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Looking out my backdoor: Heart attack

The other morning, I visited with a long-time friend who lives in California. We don’t visit frequently, but when we do, it’s always good. Ideas fly and grow and develop and land in our deep hearts.

My friend Anne belongs to a small church with an aim to make a difference in their community, to really matter to those they serve. With all the best intentions in the world, they formed a committee to put together gift bags for people in their area with no fixed abode. “Homeless.” I heard it is illegal to use that word. So shoot me.

On the way out of church one Sunday, Anne grabbed a handful of give-away bags and tossed them in the back seat of her car. One day she spotted a homeless man she sees frequently on her walks, remembered the bags, parked, walked over to the park bench and sat down next to him.

Anne struck up a conversation and handed the man a bag which he took with a long side-look before he opened it, pawed through it … and took two pair of socks. “I can use these,” he told her, with thanks, and left the rest.

Think about it. The useful supplies had been thoughtfully put together. It contained such goodies as shower gel, a bar of soap, toothpaste, a toothbrush, floss, deodorant (Deodorant? Really?), shaving cream, scrubbies and so on. How are you going to use these if you’ve no regular access to water? I’m not saying this was wrong, just not thought through with imagination.

On the heels of this conversation, my daughter and I followed with a talk about food banks we have known, such as the one that allowed only two cans of soup per family, but each can had to be different. I’d be desperate indeed to combine tomato with cream of mushroom soup. Or the one with the list to make sure you don’t get any food but every second month. Who makes up these foolish rules?

All this talk threw me back to my first days in Chicago, mid-1970s, living in a car with a baby and a toddler until we could find a house to rent on hope and promise, using gas station facilities when necessary, which was frequently. We managed. I suppose you could not call us homeless because we had a car and a few dollars.

A kind woman let us rent her house without money up front. We set up housekeeping with what few supplies we’d been able to cram into the car. We went to the Safeway store a few blocks away for a minimum of groceries. On our way out of the lot, we drove around behind the store to the other exit.

This particular Safeway had a kind manager, who, every afternoon, put shabby vegetables and out-of-date foods by the loading dock behind the store for people in need, homeless and otherwise. We stopped to ask what was happening.

One of the men came over to the car, looked in, and said to the people there gathering supplies, “Hey, she’s got babies.”

Suddenly the car was surrounded by folks passing in milk, butter, cheese and all manner of good food. These homeless men and women, human beings with stories, treated us with love and compassion and helpfulness.

We shopped behind the store the first couple of weeks and inside the store thereafter, the whole time we lived there. That was one of my life’s low times, but I remember that Safeway and those people with gratitude.

All that talking and thinking and remembering elbowed me into an urge to put skin and legs on my own gratitude and go do something about it.

Just so happened that Leo was pruning the plumbago alongside my patio. I went out and said, “Leo, I’m having a heart attack. I need to make it better. Would you have time right now to take me to Etza Frut to load up with fruit and veggies for the care home?”

That about gave Leo a heart attack, the way I presented it, but he put down his pruning shears and off we went. “You buy what you and Pepi think best. I don’t need to make the choices,” and handed Leo some pesos. I’m rich in comparison to people with no other place to go. The care home is run on donations, no government grants.

While waiting, I slunk down in my seat. Nobody needed to know my part in this. When Leo returned and loaded the back of the car, seats lowered, with a good supply of fruit and veggies, I sent him across the road for beans and rice, an afterthought. It’s amazing what these good store owners will throw in when they know where the food is headed.

Homeless, in a care home, standing in line for commodity cheese, in a mansion; we all have a story. Some stories more … interesting, more … colorful. We are all human beings.


Sondra Ashton grew up in Harlem but spent most of her adult life out of state. She returned to see the Hi-Line with a perspective of delight. After several years back in Harlem, Ashton is seeking new experiences in Etzatlan, Mexico. Once a Montanan, always. Read Ashton’s essays and other work at Email [email protected].


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