Thursday, February 01, 2007

In which my good turn daily turns bad.

Around here, there are lots and lots of homeless (or nearly homeless) people. Many of my clients are homeless, have recently been homeless, or are teetering on the edge of homelessness. Many of the people with whom I chat at the bus stop fall into one of those categories as well. Very few of the people I encounter on the street are of the screaming-at-fire-hydrant sort. Those who are (like the gentleman I encountered today, who demanded to know, "Who is going to resurrect Batman? Who is going to resurrect the Penguin? We need the Addams family! You have these dungeons with dead people in them! Those dungeons you have are full of people! Who will resurrect Batman and Robin? Frankenstein knows what you did last night!") just happen often to be louder and more malodorous than the rest.

I am hesitant to give out money. My work has taught me that many people do use this money for alcohol or drugs, although perfectly well-housed people also buy alcohol and drugs. But this is only part of the reason why I don't respond to requests for my spare change... with my spare change. If I give someone a quarter or two, it's not going to do them much good because everything here is just so ridiculously expensive. What I prefer to do, when I'm able (I'm not exactly loaded myself), is to bypass the "could you spare some change" and go straight to the "so I can get something to eat."

I've only had one person really and truly turn me down. He was adamant that I give him a dollar "for something to eat." I didn't have a dollar on me, but I did have a bag lunch with two yogurts, some pretzels, and an apple. I offered him the yogurt, but he said he couldn't eat dairy and did I have a dollar? I offered him the pretzels, but he said he couldn't eat salt and did I have a dollar? I offered him the apple, but he said he didn't want any fruit either and did I have a dollar?

Last night my best friend and I went to see Dar Williams in concert. I got to the venue a little before my friend did, so I scoped out the neighborhood for a little snacky-snack. As luck would have it, the neighborhood consisted almost entirely of bars, a few Indian and Mexican, and fancy townhouses. I don't drink, I don't get along well with Indian or Mexican food, and I certainly don't raid the fridges of total strangers, so I didn't have a whole lot of options.

And then this woman came up to me. She wanted fifty cents for some yogurt. She said she was several months pregnant and very hungry. I said I'd be happy to take her to the deli across the street and buy her a sandwich or something. But she wanted to go to the Mexican place with the juice bar "because it's more nutritious." I couldn't really argue with that, so in we went.

There was a pretty long line, which gave us several minutes to chat. I asked about her pregnancy, her living situation, what kind of social services she was getting, whether she knew about various types of government assistance... Her story seemed quite genuine, all the details hanging together. She asked me for fifty cents to call the doctor in the morning. "The place you're staying doesn't have a phone?" I asked. She said it didn't. I gave her fifty cents (actually, fifty-five) on the condition that she ask her doctor to hook her up with a social worker.

Suddenly, we were at the head of the line. The cashier (who was probably also the manager) took one look at us and started doing something with the register tape. I stared her down, and finally, after several more people came into the restaurant and queued up behind us, she asked for our order. My companion got out half her order before the cashier/manager cut her off and asked me what I wanted.

"Nothing for me, thanks," I said, "I'm paying for her. And I don't think she's done with her order."

The cashier/manager person went back to doing whatever it was with the register tape. With some prompting from me, my companion continued with her order. The cashier/manager continued to ignore her. "I don't think she heard you," I said, loud enough for the cashier/manager to hear. "Say again what you want."

The cashier/manager whispered to me, "We've had problems with her. What can I get for you?"

"Nothing for me. I'm just buying her some dinner," I repeated.

"I want this for here," my companion said.

"You can't have it for here," said the cashier/manager. "You have to have it to go."

"This is discrimination!" said my companion.

"You can wait outside and I will bring it to you," said the cashier/manager. She asked for my name. I told her but then said to put the order under my companion's name, as I had to leave and really, I was buying dinner for this woman. The cashier/manager reluctantly accepted my payment.

To my companion, I said, "I'm really sorry. She says she will bring you your food outside. I can't really do anything else." My companion looked very sad, but then she spotted a newly empty table inside--and happily sat down with her drink and her cookie, awaiting her taco. She gave me a hug, thanked me for helping her out, and declared that I was a godsend.

I looked back over my shoulder as I left to meet up with my friend. As far as I could tell, no one forced this woman outside to wait for her meal. I heard no ranting, raving, yelling, or screaming. I saw no young, well-dressed customer storm out on account of the slightly disheveled, very pregnant woman in their midst.

The whole thing left me with, well, a really bad taste in my mouth. It was clear that this woman had a history with this particular establishment. Perhaps she often begs for food there. Maybe she sits inside and nurses a single can of soda all day when it's cold and rainy, and the owners and the locals think she's an eyesore. Whatever the back story, the cashier/manager was doing her very best to put off a customer. Unless things have changed drastically since my days of food service work in high school, the customer is still the person with the wallet.

As a well-dressed young adult with a wallet, I was no different from the rest of the well-dressed young adults with wallets in the restaurant... except that I wasn't opening my wallet for myself that night. Sure, the staff has the right to refuse service to anyone; but whether I'm buying for myself or for someone in a faded hand-me-down sweater, my seven dollars ought to be as good as anyone else's.

What was that again about the kindess of strangers?

M., take good care of you and your baby.

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