I’ve adopted for myself the role of office birthday treat provider. I enjoy it, although somehow it always seems to fall on days where wineglasses explode during dinner and Squiggz fall behind the credenza. And, as happens more than I’d like, I got most of the way through the recipe, only to discover I was out of cocoa. I zipped a coat over my pajamas, scooped up the child who wailed, “No, mommy! Now I’ll miss you!” and headed for the grocery store.
After scouring the baking aisle up and down, and then the candy aisle, and then the hot cocoa aisle, we finally found the cocoa back in the baking aisle and rushed into line. For 7:40 on a Thursday night, the line was long, mostly men by themselves, buying cigarettes, booze, and frozen dinners.
Directly in front of us stood a mother, buying the night’s dinner: two fried chicken legs and some fries. Her son, who by stature I would have placed in 4th grade, but by toothlessness and openness of face more like 2nd, stood a few feet away, mesmerized by the Easter display. He picked up one yellow, cellophaned egg. “Look, mom, I found an egg!” he said, rattling the candies inside.
“Put it back,” she said, abrupt and direct, tinged with exhaustion. No protest, he put it back, and then began exploring the M&M bunny fans, whirring the little green foam blades, smiling, and whirring them again. He turned his eyes to his mom. “Come over here,” she said, stepping forward as her chicken dinner rolled along to the front of the line.
From across the aisle, a man reached over, his long arms allowing him to stay mostly in his own line. “Here,” he said, “get it for him.” He tossed two dollar bills on the conveyor belt, crumpled and smoky. She turned and looked at him, taking him in, his own missing teeth, his black ball cap and black clothes, his complete sincerity. “He doin’ good in school? Get it for him.”
The boy deliberated quickly between the egg, full of candy, and the fan, full of mechanisms, landing on the fan. “That enough?” said the man, adding another few bucks to the conveyor belt as the boy approached. “Say thank you to that man, he bought it for you,” his mother said.
“You’re welcome. Do good in school. Take care of your mother,” he said, leaning back into his line and going about his business.
In the rush , I sometimes forget that there’s a village out there, taking care of each other in ways small, big, and sometimes both. I’m grateful for the reminder, and grateful to be part of it.