After my doctor’s appointment this morning, I had a while to wait for the next train, so I stopped into the farmer’s market at Reading Terminal. It was nice to get there before lunch, before crowds of downtown workers lined up at stalls selling every kind of food, from Malaysian curry and cheese steaks to turkey shaped chocolates and beet juice shakes. I went in for bananas and wandered around a bit before heading toward the train station across the street. Then, out on the sidewalk, I met Helen.
“Hey, Honey, could you buy me a sandwich?” she called. I glanced at my watch and saw I had plenty of time before my train. No excuse there. My other excuse, that I don’t like to give people cash, was also gone. Because there’s a lot of addiction in my own family, I’m wary of giving money to people on the street, but some time ago I decided I would try to buy food for anyone who asked, providing I had the time and the cash myself. So, I headed back into Reading Terminal with the woman, who introduced herself as Helen. “That’s my mother’s name,” I said, as I introduced myself.
Finding a simple sandwich turned out to be more difficult than I expected, as we passed samosas and stir fry, which were clearly not what Helen had in mind. “Chicken would be good,” she said hopefully amid her repeated thanks. Some lunch places weren’t serving yet, but the woman at the cheese steak booth said they were. “Do you have chicken?” I asked. She nodded and pointed me toward the “Order Here” sign where a white man about thirty-years-old was standing.
He glanced at Helen and then looked at me to take my order. “We’re together,” I explained, gesturing to Helen to say what she wanted.
“You’re not allowed in here,” he said to her curtly. “We’re supposed to call security,” he said to me.
“We’re getting food,” I said. “There’s no reason to call security.” He insisted people were not allowed to ask for food in the market, though I explained that Helen and I had started talking outside.
I’m not sure how the man sized up Helen so quickly as someone who had asked me for food. Was it just her brown skin, or the difference in our race and class and his assumption that we didn’t belong together? Helen wasn’t that badly dressed. She didn’t appear to be drunk or deranged, though there was something deprecating in her manner that distinguished her from the stylish women in dreadlocks who also frequent the Reading Terminal. Whatever it was that marked her as homeless, the man at the counter had dismissed her in less than a second, and now he was annoyed with me. He simply refused to wait on her.
“Well, I’d like some chicken, to go please,” I said simply. He muttered something about this causing trouble, but took my money with a disgusted look. Helen said she hoped he had a good day anyway, and I put the 50 cents change deliberately in his tip jar. Then we moved to the “Pick Up” sign, united for a moment in the decision to resist meanness with courtesy.
She thanked me again while we waited and said repeatedly that she hoped I had a wonderful Thanksgiving, and a safe trip when I mentioned we were going to my husband’s family in Wisconsin. I asked what she would do on Thanksgiving, and she said, “Nothing. Nowhere to go,” though when I mentioned it, she added that she would be getting a Thanksgiving meal at a church this Saturday. We said goodbye out on the sidewalk, Helen holding her package of chicken. She asked me for a hug, and I felt good about myself and Helen as we hugged goodbye and I headed for the trains. I felt good for a full five seconds, until a man on the sidewalk asked for food as I passed without pausing.
On the train, I opened my book The Spirituality of Imperfection
and read, “Seeing first one’s own defects and shortcomings is Humility; the fruit of that vision is Tolerance.” I realized it was only my own arrogance that made me feel superior to the man behind the counter. I am connected to him as surely as I am to Helen and the man I didn't feed.