|This is not him. But similar. ©Photo Marlan Warren|
Today I took a long walk through my hood early this morning, and as I passed the unopened Starbucks an old Black man, who was swaddled in a blanket and crumpled in a corner between the building and the sidewalk, muttered something that sounded like an ask. I stopped several feet away (he was unmasked, I wasn't) and looked in my wallet. It's been a long time since I handed a street person money. I used to automatically do it in San Francisco. A counselor whom I was seeing at the time told me that my spontaneous generosity inspired her to try it out. But I have stopped. For various reasons. It hasn't felt right for a long time.
So I reached out to him with a dollar in my hand and he didn't reach out to take it, so I placed it on his tattered knee. He growled:
"I don't need money! I NEED FOOD!"
I was in a hurry to get to my destination (the home of a stranger in the Facebook Buy Nothing group who had specified a time for me to pick up some free nails), and unsure what to do (the Starbucks appeared closed, as did the taco stand across the street).
I mumbled something about being sorry and hurried on. But my head was chattering the rest of the time about what to do. In this upscale, shuttered area it's not that easy to grab a bite for a homeless stranger in need at that early hour. I thought wistfully of McDonalds. So cheap. So accessible. And rather a long walk for me.
In my mind's eye, I saw myself stopping at a nice takeout place and getting him something, bringing it back after my nail pickup. But what did he want? There was a Chinese takeout joint, a donut shop, a gourmet Mexican takeout grill...
The IRS dropped the $600 Stimulus money into my account yesterday. Why not help out someone in need with a bit of it? Or was I taking excessive responsibility? No. This man clearly needed help. And clearly needed to eat!
Or maybe he'd already gotten someone else to help.
About 30 minutes later, I returned and saw his spot was vacant. I looked around. So he's ambulatory. Maybe off to a more lucrative area. But then I saw him—sitting on a bench in a bus shelter looking exhausted and dejected—across the street.
The shelter is in front of the Bank of America where a very long line of customers were patiently waiting, doing their best efforts to socially distance. Perhaps to retrieve their $600?
I approached him and casually asked: "Do you still want food?"
He nodded yes.
"Okay, what would you like? I'll get it for you."
"I want a burger," he said. Now I could see his only teeth - two on the bottom of his mouth. And that mouth was shaking hard when he tried to form words. "And a bag of chips and a soft drink."
He indicated the Fatburger that was a few blocks away.
"They have fries, not chips."
"They got chips..." He nodded in the direction of the gas station quickie mart, even farther than the burger joint.
"Okay, and what kind of drink?"
"And what do you want on your burger?"
"Tomatoes and cheese."
"Mayo? Mustard?" He shook his head no.
I have to say I admire his specificity.
So I'd made this commitment. Now all I had to do was see it through. We were in the exact spot of East Hollywood (aka "Los Feliz") where Hollywood Boulevard, Vermont Avenue, and Prospect Avenue intersect in a rush of heavy traffic and lights that take eons to change. It was 10:30 a.m. and folks were starting to buzz about—including the ones in the tents that have sprung up on a traffic island nearby.
Thanks to the long waits for the lights, the whole mission took about 20 minutes. The quickie mart was quick. And Fatburger was surprising devoid of customers. (YAY!) It was the first time I'd been in there for a couple years. And the only time I've been inside any eating establishment in about a year. The sign on the door claimed:
"ONLY 2 CUSTOMERS AT A TIME WILL BE ALLOWED INSIDE."
There wasn't even a line for the drive-by window. What luck!
Staff had changed since I was last there. I hoped it might be efficient. I ordered his burger...and one for me. The couple hamburgers I'd eaten there before were not great. But it was 10:30 a.m. and I was getting hungry. Why not live dangerously?
A few minutes later, the place filled up with masked, agitated men who looked on a lunch break. I counted 12. Behind the counter, the manager was on the phone taking an order -- with his mask hanging under his nose. I saw a customer note this and adjust his own mask more tightly. (L.A. has lost over 1,256 people to Covid-19 as of today, and 26,000 are known to be or have been infected.)
I went to the door and opened it and just stayed there with it open, far from the action and letting fresh air inside (or as fresh as L.A. air can be). Another customer exited and waited outside, not making eye contact.
There was just one young Latina working the grill by herself. Eventually she was joined by another. This felt like the longest wait of my life.
But I had time to think. His meal would total $11.00. Why was this man unable to even buy food? What happened to his IRS deposit? Is he on S.S.I.? Would it have been dropped into his bank account somewhere? Or is there nothing like that for the disenfranchised of our fair city? A social worker who could help him gain access to his rightful government money? He could even qualify for EBT.
Just buying someone without a mask a meal seemed to stretch my limits. After all, I'm one of those "at risk" folks who needs to be locked down, and I am usually in my apartment nursing whatever latest physical ailment has decided to visit me. This is the first time that I've been outside for a good length of time.
I can't get involved with a maskless homeless man in trouble.
Or can I?
"Maria! Mary!" one of Fatburger workers shouted. That was the name I'd given them. I grabbed both bags and headed back.
Of course he'd moved.
I walked inside the bus shelter. Looked across the street at Starbucks. Looked at the B of A parking lot. And I was about to give up when I saw that he was lying in his blanket on the top of the cement barrier of the parking lot, several feet away from me.
Was he sleeping? But he recognized me as I moved towards him, and he sat up, a long line of drool falling out of his mouth (lack of teeth can do that).
I handed him the bag and set the chips & soda next to him.
He said: "Thank you very much."
Then I wished him well and moved on. I walked home, munching my burger with pickles and lettuce, which was hot and tasty. The best one I've ever had.
But that one nagging question remains:
Who is making sure these American citizens, these "street people," get their government money?