Three more items: ginger salad dressing, laundry beads, big water. I repeat them to myself so as not to forget. I’m almost done this round of grocery shopping. Another customer peeks out of the aisle I’m about to go down. I pause to let him pass, but he eases back into the aisle. I turn and slide by him. “Excuse me, sir?” Such a soft, polite voice issues from this gentle giant; an older (50s?) African-American gentleman. Maybe 6’3”, somewhat heavyset, short graying dreadlocks, he seems to recede within himself as if stooping might minimize his size. “I’ve just lost my job and was wondering if you might be able to help me?” “I don’t have any cash on me.” A true reply but one so automatic it feels like a lie. “Well, if you could put anything—anything at all—on a card, even, it would help so much.” I look at the smaller cart he’s filled with maybe 10 items. “I don’t think it will be more than $20 total,” he says. “Sure. I can do that.” I turn my attention to the salad dressings right in front of me as he says “Thank you. You must be a Christian.” Without looking at him, I say, “Wayward.” “Well not too far off to take on a big man like me. There’s still time for you.” We both laugh. “Maybe there is,” I say. He asks if I’m a Nats fan. Not really I reply. Skins? A little—I tell him my family’s from Baltimore so I lean toward the Orioles and the Ravens, but don’t follow either closely. A strong, unpleasant odor is growing stronger. He mentions a hint of Orioles orange in the sunglasses resting on top of my head. “I don’t want to hold you up. How ‘bout I just meet you up front?” “That sounds great,” I say, “I’ve got 3 or 4 things to get and should be up that way in about five minutes.” As he lumbers up the aisle, the smell trails behind him. It is a smell I associate with mental illnesses whose collateral damage includes personal hygiene.
I waste another minute or so looking for the one dressing they don’t have, then it’s laundry beads, and a 4-gallon container of water. I see him and give him a thumbs up. “You all set?” He nods. We form a mini train heading toward the open cash registers. “Do you have a discount card?” he asks. “These juices are on sale, but make sure they discount them. Sometimes they’ll get you.” The lines are crowded and we exchange a line or two about how busy it can get. A new line opens up and we get a break. I put my groceries on the conveyor belt, then his as I ask the cashier to bag them separately. He’s got 4 cartons of Tropicana Twister fruit drink, 8 mini cans of Vienna sausages, and 4 boxes of Little Debbie Cosmic Brownies. It reminds me of my late mother-in-law, a true devotee of comfort foods. He has struck up a conversation with the African-American woman behind us in line and seems fully engaged. I finish paying, put his bags back in his cart. I have to interrupt to shake his hand and wish him luck. He tells me to have a good day as he turns his attention back to the woman.
I leave feeling confused. Did I get taken advantage of? Was this helpful to anyone? Was I expecting a greater sign of appreciation? Honestly, all I feel is awkward. I load the groceries in the trunk and stop by the frozen yogurt place to take some home to my wife and son. All of this has cost me nothing in relative terms. My own health and financial security feel like mere luck. I try not to take them for granted.