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Thursday, February 14, 2013

Encountering a homeless man in a restaurant

At a few fast-food restaurants around town - I know of four - the homeless can count on some surreptitious assistance. I doubt it's any restaurant's official policy, but I see employees quietly offering the visibly suffering something to eat now and then. I'm not naming the places, because I don't want to get anyone in trouble.

When you think about it, it's not so surprising to find compassion in such places. Consider the number of working homeless people - a horror that defies all the nonsense spouted by nincompoops who believe poverty is a symptom of laziness. What I mean is that those people behind the counter feeding our faces for minimum wage may well be homeless themselves.

In America, generally, we like to protect ourselves from acknowledging the huge failures of our economic system by creating classes of the suffering. There are those at the bottom class who deserve to suffer at their own expense. About as good as it gets at the opposite extreme are those who deserve some help, but not enough to feel secure. Because it's only fear that motivates self-sufficiency, right?

Then again, there are the children - millions of them underfed and poorly nourished in the Land of Opportunity. They're not to blame. Obviously, they have lazy-ass parents. But they'll learn to scrounge and eventually become CEOs, right?

Last week, I visited one of my favorite quickie restaurants. It's happened several times before - and at another restaurant across the street - that I can't get into the restroom. Customers wait and wait and finally an apparently homeless person emerges, having essentially used the sink to give himself a sponge- bath. I used to get annoyed as hell at this and complain. Then I noticed that there was always at least one employee present who was protective of the person in the restroom. It became, in a strange way, an education of the heart.

In the restaurant I visited last week, a man in his 30s came out of the restroom in such a state of obvious hunger and duress that looking at him was unbearable. In a moment I've never seen before, several customers bought the man food. This was not, understand, some scene from the New Testament. The homeless man was a bit surly and a bit defensive. Even crushing poverty does not fully penetrate the veil of shame that descends on the suffering in America. But his gaze, if you could meet it, was broken-hearted.

But he was also funny. When someone asked him what he'd like to eat, he said, "Anything but broccoli. I'm sick of broccoli." I'm down with that. Wheelbarrows of the stuff are being poured on plates everywhere. "You can't sell that shit for a beer," the man said.

When I left, the man's table was full of food, most of it in bags to carry with him.

You can argue, of course, that my recounting of the incident within a cultural critique is its own form of self-soothing grandiosity - the bleeding heart of liberal, better-than-thou preachiness. I'm not even averse to the criticism that such moments are also about relieving my own guilt about not doing enough for others.

But even if that's true - or even if it's true that the man was a communist trust-fund baby who works for Barack Obama - the fact is that he was suffering. And for some reason, this time people noticed and decided to help instead of concocting a story to avoid feeling the overwhelming sadness that the man brought into the room. Perhaps it was grace.

A few opportunities to help:

Atlanta Community Food Bank

Project Open Hand

Hosea Feed the Hungry

Volunteer Match

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