One of the errands my husband and I ran this past weekend was bringing his laptop to the Genius Bar at an Apple Store in one of our local malls. While my husband took his computer in for a software fix, I killed some time shopping and then found a seat at a lounge area of the mall.
While I was scrolling through my phone, someone sat next to me. I looked to my left and saw a teenage boy whose face was still soft with baby fat. His small Tommy Hilfiger cross-body bag hung over his left shoulder and rested at the top of his long, skinny legs. I wondered why he hadn’t taken the seat on the other end of the sofa and left us both with elbowroom in the middle, but I noticed his plastic bag with take-out boxes on the empty seat to his left.
He took a Styrofoam box out of the plastic bag, opened it, and smelled the contents that filled half the box – orange chicken and fried rice. I eat leftovers that have been sitting in my car for hours, so I was impressed by the boy’s careful inspection. “Maybe I should worry more about food poisoning,” I thought to myself.
“I gotta eat,” I heard the boy say to himself, so I decided to let him eat in peace and not strike up a conversation.
When I saw the boy get up, walk to the nearest trash can, and empty the chicken into the trash, I thought the chicken must not have smelled okay, because I don’t know anyone who doesn’t like sweet, fatty, deep-fried orange chicken. He returned to his seat and ate the fried rice. He then took the second Styrofoam box out of his plastic bag, opened it, smelled the food, and ate the contents.
When he was finished, he took both boxes and the plastic bag to the trash can and disposed of them.
He then began to rummage through the trash can for beverage cups. He took lids off, sniffed, sipped, and decided what he liked and what he didn’t. He fished out a small empty cup, filled it with liquid from a bigger cup, and walked away with his drink of choice.
My eyes followed him as my brain scrambled to understand what I just saw.
The boy’s careful inspection of food suddenly made sense. He wasn’t smelling his own leftovers; he was smelling – and then eating – other people’s trash.
The boy was clean, well groomed, and decently dressed. He looked like any other teenager hanging out at the mall on a Saturday afternoon.
When the boy said, “I gotta eat,” he wasn’t speaking of his hunger. He was psyching up to eat trash.
I looked up at two surveillance cameras that must have captured what this young man just did, as if to ask some security employee watching a wall of monitors in a room somewhere in the mall, “Do you see this regularly? Is this not a big deal? Do you ignore him as long as he doesn’t make a big mess or bother people?”
If you’re like me, you live with the common misconception that the majority of hungry people in our communities are homeless and mentally ill. As I’ve learned since watching this hungry teenage boy eat and drink out of trash cans at a mall, the majority of hungry people are families who need assistance with food so they can afford rent and utilities. Some of these families are headed by adults with jobs. Some are headed by primary-caregiver grandparents whose fixed incomes don’t even cover the cost of their medications.
Unlike homeless and mentally ill people, hungry people aren’t as easy to spot. They don’t stand out. They hide in plain sight by blending in and looking like they’re doing fine. They look like teenagers hanging out at the mall, like children walking to school, like productive members of society doing their jobs, like elderly people picking up their prescription medications at the drug store, and like disabled veterans who appear capable of taking care of themselves.
These are the people we don’t see when they’re standing in line at food banks. These are the people we still think of as the lower end of the middle class. These are the working poor whose incomes don’t leave enough for food after they pay for rent, utilities, medical costs, and other expenses like gasoline, bus fare, diapers, and baby formula.
The hungry boy at the mall never said one word to me, but my glimpse into his life spoke volumes.
©Living off Island, Writing Wahine, 2017.