October 13, 2018
I was standing by my kitchen window preparing cachupa. (I had read about it in my research that day. Cachupa is the national dish of the Cape Verde Islands, a shipwreck island in my book.)
The corn and beans simmered and the sausages sizzled and filled the house with a spicy aroma. I cut up winter squash and sauteed green beans and onions.
I saw movement under my window. A man in the barren garden, scavenging for food.
Now, there is nothing left except the stalks of an overgrown basil plant going to seed and the mint tea plants that are still trying to find their footing. Over a week ago we pulled up the plants, and tore up the stakes and plastic and Marnell hauled it all away with his dad’s trailer and took it to burn at his brother’s house. Some of the green tomatoes and tomatillas fell onto the dirt, and probably a few other random peppers or eggplant that didn’t fully mature.
Watching the man in the garden, I felt as if I was thrown back to the book of Ruth where the poor gleaned the fields after the reapers. My mind whirled with logical explanations, inventing possible motivations for why this man would search the bare ground. I saw him stoop and pick up small items. He popped one into his mouth, which looked like one of the immature eggplant, then tossed it away.
This man had come to our back door a few days before, on the weekend, and asked for money to buy food for his niece and nephew. He said he had lost his job, which surprised neither of us. In most of our interactions with him, Marnell and I tried to determine if he was high or not.
We decided to offer him food, which he accepted eagerly, saying the food pantries were closed for the weekend. He had mentioned eggs and milk, so we raided our fridge and gave him half a gallon of milk, most of a dozen of eggs, and a little cheese. I added raisins and crackers, honey nut Cheerios, some frozen hamburger and a can of baked beans. He took them gratefully.
Now, here he was again, picking food off the ground.
You know it’s funny how we make assumptions. It’s easy to assume that people aren’t truly hungry in today’s world, or that if they are it’s because they are not smart enough or diligent enough or careful enough.
What would motivate someone to scavenge an empty garden? I rolled it around in mind a bit. No answer seems as sensible as the simple answer: hunger.
I remember talking to my neighbor Mary.
“You mean there are hungry people here in this town?” I asked her.
I think she rolled her eyes.
“Katrina,” she said, “there are hungry children right here in this neighborhood!”
Watching him stoop to the ground, I cared less about why he didn’t have food, or what mistakes he might have made to get him there. I was just shocked.
Mary is right.
I expected him to come to the door next, which he never did. I knew the food we had given them should have gotten them through the weekend, and that the food banks were open again. I know we can’t really be a food bank for the community, in our current roles, and I don’t know what we’ll do if he comes back once a week for more groceries.
But even if he never comes back, I don’t think I’ll forget him.
He reminded me that the world is too complex to take comfort from assumptions. Truth is stranger than fiction, and often more heartbreaking.