It was an unusual site in the small well-to-do city in which we live. To see a woman and child pan-handling outside the local grocery store. I’d just sent Joita and Nina in on a small shopping expedition and they had come back overly successful. Which means they splurged (with my money) and bought a treat (this time chocolate mochi ice cream) in addition to my short shopping list. As we drove out of the parking lot, laughing together over their pulling a fast one on me, we all momentarily froze as we noticed the slight woman and her young daughter. The woman was oddly dressed in mismatched clothing, too warmly dressed for the day, sagging socks and outdated sandals. The girl, no more than 10, similarly dressed. The woman was holding a sign saying she’d lost her job and asking for help. I honestly wasn’t able to read the whole message as I drove out of the parking lot.
The mood in the car abruptly changed from jocularly silly to pensively serious. Nina broke the silence, “Mommie, we have to do something!” And then she just kept saying how sad she felt. Joita stared straight ahead. As typical Joita, I wasn’t sure whether she was just disassociating from the discomfort or whether there was more because the woman and child looked Indian, like her. As we drove the few blocks to our house Nina kept up an insistent patter of angst, verbalizing the rumination in my own head. But she kept begging me to go back, to help, to do something. Joita said, sort of under her breath almost as if to herself, “It’s probably a scam.”
So then I had to explain what a *scam* was to Nina. But my explanation only deepened my own discomfort. In those few short blocks my mind was blasted with fleeting firecrackers of feeling and question: My safe, happy family; My own brother; My desire to “do more” in the world; My white skin; My own otherness. Nina’s question, “Why would anyone *scam* for food if they didn’t really need it?” brought me back into the car and out of my head. Why indeed? And so what if she was *scamming*? As if *scamming* were another word for amusement or avocation.
I dropped Joita and the groceries off at home, turned the car around and went back. I wasn’t sure what the right thing to do was. I wasn’t sure what I was going to do either. I parked and approached the woman with Nina at my side just as another (white) person was handing her a folded up twenty. What could I offer this woman? I thought of my own family, with both our privilege and our difficulties, working hard to make ends meet with only one income currently. I thought of Peter and scams and cash. And then I was standing in front of this woman who had, I noticed, subtly put herself in front of her own child as I approached. And I found myself asking, “Can I buy you some groceries?” A flash of something between shame and relief passed across her face and with head bowed she nodded yes, folded up her sign and began to walk toward the door. She stopped, suddenly unsure, and hesitantly asked, “Groceries is food?” Her accent wasn’t Indian. She sounded more Latino. I wondered if that would have made a difference to Jo. It didn’t make a difference to me. I held out my hand and said, “My name is Hali. What’s yours?” We introduced ourselves and our daughters.
Then we walked through the automatic sliding doors, two parents with their children and I wondered if my feeling that others were watching was real or imagined. I felt shame. And I wasn’t sure if it was hers or mine. She took a basket and looked at me. I motioned toward the aisles and said, “I can wait here. Get what you need.” Was that the right thing to do? The kind thing to do? Or the white condescending thing to do? She smiled and nodded and headed off. I stood stupidly aside, feeling awkward. The silence in my head was deafening. Should I have gone with her, to make a connection, like a new friend? Should I have made *small talk*, gotten to know her? Was sending her off on her own a kind thing, done for her comfort so as not to have her feel watched? Or was I sending her ignominiously away so as not to be associated? Should I have asked about her job or what she liked to eat or cook, what her daughter liked? Every musing and rationalization felt wrong, racist, supercilious. I felt like I was wrapped in (white) cling-wrap and couldn’t stop sticking to myself. This *good deed* thing was no cakewalk, should have perhaps come with instructions or maybe a warning. Was I just being paternalistic and patronizing?! Was this my own brand of wearing a safety pin? Was it my privilege or her lack of it that was chafing me?
As I waited for Anna to shop I checked my phone (an interesting antidote to making actual human connection). There was an article, which I saw only the headline of, that announced that one of the New England Patriots football players had run up a tab of over one-hundred-thousand dollars at a Vegas casino in one afternoon. What the fuck kind of country do we live in where a woman cannot afford to feed herself and her child and is forced to beg for food while someone else (in this case, interestingly enough, a white, straight, Christian cis-male) earns so much money that he clearly doesn’t know what to do with it and is forced(sic) to throw it away?! I felt the familiar spasm of pain, that my soul is simply too fragile to sustain existence here, overwhelmed with equal amounts sadness and anger. I am one tiny puny person in this vast Universe and nothing I can do will make one whit of difference. And at the same time I cannot breathe in the fetid miasma of inequality and do nothing.
Anna and her daughter rounded the corner heading toward the registers and Nina went to stand next to the little girl. As children do, arms swinging, bodies swaying, they leaned shoulder to shoulder, bumping together shyly smiling at one another without the need for words. I focused on not focusing on what Anna had bought. It wasn’t my business if she’d filled the cart with sugared cereal and chocolate. But she hadn’t and I did notice that even though I didn’t want to. I paid without making eye contact with the cashier and he handed the bags to Anna. We walked awkwardly toward the door and stopped still inside. I didn’t want her to need to thank me. I reached out to touch her shoulder and she leaned in to hug me. It was awkward this delicate dance. Patting and hugging and leaning in and backing off. We eventually fumbled our way to a hug, stood holding firmly to one another, we breathed and I wished her well. It was the most genuine and equal simple human contact. We came through the door and parted ways. Nina and I went to our car (Nina still smiling and waving back and forth with Anna’s daughter) and Anna crouched on the pavement outside the store with her head in her hands.
I am neither paladin nor profligate, savior nor scoundrel. I continue to be unsettled by the disparities prevalent around me, questioning my place and role in all of it. Did I do the right thing? Perhaps there were several options for *right thing*? I hope I did at least one of them. Can I be fairly confident that I didn’t cause pain or harm? While the road to hell is said to be paved with good intentions, I can only hope that my good intentions outweighed the mistakes that may have caused pain in the execution of trying to do the good/right thing. And what did I teach my children? I hope my children learned from the good, the bad and the awkward of my example. Maybe, hopefully, they will be the generation that gets it right. Still thinking about the whole encounter the next day, I realized the mochi sat untouched in our freezer. I guess none of us had the stomach for extra.