Tag Archives: humanity

Hungry Boy

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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.

 

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Man in the Vestibule

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This photo of homeless protestors outside Sacramento City Hall appeared in an article by Steve Milne in Sacramento Capital Public Radio News on January 26, 2017. 

A homeless man died outside Sacramento City Hall the other night. He was the second man to die outside City Hall in a week. It has been a wet and cold winter so far, and homeless people have left their campsites at the river’s flooded banks. Some of them, like this man, found spaces to sleep under the well-lit overhangs of City Hall.

The paper said the man had nothing but the clothing on his body to keep him warm. This immediately brought me back to a homeless man my husband and I were startled to find sleeping in a parking garage two weeks ago. We had dinner downtown and were returning to our car, parked on the roof of a public parking garage. The elevator doors opened inside a tiny vestibule that offered some shelter from the cold and the rain. Our laughter was abruptly cut short as we stepped out of the elevator and saw a man sleeping on the floor to our right.

The first thing that struck me was how long his body was. He had to curl up into an almost fetal position to fit into the space between the elevator door and the door that led to the garage roof. His face was light tan. His skin was clean and unwrinkled. He was clean-shaven and handsome. His black hair was streaked with long strands of white. His pants and coat were dark.

I didn’t want to wake him. It was well before 8 p.m., but how was I to know if this would be the only rest he would get that night? I didn’t stand over him and stare – it felt invasive to catch the glimpse that I did – but I saw so much in the few seconds it took me to walk past him.

“He had nothing,” I said to my husband when we were a few steps beyond the door that led out to the roof. “He had no blanket, no backpack, no bags. Nothing.”

And then came the silence in the car as we tried to process what we just saw. Wrestling with helplessness and guilt, we started to make our way down to the first floor of the garage. We spotted a young man carrying a broom and a dustpan. The wet spots and smell of urine in the elevator when we arrived; the wet, washed floor of the elevator when we were leaving; the man sleeping in the vestibule; and the anxious look on the attendant’s face as we passed him – it all made sense. Would the police come to escort the homeless man from the garage if the attendant called? Would the attendant let the man sleep there as long as no one complained?

I felt sad when I read about the second homeless man to die outside City Hall in a week’s time, but the sight of that man sleeping in the vestibule that night was personal. If you don’t want to be racked by helplessness and guilt, look away from the homeless. But if, like me, you happen to glance at a homeless person and see this person – really see this person – you’re screwed. You might be haunted into action.

 

©Living off Island, Writing Wahine, 2017.