He bought a box of instant mashed potatoes, some canned tamales, a small bag of frozen bon bons, and a few other things.  It wasn’t much.   Enough to get him through the week if his meals were small. He put each item on the conveyor belt slowly, carefully, almost as if it was painful.   Mashed potatoes from a box felt sad to me. I was thinking of the freshness of real potatoes and how much better they’d taste and how much cheaper they’d be.

Was he buying these things out of convenience? Doesn’t take much effort to boil water and stir, I guess.  

Does he have the money to go shop at a real grocery store?

Does he know how to cook?

Is he physically able to cook?

None of this chatter really mattered.   One thing for certain: we’re both at Dollar Tree for the same reason.  We know a dollar goes a whole lot further here than anywhere else.   The only difference is that I have the option to do my grocery shopping at Berkeley Bowl or Raley’s.   Perhaps, he does not.

The man took out his card to pay and had a little trouble swiping it. The sales clerk offered to help. It was an EBT card and he only had about $17 on it. Turns out it wasn’t enough.   All of us in line could hear.

“Sir, you need just a couple more dollars,” the clerk said.

“Oh. Ok, I can take some things out,” he said.   The man reached into his bags, trying to decide what he needed the least.

I didn’t want to look, but I looked anyway. I’ve been in that position more times than I care to admit. Target. Safeway. So many other places. I’d like to say it was a lifetime ago, but it really wasn’t. Standing in line, nervous, hoping I stayed within my budget, only to discover that once the sales clerk rang up the total, I didn’t have enough money. I had to decide which items I would have to leave behind…in front of everybody.

All eyes on me as I took this item and that item out of the bag. Would have sworn days passed as I waited until the price came down to something I could afford. How many more items would it take? I was hoping the clerk and everyone in line would soon forget my face. I dreaded being marked and remembered as that woman who couldn’t pay for her food.   Only the people in line could tell you if they were impatient with me or felt sorry for me. Maybe they mumbled insults beneath their breath.  I couldn’t say for sure.  No one needed to help me feel ashamed.   The disappointment in myself was enough. The possibility of their pity was enough…heavy enough to leave behind scars that surprise me sometimes.

At Dollar Tree, the impatience was real. Some other man behind me sighed loud enough for us to hear, shifting his weight from side to side.

I waited and watched for a couple seconds and finally told the clerk, “I have a couple dollars. I can pay for it…if it’s…”

I was about to say “if it’s alright with him” but couldn’t say it quick enough. He didn’t hear me because he was concentrating on what items to take out. The clerk told him that I would pay the couple dollars.

He looked at me and seemed a bit surprised.

“Oh. Thank you.”  He didn’t make such a big deal out of it, and I was glad he didn’t.

“No problem,” I said.

He gathered his bags, thanked me again, and left.

The sales clerk rang up my items. “Thank you for doing that,” she said.

“No problem. I’ve been in that position before.”

We exchanged tight, half-smiles. I said thank you and left.

It was not a day I walked away feeling extra pleased with myself.  This deserved no special page in the book of “random acts of kindness” or “pay it forward” or other helpful clichés that remind us to be generous for once in our efficient, little lives and not be greedy fucks who are always in a hurry.

This was his day at Dollar Tree.

This was once my day at Target and Safeway.

This is a typical day for so many.

We hold our heads up high and pretend everything is okay and try our best not to cry in front of our children and hope things will get better soon.

Too many of us dangle daily from the edge of soon.







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