Last week, I stopped by the Food Lion on 5th Street SW near Route 64 on my way home from Charlottesville. I thought I’d buy a Ready-to-Cook ham for Keith to roast in the Big Green Egg. It was quiet in the store – only a few customers and employees.
As I leaned over the open refrigerated case and rummaged through the offerings, I caught movement out of the corner of my eye.
“Excuse me, ma’am.” The middle-age man spoke in an even tone as he slumped over his grocery cart about two feet from me. Salt and pepper hair and brows topped his hangdog eyes and unshaven face. A half dozen cheap jewelry chains adorned his dirty white tank top. Orange drawstring pants rode below his belly and tennis shoes. “I only have food stamps, and I want to buy cigarettes.”
I pulled my purse straps firmly onto my left shoulder and faced him squarely. Is this a snatch and grab? I wondered. With my right hand in front of my chest, I gestured ‘Stop’ and said, “No.”
“No?” He sounded puzzled, as if he’d misjudged his target audience. “Not even if I pay for your groceries?”
“I won’t do that,” I said, holding his gaze.
“You won’t do that,” he repeated without changing expression. Then he looked down and slowly moved away leaning on his cart like a walker.
Almost immediately, my mind started to review the incident on three levels at the same time, just like I described in a post a month ago, citing Robin Hemley. I felt uncomfortable – I don’t like saying no – and a little threatened. But what did this scene really mean? I observed the panhandler as he shuttled away, his pants sliding below his butt cheeks. Surely, his was not the life anyone would want – rock bottom, poor fellow. While musing and praying for this man, I collected sensory details. What did his voice sound like? What did his face look like, his clothes and demeanor? Did he smell?
After checking out, I wheeled my cart into the parking lot. I saw the man standing next to his grocery cart at the edge of the store patio. He was smoking a cigarette. Ah, I thought, this is a story I’d like to tell.
Then I realized: I am a writer now. Even when buying a ham, three thought processes lean over me and simultaneously say, “Excuse me, ma’am.”
Writing is the panhandler to whom I say, “Yes.”
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