Saturday, 20 December 2008

Fast Food Angel

The woman didn’t look like an angel. She was short and squat and tired looking, with three squabbling kids, all under the age of ten. My friends and I were just behind her in line and we watched as she negotiated the counter, getting her children’s orders straight, taking her coin purse out of her shoulder bag and carefully counting out the money. She was wearing some sort of cleaner’s uniform and a pair of old shoes with the heels turned down, and she looked as though she’d had a long, hard day.

Just as she received her order, an ill-dressed man sidled up to the line. “Spare change?” he muttered.

The man reeked of alcohol. His long grey-streaked black hair was dull and greasy and he had obviously been sleeping in his clothes for God knows how long. We all shook our heads and averted our eyes, and so did the cleaning lady.

“You can’t give money to guys like that," one of my friends said. "If we gave him money, he’d just go out and get drunk with it.”

The rest of us agreed. We were students, after all. We didn’t have much money and we weren’t about to waste it on some street person who’d just blow it on a bottle of cheap wine.

Just across from us, the cleaning lady was getting her kids settled, pulling hamburgers and packets of French fries out of paper bags. Two of her children quarreled over who had asked for the cheeseburger and she sorted that out, then distributed drinks. Her own meal sat untouched on the table.

My friends and I had just started to eat when we saw the woman get up from her table and get back in line. We assumed that she’d forgotten something one of her kids wanted, but after she'd paid for her second order she walked over to the ill-dressed man, who was sitting by himself at a table, trying to get warm. Silently she handed him the food -- two hamburgers and a cup of coffee -- and placed them in front of him.

It was hard not to watch as the man tore the paper off his first hamburger and began wolfing it down with swigs of coffee. He almost spilled it in his eagerness to get food and drink to his mouth.

My friends and I watched this in open-mouthed amazement. “She’s one of those Jehovah’s Witnesses or something,” someone at another table muttered. We all watched and waited for the woman's save-your-soul pitch to begin.

But the woman wasn’t rummaging through her bag for a religious tract; she was finally eating her own dinner, reaching to steady the drink of one child, to wipe the nose of another. She ignored the street man, who all but inhaled his second hamburger. It was clearly the first meal he’d had in a long time.

The man finished his dinner in very little time and got to his feet. Stumbling over to the woman’s table, he mumbled his thanks. The woman barely nodded back at him, and he left, letting in a frigid blast of wind as the door slammed behind him.

Decades later, I still remember that mother and her unselfish act of kindness, and how it humbled and touched us. Though my friends and I were students, all three of us were better dressed than she was, and we almost certainly had, if not more money, better prospects of getting it. But her generosity given her circumstances was not the only thing that impressed us; this woman saw a need and immediately knew the best way to meet it. She had no agenda, and unlike us, she didn't immediately think of reasons why she should not give; instead she spontaneously spotted the very thing that was needed and gave it. What a great example she was to her children -- and to us. To this day, I can think of no better personification of the Christmas spirit than that tired mother, my Fast Food Angel.

Merry Christmas to all of you and your families, and I hope to post again in 2009!


debra said...

It is the random acts of kindness that are special. It's good luck to be nice, I've told my children. Your fast food angel demonstrated it.

Robin said...

That is a lovely story.

Here's a real life spin on this concept that didn't end quite as well: When we were living in Phila, we went to Chinatown to a vegetarian restaurant that made Chinese dishes with "fake meat" made from tofu. On the way there we saw a drunk, homeless beggar, and I had the brilliant idea of ordering a dish for him at the restaurant (so he couldn't spend donated money on alcohol).

We gave him "sweet and sour fake chicken" made with tofu. Then we walked to the Chinese bakery to get an almond cookie, feeling really good about ourselves and our altruism. When we passed the beggar again, he said, "What the hell, you assholes? You trying to KILL me? That stuff tasted like S--T! I threw it out!"

The reason I admire the fast food angel? She knew enough to get the guy a hamburger, and was not a self satisfied moronic yuppie like yours truly.

Ha! Merry Christmas! :)

Charles Gramlich said...

Such a great story. I've been on the recieving end of such kindness and I've never forgotten it. I've tried myself to help others out in this way whenever I can.

Kappa no He said...

That was a sweet story. I have a friend who buys one extra obento everyday and gives it to one of the many homeless men who live in the underground tunnels near the station. She's actually made friends with all of them now. Such a big heart. Sometimes people rock. Except that guy Robin gave the meal, too.

Mary Witzl said...

Debra -- I agree. I tell my kids that even if people aren't always kind in return, it's better to be kind yourself. At the very least you can go so sleep with a relatively untroubled conscience.

Robin -- I've been kind in the past and had it backfire too -- and most of the time I figured I just got it wrong and did the wrong thing. But I love what you did, and NO WAY would I have been that generous -- Chinese vegetarian is expensive and I'm far too cheap! No way would I have thrown it out, either -- I'm crazy about tofu and vegetarian Chinese.

And did you mention almond cookies? I'll bet if you'd given that ingrate almond cookies he'd have been thrilled!

Charles -- I've been on the receiving end too, and I vowed to myself I'd pay it back one day. By my reckoning, I've still got a long way to go. The lady with the hamburgers has no doubt paid in full with plenty of credit left over.

Kappa -- Good for your friend!

I used to haul my old futons (well aired) over to Shinjuku Station and leave them at a certain place near the west exit where a lot of homeless guys congregated. One night I came through Shinjuku and saw a man wrapped up in a certain pink-and-white kakebuton I remembered well. Much better than bundling them up and throwing them out on sodai gomi day. But I'll bet they'd have appreciated obento even more.

Angela said...

Great story--thank you for sharing it. It's funny how often the person who steps up is the one in least position to do so.

This is what I love about the Christmas season--it inspires people to think of what they can give to others to help, not what they can receive.

Have a wonderful Christmas, Mary!

Marcia said...

That's a wonderful story. After everyone refused to give the man money, which I believe was the right choice, I was hoping somebody'd buy him food. So I was grinning at the end. I'm so glad he stayed long enough to get it. I'd have been worried I'd order and pay for the food and then find he'd walked out . . .

Phil said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Phil said...

Lovely story, Mary.

I think we all like to think we are better people than we actually are. Trying to 'do our bit' stops when self preservation kicks in. It's not a pleasant character trait when examined in the cold light of day.

The writing here explored that really well. It says more about the spirit of Christmas than anything else I've seen, heard or read for quite some time.

You've also done me a bit of a favour. I've been unable to write anything for a while but something has been swimming through my head recently. This helped put a few of my thoughts in order.

Back to your piece - it's the random, unpremeditated acts of kindness that often have the most impact - both for the recipient and the giver.

All the best this Christmas.


PS - Sorry about the deleted post. That was me. Messed it up and somehow 'sent' it before I was ready!

Barbara Martin said...

Beautiful story, and it reminded me of when I saw a destitute man near the Charing Cross Rail station in London who looked very poorly. I went into the station to one of food shops and bought a sandwich with tuna, lettuce and tomato, a large bottle of orange juice, a muffin all placed into a brown paper bag with some change I had on hand. He was very grateful.

Carolie said...

Thank you for this story, Mary. Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to you and yours.

Had a similar thing happen to me on a NYC subway car. I hadn't been in NYC very long, and still felt very much the rube. I'd been told over and over by my friends NOT to give money to panhandlers on the subway, so I tried very hard to do the New Yorker thing and avoid eye contact, so I wouldn't be tempted.

It was sometime in early November. I'd been shopping, and was on the subway home with my groceries (there was a tiny bodega near where I lived, but no real grocery store). A man in a threadbare coat came into our subway car. A tiny blonde girl held his hand. Standing at one end of the subway car with his eyes cast down, he went into a spiel about moving to NYC to look for a job. He went on about being too proud to beg before now, but that the need to feed his little girl had overcome his pride.

I could hear Kentucky in his voice, and my heart was breaking for the little girl. My heart wanted to give them all my meager money, even though my rational mind kept saying "it's a scam." The other passengers read their newspapers and books, or continued napping.

I rearranged my groceries, putting milk, peanut butter, apples and a box of Triscuits in one bag, keeping the non-edibles in another bag. Knowing I was being stupid, I got up from my seat and offered him the bag of groceries, and a $5 bill as we approached my stop.

He handed me back the $5 and kept the groceries.

"I just needed to feed my little girl. Thank you, ma'am. God bless."

Hell, it might have been a scam, but if it was, it certainly was a good one. I wept the entire walk home from the subway station.

I never forgot that man and his little girl...and because of them, I actively look for opportunities to give away food (and yes, sometimes money -- who am I to put strings on a gift, or make assumptions on how it will be spent?)

Sorry for the long, long comment, Mary! It sort of got away from me.

a. fortis said...

That's a really heartening story--and the fact that it was something the mother demonstrated to her children, too, is wonderful. Hell, I remember being pretty awestruck by my grandfather giving someone spare change when I was a kid. I think modeling kind and charitable behavior can really make a difference in this world.

Gaining Back My Life said...

What a beautiful way to end 2008. Thank you for baring your soul and sharing your incredible writing with the world.


Mary Witzl said...

Angela -- Merry Christmas to you, too! I just wish some of the kindness and charity we feel at Christmas stuck with us over the rest of the year, though. Sometimes Christmas seems more about filling the coffers of merchandisers than it does thinking of making life easier for the more unfortunate.

Marcia -- You and I definitely think alike. If I'd bought those hamburgers, guaranteed the intended recipient would have left and I'd be stuck with a bag of rapidly cooling food. My lady probably figured that with three kids in tow, it was a safe bet that SOMEbody would eat the hamburgers!

Phil -- I'm glad this helped you organize your thoughts, and I sympathize about your finding it difficult to write. Back in Scotland, I had plenty of time to spare, but sometimes struggled to write, but here, where I have almost no free time to spare, all I can think about is what I want to write next. (I just try not to think about it in class too much; fortunately, my students help by giving me too much to do...)

I miss you, Jane, Sue, Brian -- and so many others! Merry Christmas, and I wish you had a blog of your own... (It's a great way to force yourself to write -- hint, hint...)

Barbara -- Good for you. It takes courage for me to give, and I imagine it's that way for a lot of people: you worry that the person might feel diminished or pitied by your act of giving, or that what you give might not be appreciated or truly wanted. I'm glad that you managed to do this and that what you gave was appreciated.

Carolie -- What a great story, and if this was a scam, yes, it was a good one. But you had no way of knowing that it was NOT a scam, and I can imagine that if you had ignored this man and his little girl, you would have regretted it to this day. I would have! I love the fact that he gave back the money -- if it was a scam, he was one fine scam artist. But I'm betting he wasn't, and whether he was or not, I think you're great. Merry Christmas!

Sarah -- Yes, I have thought about this woman a lot and considered how fortunate her children were to have her for a role model. I too was impressed by acts of charity as a child. You see a lot of people who always make excuses not to give, while others quietly do what is right. I want my children to remember me as one of the latter types.

GBML -- Thank YOU for that comment, one of the nicest Christmas presents I'm likely to get! And thank you so much for coming to read my blog. Merry Christmas!

adrienne said...

What a nice story. My mom used to tell us that giving should be unconditional - it's not our business how people choose to use a gift.
Have a wonderful holiday!

Jacqui said...

Mary, it's your willingness to write the whole truth of the story from your point of view as one of the students that makes it so powerful, I think. If you'd just told it without describing what most of us do, it wouldn't have been as touching.

Oh, and I was supposed to tell you about this and I forgot. Sorry!

Charlie said...

Beautiful writing as usual, Mary, and so are all of the comments. I especially liked what you did with your old futons.

I just wish some of the kindness and charity we feel at Christmas stuck with us over the rest of the year, though.

I was thinking the same thing until I read it in one of your comments. The food banks are overflowing right now, but they will be scrambling for food donations starting in January.

The crowd around here, however, appears to buck that trend . . .

Ello said...

Beautiful story, Mary. And it really reminds me of my husband. I joke alot about him, but he does that sort of thing all the time. He reeks of human kindness and charity. Me,not so much. I must be there to balance him off or something!

Have a wonderful Christmas!

Mary Witzl said...

Adrienne -- Thank you for commenting! I agree with your mother in principle, though in practice it is sometimes hard to accept this. (I speak as one who has seen my carefully chosen Christmas gifts lying in cheerful disarray on my daughter's bedroom floor.)

Jacqui -- I appreciate your comments so much. And I really appreciate your passing that award along, and thank you for that. My daughter was able to help me paste it into my blog straight away. I feel so honored!

Charlie -- You're certainly one of the trend buckers, and what you are doing for Christmas is a lot nobler than what I'm going to be doing (feeding three well-fed teenagers). I love all the stories of true charity here too, and if I do say so myself, I have a lot of great readers and commenters.

I'm a little embarrassed about the futons. It is true that I did this partly out of charity, but also partly because I cannot bear for things to be wasted. The thought of my futons going to some dump heap when they could be used by someone was too much to bear.

Ello -- Your husband sounds great! My husband and I are pretty well balanced too. Sometimes he is more charitable than I am, and sometimes I fill in for him. Most of the time, I hope we manage to get it right. And I dispute your claim that you are not charitable -- you show your charity in many ways!

Kim Ayres said...

Wonderfully written, as always, and very topical for the season :)

Hope you're having a good one in the heat!

Patois said...

What a great story, especially the fact that you remember it so many years later and likely have acted in remembrance many times.

The Quoibler said...

I think that the Fast Food Angel gave her children an incredible gift that day, too.

I love stories like these that illustrate true giving on a human level.

Thank you and blessings to your family in 2009 and beyond!


Kanani said...

I'm always stunned at the number of people who don't make a move to help another. I don't know. It just seems natural to help. But what I find is that often those with the fewest resources often step up to help.

Hi! I'm Grace said...

Merry Christmas to you and to your family. :)

The Anti-Wife said...

Merry Christmas!

Eryl Shields said...

Hope you are all having a lovely Christmas and will have a great new year, X

Mary Witzl said...

Kim -- Thank you, and I hope you had a Merry Christmas. (I heard it snowed in Scotland. Hope you had some over in CD too!)

Patois -- Thank you for commenting, and yes, this generous act DID actually influence me. The woman who gave on this occasion certainly was a good model for her children, but she had an impact on me too. And although I haven't seen them in decades, I'm betting my friends never forgot her either.

Angelique -- Blessings and a great 2009 to you and your family too, and I hope you aren't working too hard (though I have a feeling you are).

Kanani -- This is probably how the Fast Food Angel felt watching people like my friends and me ignoring the hungry man. Sometimes it takes so little, but we still hold back -- sometimes because we don't think we can give what is right or we are afraid of offending. It's great to see someone with enough courage and compassion to get this right.

Grace -- Hello, and a Merry Christmas to you too. Thank you for commenting.

Anti-wife -- Merry Christmas! Yay, you're back!!

Eryl -- Merry Christmas. Have you had a lot of snow there?

Kim Kasch said...

Great story.

Hope you had a wonderful holiday.

Christy said...

Beautiful. Merry Christmas to you and yours.

Katie Alender said...

Lovely story, Mary. Happy holidays to you!

janepowers said...

Nice to read your work again, Mary. I don't think you realise how well you tell a story. There is an economy of description that is almost journalistic but it is enough to picture the scene.I love the way it leaves the reader room for their own thoughts.
It's funny how acts like that stay with you and keep coming back at odd times to jog your memory.
I didn't know you were still writing after your move.. I'll pop in from time to time
Jane Powers

Mary Witzl said...

Kim -- Thank you, and I hope you had a good holiday too! What sort of country music do you like? Around my family, I am forced to keep a low country profile -- it's so sad.

Christy -- A belated Merry Christmas to you and a Happy New Year, too!

Katie -- Thank you! I loved your post about being thankful for what we have, but you were preaching to the converted there.

Jane -- I'm so glad you commented! I am still so grateful to you for your kind and helpful comments on my MG novel. I took many of your suggestions and I'm still rewriting it; though I have given up in despair many times, I always go back -- can't seem to give it up as a lost cause. I wish you, Brian, Phil and many other GW writers had blogs of your own; I would visit them frequently. I miss your writing.

Susan Sandmore said...

Great story, beautifully told. I've been away from your blog for too long! I hope you have a wonderful New Year!