Land of Plenty (2001)

Laughing families are wolfing down their meals, oblivious of the hungry homeless man in their midst. Or are they?

"AND ON THE WEEKEND following Thanksgiving,” enjoins the Eleventh Commandment, “ye shall shop until ye drop.” My family is keeping the faith. We’re furniture shopping in “Brighton Beach South,” or Pikesville, Maryland, home to some 12,000 Russian immigrants.

“What time is it?” calls Alexa, 9, from the minivan’s third row of seats. We’ve been shlepping from one showroom to the next. With banquet and breakfast behind them, the girls’ bellies are rumbling.

a cartoon image of a foot-high burger with all the trimmings

a cartoon image of a foot-high burger with all the trimmings

“Past noon,” reports Vicki, 12. “And,” she points out, “there’s a McDonald’s across the street.”

“Yeah! Mickey D’s!” seconds Alexa.

“Guys,” I say, “You can find a gazillion McDonald’ses back in Montgomery County.”

“So-oo?” they whine in chorus.

“Your babushka wants to eat in a Russian restaurant.” 

“I hate Russian restaurants,” moans Vicki. 

As luck would have it, we find that the Russian restaurants here don’t open till dinner. “Girls, you win,” I concede.

“Yes! Mickey D’s!” 

After the health food market,” add I, a kosher quasi-vegetarian. At the market we fan out, converging at the checkout line with produce, bread, low-carb PowerBars, the works. 

Finally, we pull into America’s Favorite Restaurant. My mother-in-law and I remain in the Windstar: she to pore over her Russian gazette, I to feast on cucumber sandwich, yellow apples, and sunflower seeds. How, I wonder, could anyone prefer the golden arch’s offerings to this?

A soccer tournament has ended, and the parking lot has become a shrine to minivans and SUVs. Within the orange-pewed sanctuary, a congregation of uniformed boys, soccer moms, and their hungry families have gathered to feast on the spoils.

When I’ve finished my feast, I dash inside, the crisp November wind nipping at my ungloved fingers.

In a thicket of crowded tables stand my wife Lina and the girls, clutching their trays. Their hungry eyes scan this way and that. But not one table is vacant.

“Girls,” Lina sighs, “we’ll just have to eat standing up.”

“I’ll hold a tray; it’s the least I can do,” I grin at Lina. 

Lina takes the bait. “And you always do the least you can do,” she smiles back.

In the seat by my elbow, a sandy-haired boy, no older than nine, is taking in our every word. “Sit here!” he insists, motioning his younger sisters to sidle over. His gallantry is swift, his empathy precocious. Souls like his pray for moments like this. Souls like his are rare, at any age.

His sisters dutifully scoot over; my daughters squeeze beside them. “Girls,” prompts Lina, “what do you say?”

“Thank you,” they mumble.

I excuse myself to the Men’s room. As I make my way back to our table, a cashier is barking a family’s order. A Big Mac and large fries for the freckled boy in the number 5 jersey. Quarter Pounders with Cheese for Big Brother and Dad. Chicken McNuggets and a Baked Apple Pie for Sis; the same—no, make that Filet-O-Fish—for Mom. And Cokes all around. Here, you can feed your family for chump change.

Wherever I glance, laughing families are hunched over bright orange trays heaped with king-size sandwiches, cornucopias of fries, and cups of cola that could wash down a soccer stadium. It’s Thanksgiving redux at every table.

Save one.

At a quiet table near the cashier, a haggard man with a thatch of grizzled hair sits alone, sipping a steaming cup of coffee. For a few palliative minutes, his scabrous 60-year-old hands will draw warmth from the cup. Then it’s back to the cold streets he calls home, where benches are beds, newspapers are blankets, and passing eyes pretend not to see.

I’ve seen his likeness before—we all have, each November, in quarter-page ads urging the fortunate to feed the un-. In these ads, an aging homeless man stares at us through sunken eyes. Invariably his face is white, for most Americans are white and—well, you understand. 

a homeless old white man staring into the camera

a homeless old white man staring into the camera

It’s the guy from the soup kitchen ads, I think, half-puzzled why the wretch isn’t living large off his royalty checks. As he caresses the plastic cup, he stares vacantly, across the table, at the empty orange bench. Perhaps the bench is his looking glass to a bygone youth, to spring days that promised a cozy autumn with a family, a job, a home. 

In a flush of shame, it hits me that my charity has been shamefully low. In a moment, I can redeem my shame while cutting out the middle man. I rifle through my billfold, extracting a five, four ones, and a twenty. Then, with re-earned shame, I tuck the twenty back in. 

Now comes the hard part: How, exactly, does one offer alms in a restaurant? Here goes. “Excuse me, sir, are you homeless?” I ask quietly. “Are you as hungry as you look?”

He looks up. “I’m homeless,” he confirms.

“Take this,” I say. I stuff the folded bills into his hand discreetly. Yet not too discreetly, I hope. Hey—if I’ve shamed other misers to share their bounty, so much the better.

But in the ten minutes that follow, not a soul offers him so much as a french fry.

My family and I don our coats, take our leave, and pile into the Windstar. As we back out, the homeless man passes, hands in pockets. Our eyes meet; I nod. 

We have three sacks of groceries in the back. Should I hand him a loaf of nine-grain bread? A PowerBar? It’s the least I can do. Why didn’t I give him the twenty, dammit? Wait a moment.

But my moment, like the spirit of Thanksgiving, is waving to us in our rear-view mirror. We’re on the road again, hell-bent on fulfilling the Eleventh Commandment. There’s a showroom down the way that’s supposed to have great sleeper sofas.

My thoughts return to the young boy. Throughout the meal, he faced the window. Had he but seen the man, he’d have emptied his pockets and offered his meal, lickety-split.

I’ve heard well-fed people advise why it’s a “bad idea” to aid the homeless. Some folks, they explain, will squander your handout on wine. (They’d barter your Big Mac?) Some folks bring their troubles on themselves. And some folks plain don’t wanna work.

Some folks forget: Half the homeless are mentally ill.

Some folks forget: One-third are veterans.

Some folks forget: Thanksgiving ends with giving.

More turkey, anyone?

© 2001 Paul Franklin Stregevsky

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