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Buddy, can you spare a….

This week, it’s back to school and work, as Bill’s spring break ends. We dropped in several restaurants, which I’ll post on later. While we were in Midtown, since we needed a few groceries, we dropped into Trader Joe’s, which Bill had never seen before.

We needed only a couple of items — half & half for the coffee, paper towels — but of course we ended up with more, cruising the aisles of Trader Joe’s treasure chest of exotic granolas, ice creams, organic vegetables. Bill, with iron will, resisted his favorite green tea ice cream mochi (little mounds of ice cream enclosed in a gelatinous “envelope.” Sounds gross, but it’s really good).

So we were pretty jolly, walking across the crowded lot to our remote parking spot, with our little bundle of goodies. Just as we were getting in our car, we heard, “Excuse me.”  A man was waving his hands at us from the street.

I started shaking my head: No. It’s part of my hard-earned New York training. When I lived there in my 20s, I started out giving anyone who asked me for money at least a little something. I didn’t have much, but at least I felt a little better after walking away. Eventually, however, I hardened: I didn’t want to be part of a life that enabled so many in their addictions. I grew cynical watching the scamming moms and their crying babies, and hearing the angry, threatening tones — after I shook my head at one scary guy’s outstretched hand, he followed me through two subway trains, until I stood next to a cop and he melted away. Homeless shelters and organizations like the Atlanta Food Bank do a better job of providing real help, so they got my money instead. Still, I would make one exception: If someone asked me for money, and I was carrying food or groceries, I would offer them that instead. I gave away a lot of morning bagels and coffee, slices of pizza and sodas.

The man outside Trader Joe’s kept talking as I started waving him off. “I don’t want money,” the man said. “I just need some food.” We paused. Bill was waiting for me to drop some more New York ‘tude on the guy. With his small-town background, he usually trusts my street radar in situations like these. But the man had said the secret word, and my radar wasn’t pinging. He stepped out of the shadows — a big, neatly dressed black guy wearing khakis and a worn leather jacket. “What kind of food?” I said. “Some chicken, some vegetables,” he said. “I’ve been out of work for a couple of weeks. I’ve got kids.” I nodded to Bill and we told him to come with us to help pick things out. “I’ve got a list,” he said, producing a worn bit of paper with a long list, including diapers, milk and frozen peas.

Still, in the store, he held back, going for only a half-gallon of milk when we encouraged him to get the gallon jug. “We’ve got some,” he said. “Only need a little more.” He accepted sweets for the kids only after we put it in his basket. His wife was a vegetarian, he said, as he stocked up on two bags of frozen peas, lettuce and bananas. He moved swiftly through the store, expertly choosing the “pick of the chix” cut-up chicken over the standard variety. “In my family, my dad always did the shopping,” he said proudly when I complimented him on his expertise. He said he was in demolition, and had been out of work longer than this only one time, for a month. “I don’t want to take anything else, because I think they’ll be calling back soon.” Though he exuded the strength of a working man, he had a bad cough, and the night air was cool. We encouraged him to get home soon — we didn’t quite feel comfortable enough to offer him a ride, but we saw someone pick him up as we circled around the lot towards the exit. The last thing he told us before he left was, “I don’t like doing this. It’s hard for me, as a man. But I don’t know what else to do.”

We wished him luck. We hoped he would have a little breathing room. Of course, since then, I’ve been trying to figure out — was this yet another scam? You know what — if this guy went to the black market and sold his frozen peas and chicken (and the roast we bought for him, since he confessed he was not a vegetarian, only his wife)… well, you got me that time, buddy.

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