When I drove into the parking lot of the drugstore that day I had no reason to think the visit would be any different from any other visit I had made to pick up a prescription at the pharmacy.
This particular drugstore’s parking lot on the Westside is a regular hotbed for the local homeless community. I think it has something to do with the side of the parking lot edging an alley. It’s secluded on one side, yet still close to a busy area of the city. Never has a visit passed without my seeing one or two or three homeless people hanging out close to the doors going into the drugstore. Sometimes they’re milling about and talking to one another, oblivious to the mom’s going in to get their child’s cough syrup or the teenagers going in after school for a candy bar and a coke. Sometimes a homeless man will be waiting by the door asking those who go in if they can spare some change. I keep a bag of protein bars in the door of my car, ready to distribute to anyone who might be asking for help to get by.
When I pulled into the parking spot that day and spotted a homeless man right by the door I immediately leaned over to grab the bag of bars ready to hand him one or two. As I sat back up in my seat and turned off the car I looked back over and noticed he was already gone.
I thought to myself, damn, that was fast. I didn’t even see him heading down the street. Walking inside the drugstore I realized why it had seemed fast. He had walked into the drugstore!
This wasn’t the first time I had seen a homeless person in a store, but it sure doesn’t happen often, especially here in Los Angeles. There’s something very jarring about it. Although I’m not sure what is more jarring—the fact that it seems like a big deal, or the fact that people who don’t have four walls and a bed are wandering around a store hoping to get something just like the other human beings doing the same.
Why is it that stores are off limits for those that are so obviously struggling?
Why is it that the outside of the doors are ok for us to see them and the inside of the doors is not?
Is it the idea that someone who lives on the streets doesn’t need the things that are in the store? They need them alright. It’s just that they can’t get them with as much ease as everyone else.
I saw the homeless man as soon as I walked into the store. He was looking at the Hershey’s Chocolate Bars..the big ones. The ones the store keeps in the candy aisle, not the candy they keep in front of the register. He was a tall African-American man, very slim with short unkempt curly hair that was receding. He looked like someone’s Grandpa. His pants were huge and the belt tight in an effort to keep them snug at the waist. I would later learn he was missing many of his bottom front teeth. I noticed a blanket draped over his shoulder too, although I didn’t really pay attention to it at the time. I was consumed with my thoughts watching him looking at the food. I stopped after walking in and just watched him from afar as he picked up a big chocolate bar. He would pick it up, look at it intently, then put it back down. Then, he would pick up another one and do the same thing. All the while shifting on his feet from one to another as if a twelve-year old boy with just too many choices on his hands.
As I headed towards the pharmacy to get my prescription, I saw him out of the corner of my eye walking away from the chocolate towards another aisle. I made a decision in that moment to grab some food and buy it for him. Maybe he had a few bucks…I didn’t know. The least I could do was buy him some food and something to drink. Why should he spend the little money he maybe had?
As I headed down the aisles on my way back towards the area of the store where I saw him in, I grabbed a big bottle of water and a big bag of Chex Mix. Thinking would he want this? Would it taste good? I saw him then shuffling. I walked right up to him and asked if it’d be ok if I bought him some food? He looked at me and without missing a beat, nodded his head. I walked towards the candy aisle intently and spoke out loud saying I noticed he had been looking at the chocolate bars…did he want one?
That’s when he spoke. He called me ma’am and said he wanted to get two of the big ones.
I hate being called ma’am—by anyone, much less a person who’s older than me. I knew it wasn’t the time to have that conversation with him though, so I grabbed three of the chocolate bars and asked him if he wanted to get something to drink from the drink coolers. He shuffled over with me to the coolers, calling me ma’am again and as I was reaching for something relatively healthy he asked for one of the cokes.
Now, with my daughter, a Coca Cola would be absolutely off limits, but here I am with a man I’ve just met, who is calling me ma’am, and who I know has much bigger fish to fry than to worry about damn sugar content. I got over myself and said you bet and grabbed two of the bottles. I asked him if he wanted anything else and he said no.
We walked up to the register together and I put all the goods on the counter. I had also stopped by the drugstore to get a basic 5×7 picture frame for my daughter to hang up a photo of her friend’s and her in her room. As I looked down at the counter at what I was buying for myself I felt absolutely privileged. Here I was “driving” to a drugstore to pay money for a picture frame for my daughter to hang up on the walls of “her room” in “our house.” This man meanwhile, had no home to even lay his head down in, much less to hang up photos. All he cared about was getting as many calories as possible from a cornucopia of sugar and carbs. I sat there looking at the frame embarrassed knowing that the food I was buying for him could well possibly be the only food he would eat the entire day.
I asked him do you wanna wait for me to come outside?
I was conscious of not making him feel uncomfortable while I stood there and opened up my wallet to get my debit card, which was nestled next to all the other cards I had that gave me access to money. All it did was emphasize the means I had and contrasted them with the means he did not.
He told me through his aged voice, no ma’am, I’ll wait for you here.
The cashier behind the counter looked at me and looked at him. She looked back at me and at the stuff on the counter, and then rang up everything silently. If it had been my daughter standing with me I’m sure she would have chatted us both up, like cashiers seem to do. She bagged the food and drinks and then spoke to me saying that it was really thoughtful of me to buy all that stuff for him. I sheepishly looked away and felt uncomfortable with the compliment. Was it really? I wanted to say back to her. He’s the one without a home. All I did was pick up a few groceries. Why do I get a compliment on top of everything else I already have.
I handed the bag to the man standing next to me, looking at him in his eyes, willing him to see me seeing him. I don’t know if he felt that or not, and frankly it doesn’t matter. He just said thank you ma’am and God Bless. Then he walked in front of me and out the door.
I walked out right behind him watching his back taking notice to his ill fitting clothing so loose on his body. I wanted to etch everything about him onto my mind. I did not want to forget that he was possibly someone’s Grandpa and he mattered.
I saw him shuffle away with his blanket on his shoulder. All of a sudden it dawned on me how filthy his blanket was. Why hadn’t I seen that dirty blanket while we were in the store? I mean really see it? I sat stunned imagining him sleeping with that blanket, so thin and dirty. I watched him walk into stopped traffic. He weaved in and out of each of the stopped cars across five lanes, the dirty blanket hanging down near his knees swinging left and right as he walked. Oh my God, I thought to myself, that’s all he has. He’s got his blanket and now a bag of snacks and drinks. He’s going to sleep on the street tonight with that filthy blanket to cover him up while I go back to a warm home in the mountains with blankets clean.
Where was the fairness in all of that I asked myself?!
I watched him cross onto the other side of the street, the bag of food and the blanket swinging from side to side. I watched him until he was only a dot in the distance. And, then, he was gone. I felt so hollow and sad. I see homeless people in droves around Los Angeles…on street corners, in encampments under freeways or down city blocks, many walking around aimlessly, day and night, through all areas of the city. You can’t not see them, although many people do not.
At night though…at night, they’re getting their beds ready just like me. The difference is that they are doing it in whatever way they possibly can…a bus stop bench, a piece of cardboard, or it could just be like the man I connected with at the drugstore, it could just a bed with a dirty blanket.