. Confronting someone less fortunate than myself makes me nervous. And not because they frighten me. I realize with shame that what I’m afraid of is other’s reactions. They’ll all stare at ME! What will they think about ME? Will I receive the same scornful look they’re giving this guy? Suddenly, I feel jittery, and I haven’t had even a sip of my Coke yet. I’m waiting for my double-cheeseburger when the McCashier comes back. “I’M SORRY, BUT MY MANAGER SAYS WE DON’T DO THAT!” The hungry man is dismissed; before I can even move, he is gone. I was supposed to say something. One line. Two McWorkers standing idly at the counter begin loudly discussing “beggars” and their “scams.” I’m ashamed of them, and even more so of myself.
I take my McFood to my table, and eat, with a lump in my throat that isn’t greasy burger. That man clearly has bigger worries than what others think of him – Isn’t that true of me as well? I keep my head down and check my messages on my smart phone. I feel guilty. Guilty, for the things I have. A cell phone, a car, a home. A meal in front of me. I don’t have much, but that man has much less. Disappointment plagues me. I was raised better than this. I remember the proverb I was taught: “When you give to the poor, you are lending to God.” I’m supposed to want to help people, not be glad that I’m not them.
I decide, while I eat, that if I somehow get a second opportunity, I WILL help. I’ll buy the man a meal. As if to torment my conscience, he comes into view outside the window. He’s wheeling a bicycle, no, two bicycles, attached to one another to form a makeshift cart. There are bags draped over the sides. I guess all his possessions weren’t in that backpack. I watch him while I finish eating the suddenly tasteless food that I should have bought him. The wind outside is gusty; he works hard, leaning forward into it, straining with his frail frame. He wheels the cart away from the food mart of the gas station; evidently, they didn’t give him any food either. He’s headed out to the highway. By the time I finish eating, throw my trash away, get back in line, order more food, and wait for it, he will be long gone. When I realize that I’m relieved to know that once again I can do nothing, my anger at myself is super-sized.
I gulp the rest of my food and stand, look out to see where the man has made off to. I see his bike/cart parked out at the intersection, and him seated on the ground next to it. Traffic in one direction rushes past him as quickly as possible. The drivers stopped are pretending not to see him. Looking past his cardboard sign reading “BROKE — PLEASE HELP.” There’s a Scripture scrawled underneath that. “Heb. 13:2” I don’t know it.
Okay, I tell myself, let’s go. I toss my trash and get back in the busy line. The cashier is the same one I ordered from before. The “scam” spotter. I tell her that I want three cheeseburgers and an apple pie. Make that two apple pies; they’re two for a buck. The order is to go, I say. She gives me a look, and I wonder if she knows what I’m up to. Will I be the topic of discussion as soon as I leave? Or sooner?
I get my McFood without incident and go to my car. There’s a cooler with bottled water in the passenger seat. I put one in the bag with the food, and I pause. Idling in the parking lot, I falter once again. Overthink things, again. I’ll no doubt hold up traffic if I stop for too long at that intersection. People will lose their patience and their tempers. They’ll beep angrily, shout at me. The McWorkers will be watching scornfully out the window, and they’ll resent that I’m encouraging this person to stay outside their restaurant. I tell myself that I can just drive on by, like everybody else is doing. No one will know that I told myself I would stop. And I’ll be hungry again during my long drive, so now I have another meal for later. Again, my cowardice shames me.
There’s a crow standing a few feet away, eye-to-eye with me, head cocked to one side, thoughtfully. Accusingly, perhaps. Just yesterday, I had watched a documentary about how intelligent crows are. Sure enough, he looks intelligent; I’d never noticed that about crows before. What IS he thinking? Is he as disappointed in me as I am? I think about giving him some apple pie, and realization hits me. How can I even consider offering food to a bird, while debating whether to give it to a fellow man in need?
The crow reads my thoughts and flies away. I watch him find a perch on the picnic table with the huge yellow M on it. It’s littered with crumbs and sesame seeds. The crow will be fed. What about the hungry man? Why is it so difficult for me to carry out this simple act of kindness? I’ll have time to ponder that later, while I’m driving alone down the interstate. But right now, there is no question of what I need to do.
Rolling down my window, and handing the man the bag, I feel as if I’ve at least partially redeemed myself. “Sir,” I say, “Here’s some lunch, and a cold drink.” One line, and hey, it really wasn’t that difficult to say! The grizzled man looks up, and I see his eyes for the first time. They’re a vibrant, unearthly blue, and while this man may have few worldly possessions, he has treasure right there. “God bless you,” he says in a ragged voice. I feel my earlier worries, indecision, and shame drain from me.
There’s a brief and singular moment between the two of us. I feel more human than I had moments earlier, and I sense that he does also. And, what do you know, nothing bad happened. Nobody shouted, blared their horn, or condemned either of us. I return the man’s nod and begin to pull onto the entrance ramp that will lead me back home. “Sir?” I hear the ragged voice call, and I stop.
With a sound like thunder, a semi-truck barrels past the front of my bumper, missing by inches. My car shakes, and so does my soul. Now it is my turn to be grateful, not for a meal, but for my life. I turn to thank the man, but he is gone. No bike cart, no trace of anyone. There’s just a little handmade sign that reads “Heb. 13:2.” I tell myself I’ll look it up when I get home.