James Stafford learned that not every homeless person wants charity.
We have a real family pizzeria in our neighborhood, so locally owned that drunken college kids knock on the owner’s door at 2 a.m. and beg him to go make them a pie. The place is a real gift in this overly-franchised world, so we throw it as much business as our arteries allow.
We’re not the only ones. We often see our neighbors there, and when we do my daughter bums quarters off of me so that she can give the little ones as many stuffed animals as she can get from the claw machine. We bump into past teachers, baseball coaches, old flames, new flames, enemies, frenemies, and friends. Time permitting, we even throw some darts if league play isn’t happening, or we ask to feed the goldfish.
The joint has been open for three years, and she’s been there every time we’ve visited, always alone but for her bag of recyclables. Her long gray hair suggests that she may be in her sixties, but I don’t know for sure. She keeps it clean and braided, and her high cheekbones and Asian features hint at what a beautiful younger woman she was. But whatever is going on in her head that makes her mumble to herself and hide behind a menu for hours has taken its toll on her.
My daughter and I dropped by last night to split a “Dad’s Special,” a veggie calzone and a side salad with the house vinaigrette made from another one of our neighbor’s own recipes.
“Geez, she’s here again,” I said.
“Yeah,” my daughter said. “Jay told me sometime she sits there from the time they open until they close.”
“That’s a lot of sitting.”
“I wonder if she’s homeless.”
“Might be,” I said.
“Do you think she just comes here for the free water?”
“Maybe. I bet when you’re homeless you really have to plan where to get water, go to the bathroom, and find food, all that stuff we take for granted.”
“Maybe she just needs some place to sit in the air conditioning,” my daughter said. “Or maybe this is the only place she can watch TV.”
“I bet it’s nice just to be around people, even if you aren’t interacting with them,” I said. Our waitress stepped up and asked for our order. “Hey, does that lady ever order food?” I asked.
“No. Well, sometimes she’ll order something small, but she sits there for hours.”
“Why don’t you ask her if she wants something?” I said. “Please don’t make a big deal about it, but if she wants to order some food just bring me the bill.”
And that was the end of it. My daughter talked about school and I listened, and we waited for the Dad’s Special to arrive. They make a kickass crust, so the secret to the Dad’s Special calzone is omission of watery ingredients like ricotta and tomatoes so the crust stays as crispy as possible.
Jay nailed it as always, and as we gnawed away on the greatest crust ever I saw the waitress bring our anonymous friend a personal-sized pizza. She clung to her bag of recyclables and mouthed some words. The waitress’s lips moved, and our new friend shook her head and pulled her recyclables closer.
The waitress walked to our table. “She won’t eat it unless she pays for it,” she said.
“She thinks we’re ganging up on her.”
“Okay,” I said, but it was too late. Our homeless friend not only refused to eat, but she gathered up her things and left.
I felt terrible, like Bono infantilizing Africa for a photo-op. All I needed were those stupid sunglasses. In my zeal to play the role of the nice guy I’d stripped the poor lady of her dignity. She had her system all worked out: a place to sit and watch a little television with other people; a place to escape the summer heat and enjoy a glass of ice water. She had a restroom and tank full of goldfish to watch.
But I couldn’t leave well enough alone. I imposed my will on her, and rather than being greeted with flowers I caused upheaval. Whether there’s an application for this story outside of my neighborhood pizzeria is for you to decide. I’m just going to finish this kickass crust, then maybe I’ll play a little darts and feed the goldfish.