It’s 10 p.m. in Uptown. Every moth from the four corners of the earth has diverted course for the glowing light of Super America on Lake and Aldrich. A scrubby guy in a Rush t-shirt skulks timidly near the door, a cigarette hanging precariously from his mouth.
“Spare some change?” he asks, while I make my way between him and a stack of window cleaner.
“Sorry man, I only use plastic these days,” I reply. He leans closer, squinting through the wisps of smoke in his eyes.
“That’s okay,” he says, “there’s an ATM inside.”
Stupefied that my routine brush-off was actually challenged, I clamp my mouth and walk into the store.
Something akin to survivor’s guilt accompanies me while I crisscross the isles and load up on soda pop, Cheetos, and a decadent variety of Little Debbie snack cakes. (Debbie wouldn’t be so little if she actually ate this stuff.)
Fortunately for me, I have a limited capacity for shame in the face of a certain fix.
My parents used to stash junk like this all over the house to keep it out of my reach. It was usually a futile endeavor. My dad, who was territorial with food by nature, thought he was clever when he hid his secret box of Fruit Loops in a shadowy recess of the kitchen cupboard. But the advantage I had was that I was an early riser, and footie pajamas made for quiet and stealthy reconnaissance. In turns, I would take fistfuls of the sugary loops, stuff them in my mouth, and backfill the box with the nearby Cheerios. It was brilliant for someone who still thought he was a Jedi knight on a mission for the Republic.
Throughout my childhood, I ate everything like a competitor in a Coney Island hot dog eating contest. “Breathe,” my mom would say at dinner, disguising her smile with a look of genuine concern. To my mother, speed-eating was a high complement to the chef, and she could hardly suppress her delight. To me, it was the only way to keep pace with my father, who was usually sucking up all the meatloaf.
My dad was no slouch either. He worked the nightshift at a plywood manufacturing plant, so our dinner was often his breakfast, and he attacked it with all the urgency of a man already halfway out the door.
Ours was the uneasy alliance of two hungry kennel dogs, tempered by my father’s massive presence and equally massive appetite. Still, to his consternation, I managed to hold my own.
There was no time for table talk or lollygagging—everything was in motion. Plates were passed, forks scraped, jaws mashed, and my father’s greasy milk glass thudded on the placemat as if for conclusion. And when he finally pushed away from the table to leave, there was scarcely anything other than a couple peas rolling around to tell the story.
Even now, I imagine my poor dad coming home after a long shift. His lasting consolation, a quiet dining room where he could sit peacefully alone–just him and his blended box of cereal. No hurrying. No fuss. One spoonful, then another. As methodical as a Japanese tea ceremony.
I watch my new friend outside while I wait in line at the Super America counter and wonder if I’ll be forced to walk by him again, or if I could cut around the Honda parked by the exit and make a levelheaded dash to my car. In front of me, a young woman is paging through a tabloid magazine—probably printed with gallons of black mascara harvested from Britney Spears’s face. And in front of her, a cab driver scratches a Lucky Wings game ticket, its proceeds going to the North American spotted owl, who isn’t really averse to gambling, not when he’s got two starving chicks to feed.
Finally, it’s my turn. I drop my quarry on the counter, and, several bleeps later, the clerk gives me stale look and I flip open my wallet to extract the contents. A five spot, evidently glued to my credit card, falls down on the generous pile of junkfood. The clerk and I look at it, as if for an instant we were both shocked to see it there. I quickly snatch up the five and hand him my card.
My disgrace now sealed by the unexpected windfall, I push through the door and prepare myself for a possible confrontation.
The drifter has maneuvered his way over to a spot near the exit. He’s sitting on a pile of bundled firewood and rolling a new cigarette with tobacco salvaged from a scattering of butts between his feet. He glances up at me—the smug tightwad with a bag full of plunder—and then turns back to his business, apparently uninterested in my passing presence.
Somewhat relieved, I walk steadily to my car. I can already see myself sprawled on the couch, watching TV, and picking Cheetos out of my bellybutton, when a strange impulse stops me dead in my tracks.
Soberly, I begin to count my blessings, weigh the consequences, the ins and outs, and come to an obvious conclusion: I have to go back.
When he sees me approach, he stands up and wipes his hand on his pant leg.
“Here, take this,” I say a little nervously, as if he might refuse on principal alone. “I know it’s not much, but it’s all I can spare right now.”
Then I turn and walk away before he can say anything, as custom somehow dictates in moments of awkward generosity.
Driving out of the parking lot, I can see him in my rearview mirror. His cheeks slightly bulging, he quickly cleans off the last of the two Swiss cake rolls and drops the plastic wrapper in the garbage like it was nothing.
Man, I think to myself as I turn down Aldrich and head home, that guy’s fast!