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Rushing to the entrance doors of the grocery store downtown, the inside of my head is a blur of busyness. I am not even sure how behind schedule I am. Chastising myself, I wonder if I even have time for this one quick stop.
“Excuse me, miss?”
Miss? My grey streaks of hair fly through the air as I turn. Is she speaking to me? Oh no. I’ve broken my stride.
“Yes?” Oh no. I’m engaging in conversation, curiosity has beaten down my more selfish instincts but this does not augur well for my timeline.
“Would you be willing to help me out? I have $11.” She raises fingers clutched around what I assume to be a stack of loonies and toonies. “My fridge is empty.”
I have slowed down, somewhat, but keep moving toward the doors, the space between us growing. As I approach the bollards, they begin to represent psychological safety in ways I had never noticed before. “I’m sorry – I have no money with me.”
“That’s okay. Maybe you could buy a few items for me when you buy your things?”
I slow my pace again. The request does not strike me as unreasonable.
Having taken the time to listen, I consider her plight in relation to my situation. My fridge is not empty. My budget is not limited to $11. This grocery shop detour does not represent the procurement of a meal I will not otherwise be eating. I can help her – but I’m in a rush.
“Sure. Okay. But I’m in a hurry.”
Preoccupied with my fleeting time, I dismissively acknowledge her thanks. I do not consider how my lack of graciousness is being interpreted because at this moment, I am embarrassed by the contingencies of life circumstance that have positioned me as the one who can extend generosity and her as the person who must ask for it. I can feel the truth of my existence clamouring to claim centre stage in my consciousness, but really – must I face it? Is it true that I owe much to the blind and dumb luck of timing and the where and when of birth for the comfortable stage of life I find myself in now? As we step beyond the self-checkout cash registers, I turn to her for distraction from what her presence has brought to the forefront of my mind.
Back on task, I realize I need some suggestions identifying how this grocery purchase will be enacted. How to proceed is unclear – do we meet at the checkout? Will I pay for whatever items exceed her limit? How much more than $11-worth of food does she need? She addresses none of this. Apparently, she has been having thoughts of her own. She asks me what my name is.
My thoughts stop.
I look at her, now, the way I would look at anyone I meet for the first time: as a presence, as someone whose identity is informed by more than the immediate need to fill a fridge. Warm brown eyes, hair neatly held back, clean clothes in good repair – the kind of casual, comfortable-looking clothes most people wear. Her appearance is normal, as is her question, yet it catches me off guard. It expands upon her initial request, implying gratitude for my help, but rejecting its anonymity. It is a declaration of shared personhood, a claim to dignity that will not be gainsaid because of the triviality of material conditions. Feeling a bit stunned, I exchange names with her, and we agree to meet at the checkout after we have completed our shopping.
My shopping takes even less time than I had anticipated, and as I hurry toward the checkout, I wonder – do I have any cash? I didn’t think I did, but it turns out I have a $20 in my wallet. Does this change everything? Should I track her down and just give her the bill? Should I pay for my items and give her the change? Would that be enough? I place my items on the conveyor belt and wonder why I am overthinking this? Am I overthinking it? I pay for my items.
“Oh, there you are!”
She is one person behind me and seems hesitant, unsure of what to do now that we have arrived at the moment demanding a decision. Suddenly, I realize I am the one who must make a choice, I am the one with the power, and it is this realization I have been trying to dodge the entire time. I ask the cashier to ring up the groceries and give us the total. As the fruit, vegetables and the cottage cheese container move by and are tallied (“I don’t eat meat,” she tells me), the cost of her items adds up to less than $20. I pull out my debit card and pay.
“You can leave these bags here and go back in to pick up whatever else you need,” I tell her. “I’m sorry …” and by the look on my face she knows I’ve forgotten her name.
“Lydia.” Even if I did dye my hair to hide the grey, I would still forget names.
“Lydia,” I say, looking directly into her eyes, “have a good afternoon.” I really do have to leave, and off I go, but I do not feel good about any of this.
I helped someone in a moment of need, but I have also paid off the gods of luck and circumstance – pretty cheaply, too – and our respective circumstances have not changed. This is the desired outcome for any offering that gives thanks for good fortune, the hope that the good fortune will continue, that the status quo will be maintained. We make these kinds of offerings with the appropriate degree of humility we have been taught to display, but it occurs to me that humility blinds us to the power we have when we do not have to ask for help, do not confront an empty fridge and do not have to struggle with asserting our dignity in the face of gods whose blind apportioning of luck has passed us by.
R. Furlan lives in Toronto.