Saturday, September 18, 2010

An encounter

I first notice her vaguely on the bread aisle as I steer my grocery cart around her where she is standing looking at bread -- a young girl, perhaps 10 years old, healthy and beautiful in the way of 60's folk-singer girls with straight light-brown hair down to just below her shoulder blades and a clear complexion. She is standing slightly splay-footed in the flat multi-colored sneakers that are the current fad, and wearing clearly second-hand tight jeans and t-shirt. I move on to the frozen foods aisle. Then after I pick up my frozen pizza I round the corner and she is looking at the display of birthday cakes with an expression on her face that I have a hard time placing. It is not a happy expression, but it is not an expression of yearning either. Then I place it from my own childhood, it is an expression of unhappy acceptance that fancy expensive store-bought birthday cakes are not in her present or in the foreseeable future as see-able by a young child. It is the expression of a child standing outside the front window of an expensive store that she knows she never, ever, will be able to walk into and buy something.

Someone calls her and I notice a young man who looks more like her big brother than her father. He has the scruffy look of a handy-man, a resident of a world that most people who live in the Silicon Valley know nothing about. She follows him, with an expression of her face that is as joyless as the most forbidding desert, and I think to myself, "This is a girl who has not known much joy in her life." Which seemed a shame, because she was so young and healthy and beautiful in a wholesome sort of way. They walk towards the express lane as I push my cart to a regular lane.

As I push my cart out the front door of the store towards my Jeep, I notice them getting into a rusty old pickup truck that looks like it's being held together by rattle-can spray paint that has painted it in a vaguely camouflage pattern of various colors of primer. The truck starts up with a cloud of blue smoke and heads for the exit from the shopping center. I put my groceries in my Jeep, take my cart back to the front of the store, and head back to my Jeep and go out a different exit. My exit has a green light. I look to my left and see that their exit had a red light. I suspect that their exit always has a red light, regardless of which exit they pick. I turn right onto El Camino Real and head east. Their light turns green and they head east too, in the left lane whereas I am in the right lane. Their truck turns left into a place I know, a cheap hotel where a local homeless agency occasionally rents by-the-week hotel rooms for homeless families. I go straight, now knowing why the young girl had such a joyless air about her.

Just another day in the Silicon Valley -- the richest area of the richest nation on the planet Earth. Just another day.

-- Badtux the Observant Penguin


  1. It is all around us. I live in one the richest areas, Westchester County NY. Over the last two years, the line of people recycling bottles has grown exponentially, along with the amount of bottles. There is one man in my building that appears to be making his entire living off of recycling. Many people show up with two or three carts worth of bottles to redeem. The A&P has in turn limited the amount that can be redeemed at a given time.

  2. Bottle recycling like that is big for the maxi-downtrodden in Vancouver too. Helps that the province has a deposit law, so each aluminum can is worth 5¢, wine bottles are 10¢, 2-litre soda jugs are 20¢... Homeless people push rattling shopping carts down the back alleys all the time, hunting, hunting, hunting. I usually leave a few empties back there before garbage pickup day, and when I'm riding my bicycle around town and I've stopped for a pizza slice with a pop, I'll pedal up to a can-scavenger and hand it to them directly with a kind word. It's not much, but they're happy to have an interaction with someone who's not scorning them.

  3. So, you stared and felt pity. How about going back to the store, getting a beautiful cake with all the bells and whistles, some ice cream and take it to their hotel and actually give it to the father and daughter, and while your at it, go get a 15 dollar gift card from Mc selfish man. I remember reading grapes of wrath, and this man had a couple pennies and wanted to get his kids some candy, but could not afford it, the store owner in the book gave the candy to the children. We look, we feel pity but rarely do we do the small things to give our neighbors a hand up. Example, when I get my morning coffee and sandwhich, it costs 3.75. I give the cashier a five, and tell her to keep the change. Its just kindness.

  4. Dude: a) I wasn't staring at anything but where my cart was going, or, later, looking for my Jeep in the parking lot (they were parked facing my Jeep two cars down). What, you expect me to run my cart into people? You think I can navigate my shopping cart to my Jeep without looking at it or noticing the pickup truck that's right next to it in my line of sight? b) The only emotion I was feeling at the time was curiousity. And that only fleeting, because I was more concerned about my grocery list and what I was cooking for dinner. I was in the grocery store for perhaps 20 minutes. All the events above within the store happened within approximately 20 seconds of those 20 minutes. c) This is a creative writing assignment -- "Observe some random person in your environment and write something about them." All the events happened. My interpretation of them may be creative. For example, she did not have a happy expression on her face, but she may have simply been thinking, "man, these jeans are tight and uncomfortable, I guess it's time to get the next size up" while staring at random things just to have something to look at. d) There is a word for grown men who take birthday cakes to random 10 year old girls they don't even know who might not even be having a birthday, and it starts with "p". You might want to talk to a Catholic priest about that :).

    But on the general situation of childhood poverty and homelessness, no amount of personal kindness is going to solve that, because the general causes are not related to personal kindness but, rather, to societal kindness. We are not a kind or loving society. Ask anybody who has ever needed public assistance for their children, food stamps or whatever. They are treated like criminals by the people at the food stamp office, who themselves only barely are above the level that qualifies for food stamps yet feel superior to the clients they provide "services" to (in the way a stallion services a mare, all too often) because they feel that lucking into a government job makes them somehow better than a homeless guy trying to get food for his children. This is a symptom of a society-wide attitude, and isn't going to change until society as a whole moves away from the notion, "I got mine, and fuck you if you don't" towards an attitude that more closely approximates the Christian attitudes of charity and modest living.

    - Badtux the Creative Penguin

  5. BT, you had me until you got on the Food Stamps workers.

    I was one of those you vilify. But our office was NEVER allowed to behave in that manner. From the manager to the supervisor to the case workers -- we were all expected to treat each person with dignity, but also to do our job: determine eligibity and document it. And when the state and Feds auditted our files, I was proud of my Zero-error record. There were clear rules and regs, and frequent seminars. It was a grueling job, discerning which person needed a helping-hand and which person just had their hand out.

    Yes, the pay was low, the benefits were meager and there was too little satisfaction. I did not get my satisfaction bullying those whose needs exceeded my own.

    I'm in another field now. But, on the street, I meet many with their hands out. I no longer attempt to "determine true need" -- it's not my job. But it is my hard-earned money; I can't afford to waste it on career-panhandlers. I give to bonafide, trusted charities and tell the PH to stop by a church or Salvation Army.

  6. Naomi-
    Having been on both sides of the issue (several times), I think it would be fair to say that everyone is correct here. I've had my share of caseworkers (or whatever they're called in your jurisdiction) who have been surly (Deep South - I was too pale for their taste), pleasant and helpful (Mid-west), and helpful but frazzled to distraction (South-west, due to budget cuts and an economic downturn). Unfortunately, I would have to concur with The Penguin, that as of late, everyday Joe or Jane's attitude has become "F*** you, I've got mine..."
    'Fraid it's only gonna get worse.

  7. I know that look; I saw it in my own mother's eyes with every move town to town and state to state. We'd stop at truckstops, and the sparkly glass gee-gaws in the window drew her eyes every time.

    Hunger...for bread & roses, for cake and blown glass.

  8. "discerning which person needed a helping-hand and which person just had their hand out."

    Funny, I've never seen an upper-middle-class or rich person in a food stamp office. Of course, the upper middle class and wealthy get their hand-outs the old fashioned way -- their Congressmen pass special laws to hand them the hard-earned money of the rest of America.

    So there are handouts, and handouts. Handouts for working poor who make 1 cent above the cutoff line but have their hand out anyhow? Bad. Handouts for the rich? Why, you must hate America to question such a patriotic thing!

    - Badtux the Snarky Penguin

  9. I knew you were a good man.

  10. The scene could have taken place here in Santa Barbara, too...


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