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After one particularly heinous day as a gossip reporter, I stopped into my local bakery on the way home. I needed a cookie to cheer myself up.
The Romanian lady working behind the counter looked as bedraggled as I felt, and pretty soon we were swapping workplace horror stories as I stuffed my face with day-old scones and let her teach me Gypsy curses to mumble under my breath at work.
As she closed up shop, she offered me leftover bagels to take home, free.
“Ve just trow dem away, you should take instead,” she said insistently, already stuffing baked goods into a paper bag. “You young girl, you need bread!”
I shrugged and accepted, figuring that between me and my three other roommates, Sarah (aka “Pfeiffer”), Marcia, and Holly, we could find some drunken use for a few bagels.
But she didn’t give me a few. She gave me twenty. Twenty goddamn bagels. Even for the most ardent carbohydrate fan (me), that was a tall order. I stared at the bagels, starchy little enemies, as they taunted me, begged me to eat them all. They’d be rock-hard stale in less than a day; what in hell was I going to do with them--build a fort?
But I couldn’t just trash them! In my family, being wasteful was a capital crime. My great-grandmother had survived the Depression and never missed an opportunity to remind us. In her house, ziplock bags were washed out and reused until they looked like a CDC experiment, and toothpaste tubes were cut in half to mine every last drop. You don’t even want to know her thoughts on tampons.
Needless to say, tossing out food was just not an option. God help us if we ever made too many pancakes or anything else that didn’t thrive well as a leftover. We sat at that table and ate until we were nauseous, because we’d rather punish our stomachs and arteries than wash any perfectly good grub down the drain.
Eventually, I found a better place for excess food than my strained tummy: the homeless.
I always had a very soft spot for the indigent. In the manicured suburbs of Orange County, we simply didn’t have hobos. If one popped up, police would drive him outside city limits and drop him off in a more “poverty-friendly town,” like Costa Mesa or Santa Ana. Something with a more Mexican-sounding name than “Irvine.” For most of my town’s residents, it was easy to forget that poor people even existed.
Not for me. Growing up with a single mom, I was all too familiar with life on an extreme budget. My grandmother and great-grandmother served as my babysitters and surrogate parents while my mama worked two jobs. Thanks to them, we were able to afford a nice house and bountiful Christmases, but I was lucky and I knew it.
So I began donating to charity in whatever way I could. When I got old enough to drive I would scour our house to make care packages for the homeless. I raided the bathroom closet for pilfered hotel soaps and large, unwanted T-shirts from this 5K or that student council event. I’d cook up a Costco-sized box of macaroni and cheese and divide it into old margarine tubs, then write inspirational notes on napkins.
“You are loved!”
“Have faith, believe in yourself!”
“Fuck the police!”
I would leave the house with a trunk full of goodies, smugly optimistic about my goodwill mission. Inevitably, three pointless hours later, I’d be in tears.
Like I said, the homeless were in short supply in my area. Finding them was damn near impossible. I’d waste a whole tank of gas driving around random parks, hoping to find some sign of indigence. Once, in total desperation, I offered a care package to a woman who was very much not homeless, just sitting on a park bench sunning herself.
Lemme tell you something: the housed do not like being mistaken for the homeless. Not one little bit.
Even worse, I made this mistake a few times. I couldn’t help it! Hoodies, dirty shoes, any sign of mumbling to oneself--these were all telltale homeless traits! How was I supposed to know that one guy had a Bluetooth in or that another chick was just having some sort of sexual identity crisis?
My mom found my gaffes hilarious, telling me I was cursed as I gagged down the wasted tubs of tepid mac and cheese all by myself.
Once I got to New York, though, the homeless were much easier to spot, and I went back to the handouts. As a waitress at Houston’s, I was appalled at how much food was wasted. The steak house threw away hundreds of plump baked potatoes every night, so I began collecting them. I stuffed them clandestinely in my pockets and lurched out of the restaurant, hot taters slapping against my thighs as I waddled to the church steps where the hobos slept.
I can only imagine how terribly odd I must have looked to these poor people. A random blond girl, dressed all in black with an apron, like a side-dish ninja, producing potatoes out of a hidden pocket, then disappearing back into the night.
Of course, from then on, my crimes only escalated. It infuriated me that customers would take two bites of their massive rack of ribs and wave it away. So eventually, I started wrapping up leftovers and handing them out too.
Once, my fat bitch manager, Alexis, caught me. We hated each other, and she was probably delighted to confront me about pilfering food scraps.
“Shallon, this week we watched you steal ribs, spinach dips, half-eaten hamburgers, and part of a cobbler. Why?”
“I, I give them to the homeless,” I peeped, knowing Alexis was picturing me gobbling up these germy bits of food in whatever hovel I lived in.
“Oh please,” she snorted, “you do not.”
She only believed me after I described my “route” in painful detail, but she still told me I had to stop because if something I fed them made them sick, they could sue Houston’s. Obviously that was even more incentive to keep it up--I hated that restaurant and would’ve loved to have a poor person get rich off its back. I started including her business card with every potato.
But once I left that hellhole and got an office job, half-eaten chicken wings or any other leftovers were hard to come by. Until the day I met my Romanian Gypsy! As I stared at my booty of bagels, I felt the glorious thrill of charity--and revenge.
I grabbed a big canvas shopping bag and padded over to my local market, where I picked up vats of mustard, mayo, cheese, and sliced lunch meat.
Only I didn’t exactly buy the meat . . .
I stole it.
I’d never stolen anything in my life. But then again, I’d never hated any grocery store chain more than this one. It was a ratty (literally--rodents were everywhere), overpriced cesspool, always full of the rudest employees available. One cashier called me a “white bitch” when I tried to return a carton of rotten milk.
Plus, I was a staunch vegetarian. I considered stealing meat a little “fuck you” to both the grimy store and the vile meat industry.
With that simple bag of free bagels, I became the Robin Hood of cold cuts.
My roommate Marcia came home that night to find sandwich fixins sprawled out all over the kitchen.
“So you’re going back on meat . . . but . . . only cheap meat?” she guessed.
I told her giddily of my plan--make sandwiches and give them to the homeless!
“You stole the meat?!”
I laughed maniacally, my mayo-covered fists held high like a mad scientist, and I piled the sandwiches into my bike basket.
“This isn’t a great idea, Shallon,” said my other roommate Holly. “You’re going to ride around the projects, alone, at night? You’re going to end up as an episode of Law & Order.”
I considered the headline: BEAUTIFUL YOUNG DO-GOODER GUNNED DOWN IN GHETTO--SATCHEL OF MEAT, INSPIRATIONAL NOTES FOUND ON BODY.
When I told my mom my plan, she didn’t think I was going to have much luck either.
“Just one tip, honey,” she said, biting back laughter. “Remember that just because someone’s wearing last-season’s ankle boots, it doesn’t make them homeless.”
LOLZ, Mom. LOLZ.
I pooh-poohed everyone’s worries and set off for the dodgy end of Chelsea.
The first few people I gave sandwiches to were lucid and grateful, and then . . . the curse struck again.
Oh, I’d found homeless people all right, but they wanted precisely nothing to do with me and my sliced-meat delicacies.
One woman said she didn’t like whole wheat bread (pardon me, your majesty!), while another lady, clearly a crackhead, was looking for more than a sandwich.
“You seen my boyfriend?” she said suspiciously, peering into my basket like I’d stuffed him betwixt the pastrami.
“Um . . . no, can’t say I have,” I mumbled, holding out food hesitantly.
And of course she had a boyfriend and I didn’t. Of course.
“ ’Cause I ain’t tryin’ to let no sammich bitch take my man, you feel me, nigga?”
I put the food on a bench and backed away slowly as she eyed it, waiting for it to morph into Jamal or Big Skeezy or whatever her Prince Charming was named.
And then there was the drunken gentleman who not only refused my sandwich . . . but offered me a dollar, his eyes full of pity.
But then I met Artie.
When I rode by, he was leaning on his cane outside of the market, asking politely for change. When people are begging for change, I’m always hesitant to offer them food, figuring they want cash for drugs or booze. Not that I blame them--that’s what I spend most of my money on too.
But Artie was neither drunk nor high when he accepted my turkey on wheat. Instead, he was a charming, middle-aged black man from Mississippi, the kind who seemed like he wore bow ties and played the trumpet. Before I knew it, we were sitting on the curb chatting like old friends.
Artie told me that his girlfriend had just kicked him out again--why do the homeless date more than I do?--something she liked to do when his arthritis was acting up. He had two children down in Virginia who were trying to get him to move in with them, but for some reason he waved off the idea.
He asked me if I was a Christian, and I told him I wasn’t but let him tell me about the Bible anyway. From that day on, whenever Artie was hanging outside the grocery store, I’d go in and get him a sandwich.
Make that steal him a sandwich.
It was a piece of cake, really. I’d go up to the deli counter and deal with the Jamaican woman who liked to pretend she didn’t know what a sandwich was until I had to call the manager over. Then, once she had oh-so-graciously slapped a few slices of cheese and baloney on a roll, I’d simply slip the sammy in my purse the second I stepped into the next aisle.
The key to good thievery is twofold: 1) Defy stereotypes. In a neighborhood full of shady characters, no one is betting on the blond chick to be the criminal mastermind. 2) Always buy something. Trotting around a store for fifteen minutes and then leaving empty-handed raises suspicions. But if you walk out with a plastic bag, no one really cares what’s in it.
Sometimes I’d buy--yes, buy--Artie new glasses, or, if it was Friday, a bottle of his favorite blackberry brandy.
I liked to think that in a way, I was his guardian angel, and I dreamed of getting a windfall of cash and using it to help him get off the streets. But then one day I saw him so drunk he could barely stand up. He had no clue who I was and hollered something in my direction that sounded suspiciously like “honkey.”
I slunk away, embarrassed and hurt and depressed, and proceeded to do the only thing I know how to do when it comes to men who aren’t appreciating me: make him jealous.
The next day I struck up a friendship with a street woman named Cheryl. I had seen her before, bloated and filthy, and figured that she was too mentally ill to approach. But that’s the thing with the poor: they surprise you. She was actually perfectly normal, almost tragically so. I started bringing her full-on care packages--shoes, clothes, soaps, and deodorant--and in return she’d advise me on how to properly wrap my sprained ankle or where to find the best meatball sandwiches in Chelsea.
As she talked I would stare at the faded butterfly tattoo on her arm, and I imagined what her life was like when she got it done. Perhaps she was young and wide-eyed, getting her first ink at the behest of some shaggy-haired boyfriend she thought she’d marry one day.
I wondered when the tide of tragedy turned for Cheryl. I wondered when it turned for Artie, and for the lady searching for her boyfriend. I thought about my own lean bank account and recreational drug habit. Would it turn for me?
The answer came on a chilly Saturday morning in November. My roommates had gotten wasted the night before, but I’d stayed in on account of my seven A.M. hockey practice, so by eight thirty, when it wrapped up, I was bright eyed and wandering the streets with all my equipment.
Rock of Love wasn’t on for another four hours, and the girls certainly weren’t yet up to share their drunken tales. So, with my equipment and hockey stick in tow, I decided to pop into Gristedes and swipe some fixins for bacon-egg-and-cheeses; the church down the street that offered meals on weekdays to the homeless was tied up with its Baptist service, so there would be plenty of street people needing breakfast.
I lumbered into the store and immediately attracted attention--never a good thing--thanks to my gargantuan hockey bag and stick.
“The hell she got there?” the cashier, Tameka, sneered to the bag boy.
He shook his head. “I don’t fuckin’ know,” he drawled, eyeing me with vague suspicion. “Prolly a body or sumthin’; you know how them white folks are.”
In hindsight, I should have just paid for the goddamned eggs. But no. After weeks of thievery, I had grown cocky and brazen. I spent a solid ten minutes in the dairy aisle carefully wedging four dozen eggs into my hockey bag, cushioning them with several packages of bacon I’d stuffed in my skate slots.
From the Trade Paperback edition.