Hunger

The thought of a fellow human being going hungry haunts me.

Yesterday we traveled to downtown Los Angeles to meet friends for lunch and a day of exploration. We met at an outdoor fast food joint famous for their fried fish. The food’s amazing and über fresh. We’ve been stopping there for years and it hasn’t changed.

Fellow diners are interesting – cops, medical workers, MTA employees, street cleaners all huddled over their favorite dish of shrimp salad, fried tilapia, grilled halibut or lobster tail. The finest seafood in town for a nominal price.

Close to skid row, the sea of well-heeled diners ebb and flow to and from the restaurant. Their SUVs, Porches, Lexus, BMWs, tricked out Chevys and Hondas a badge of social status.

Just before the lunch crowd besieged the restaurant, a few homeless individuals walked by.

A young man wearing a soiled plaid shirt and cords perused his reflection in a car window. Hand to his brow he smoothed back an invisible stray lock. He sat on a bench to tie his filthy, shredding shoelaces. Security hustled him away.

Another transient approached a teen jabbering on his cellphone in the parking lot. Without missing a syllable the caller returned to the inner sanctum of the restaurant.

A shabbily dressed man bearing a striking resemblance to soul singer Barry White perched on a bench along the periphery of the restaurant just as the lunch crowd started to pick up momentum. Usually security is pretty tight, but they didn’t spot him before he asked a man at the table next to him for a few cents. The man ignored him.

His eyes scanned our table, zeroing in on my adult daughter’s plate and he asked, “Can I help you with that tray?”

“No, thank you,” she responded with a smile. “I’m not finished.” She rejoined our conversation while pulling out a dollar bill she intended to give him.

“Sorry, I saw the napkin over your plate. Thought you were finished.” His eyes feasted on her plate. “I can help you throw it away, if you want.”

“Let’s go,” I said, standing before she could respond. Our party was headed for a bakery we’d heard about located just a few blocks away. Without discussing it we consolidated remnants of our meals – an abundance of left over French fries, bit of salad, an uneatened bowl of clam chowder we’d intended to take home. She passed him the tray, tossing empty cups, used utensils and napkins into the trash receptacles as we left.

The man silently devoured his meal, not like a starving man, but as one experiencing the first meal of the day.

A waiter, who monitors the exterior dining area for clean up, flashed us a disapproving frown. Ousting the transient had fallen on his shoulders. Our move to help the hungry had impacted his to-do list. Suddenly I detected an error in our generosity. If too many transients hang out there the restaurant will be compromised.

What to do . . . throw away food we weren’t going to eat while a man hungry enough to ask for help watched?

Our social worker daughter later told us she often counsels homeless people who, through no fault of their own, because of missteps made in their lives or illness, find themselves homeless and hungry. Hard to believe in our society so abundant with food and empty dwellings that any American should have to starve or live on the streets.

There but for the grace of God . . .

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