Friday, February 13, 2009

Fresh Air

There are certain times during the day I avoid the grocery store because it is crowded and crabby, but Wednesday night was not one of them. There were so few of us that we actually saw each other. I watched a teenage boy hoist a gallon of milk into an old woman's cart for her. A grubby man in fingerless gloves smelled the oranges carefully, one by one, undisturbed by other shoppers.

Something about my faith permeates these moments. I watched those tempted by the bakery decided whether they needed late night donut and wondered about the woman buying more cat food than human food.

When I have time, I like to get in the longest check out line and read the latest tabloid magazine while I wait. I glossed over photos of Chris Brown and Rihanna, heroic Capt. Sully, and the new mom of octuplets. When it was time to load my groceries onto the belt, I noticed the drama unfolding in front of me. A toothless woman in a blaze orange hoodie was near tears, trying to explain the injustice in her life to the cashier and was making frantic gestures toward the bag boy. I had to drive four hours down here and they want to know about insurance but you you don't think about insurance when you find out your son has colon cancer and I don't know what I'll do because I can't even afford the stuff I'm buying here and my food stamps are all gone...

While every bone in my body wanted to hug and hold the woman to keep her from flailing and justifying her suffering, I held back and watched how others stepped forward. The cashier made wise, deescalating comments. The woman in line between us rubbed her back gently. The bag boy filled her cart quickly and efficiently.

Even after receiving her receipt and becoming somewhat obsolete, she stayed, desperate for someone to really hear her. She moved close to the bag boy, who did not have the mental and social skills to deal with her intensity and looked like he might break down with her...or at her. I watched his anxious eyes, deciding whether he should stay and bag as his job requires, or find the safe space his parents and teachers have probably taught him to seek.

Why don't you take a breather outside while we bag our groceries? I'll find you out there when I'm done and we're all gone. Then you can come back and have a fresh start and room to do a great job.

So a stranger and I bagged each other's groceries while nodding at the broken woman and asking about her son. We stood there sorting cans between our carts until she could breathe again. My comrade drove her cart with one hand and continued to rub the woman's back as she guided her out to the parking lot. I found the boy leaning against a strong column rubbing his eyes.

We stood in the fresh air for a moment, watching the dirty snow on the sidewalk and listening to buses pull away from their stops. I'll go back now, he said. And he did. I waited there a moment, listening to the automatic doors open for the boy and looking for the blaze of orange in the parking lot. A breath of fresh air and then diaspora.

I drove home thinking, Lady, I know we have trouble seeing you and hearing you the way you want to be known. But someone does it perfectly and constantly. There is one who feels what you feel when you are driving four hours, when you are buying cans of beans, when you are scattered from the people you just found the strength to tell.

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