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fall 2006 / from the editor :: email this story to a friend

Urban Popcorn
By Brian H. Marston

On my way home from Jeff Smith's campaign headquarters on a hot August day, I decided to zigzag through Forest Park Southeast. I was headed south on Newstead when I saw a heavyset black woman who was about to cross the street at Arco, pushing a shopping cart. I slowed down, and we proceeded to do a comical "you go; no, you go" dance of politeness that lasted multiple rounds before we both laughed and she started to go.

As she approached my car, she motioned for me to roll down the window and asked what time it was. I told her, and she said she was trying to find somewhere to get some food because the last place she went was closed. She asked if I knew if there was a food pantry within walking distance. When I told her I didn't know, she asked if I could take her to a nearby convenience store. "Here we go," I thought as I felt myself getting sucked into her predicament. I said I could give her a ride, but I didn't have any cash. She said that was OK because they take credit cards.

She parked her cart by the side of the road, and I wondered how a series of small, innocuous steps had led to this stranger occupying my passenger seat and me implicitly agreeing to buy her groceries. As she loaded the bottle of warm water and big, green plastic storage box she was traveling with into the car, she introduced herself as "Donna" and explained that her food spoiled when the power went out because of the storm and it would be a couple of weeks before she got new food stamps. She told me her sister had recently died, so she was taking care of her sister's four kids, plus two kids of her own, and she was struggling to keep from putting them up for adoption.

receipt: click to enlarge
receipt: click to enlarge

After we'd gone about a block, Donna declared that the convenience store closed early on Sundays and asked me to take her to a grocery store. We ended up going to Schnucks on the Hill. On the way, we talked and she jammed out to the Al Wilson, Bobby Womack and Slum Village songs I'd loaded on the iPod Shuffle. As we entered the store, I told her to buy what she needed, but to try to keep it under $30. With that directive, she set off in search of lunchmeat, orange drink and laundry detergent, while I walked around nearby. I ran into a couple of my neighbors who must have been wondering what I was doing there with Donna. They didn't bat an eye, though, and neither did the cashier when we checked out. The receipt makes for an interesting market study of what a person with next to nothing would buy with $45 (yeah, she went a little over).

We loaded the groceries in the car and were headed back to the place where I picked her up when she changed her mind and decided she wanted to go to a relative's apartment at Wisconsin and Winnebago. I was surprised she wanted to ditch the shopping cart she left on Newstead, since she told me several times that she goes everywhere with it and calls it her "car." Before we got to the apartment, she warned me to be careful because it was a bad neighborhood, which struck me as an odd safety lesson coming from a woman riding around with a stranger. I was helping Donna carry everything to the rear second-floor entrance, including the storage box that seemed to contain everything she owned, when another tenant in the building appeared and offered a helping hand. Without hearing any of the details, he quickly surmised what was going on and said, "Thanks, man. I know she appreciates this."

I drove away, and a few blocks later, I noticed the loaf of white bread was still in my back window, so I turned around and went back. I knocked on the door, and a gruff male voice asked, "What do you want?" After I identified myself, Donna opened the door a crack, and two hungry-looking kids peeked out around her.

This detour on my way home raised a lot of questions in my mind. Was Donna telling the truth, or did she pull one over on me? Does it matter? If she were a guy, would I have let her get in my car? Would it make any difference if she were white? Younger? What if she were dressed differently and didn't look as rough? It's easy to sit back and pontificate about socio-economic issues in the realm of theory. The answers aren't so clean cut when you're dealing with those issues face-to-face in real life.

In the end, I helped Donna because it seemed like the right thing to do at the time. Someone got fed and had clean clothes who probably wouldn't have otherwise. It's hard to see how that could be wrong. It gave me the (perhaps illusory) feeling that I had made a difference, and that was definitely worth $45 and half an hour. Donna and I made a connection by reaching across lines that aren't crossed often enough.

If more of the "haves" lived closer to the "have nots" and thought of them as fellow members of the same community, it would move us closer to real solutions to poverty. Instead, many people choose to isolate themselves in stratified enclaves where all of their neighbors make about the same amount of money, and they rarely interact with the Donnas of the world. In contrast, the city is a social popcorn popper where people from different walks of life bump up against each other. Even though Donna and I inhabit seemingly different universes, we quickly found something we have in common: we both know Gracie at Zack's Lounge in the Ville. It's not the thorough mixing of a melting pot, but we're all thrown together in such close proximity we can't help but touch each other's lives. That's one of the things that scare some people away from urban living, but I love it.

© 2006 The Commonspace