I'm in my local grocery store picking up stuff for Thanksgiving dinner tomorrow. I have a bag of potatoes, broccoli, two lemons, butter, milk, some sage, a large onion, and a frozen turkey. The place (surprise) is packed. Even on normal days it is often filled with lots of people buying what looks to be a month's supply of food; it's not uncommon to see people with two carts overflowing with three ten-pound bags of rice, hundreds of canned goods, whole cartons of juice boxes, toilet paper or ramen. The cashiers at this place are also some of the slowest on the planet, though I don't think it's always their fault.
As I'm navigating along getting my milk and butter, a lovely older woman with silver hair and surprisingly blue eyes calls me over.
"Let me tell you sonethin'," she says, in heavily accented but fluent English, "if you buy $125 of food, then your turkey is free."
Thinking she is making sure I didn't think the turkeys were just free (as the sign did seem suggest, to be honest) I assure her I know about the store's deal but am all right with buying the bird.
She gestures to the younger man with her, who I assume her son. "But we are buying more than enough, and we don't want the turkey. So why don't we get that one for you?"
First I'm confused. Then I'm floored. I sputter, and demur, I couldn't possibly, it's just too much. I really feel overwhelmed, but she insists, her son insists. I ask if there is something I can do for them, but they refuse. Finally I accept the offer, but am unable to say more in either English or Spanish than simply 'thank you, this so kind, thank you.' In my Dominican neighborhood men are not big on emotional displays, except maybe when it comes to baseball. Generally when I'm on the street here I avoid facial expressions, let alone expressivity, though (this may come as a shock) this is not my natural tendency. Sure the homo thing may be a part of it, but in all honesty I think a much bigger influence is my Irish temperment, as inherited from and modeled by my very affectionate, demonstrative, and easily-moved-to-tears father. So right now in the face of this, I am not maintaining my New York cool, I'm feeling a TEENSY bit fragile, perhaps just a bit watery, and I get the sense these nice people are beginning to wonder what exactly they have gotten themselves in for. I move on before anyone gets embarrassed.
I have a long time in line to think about this (remember those slow cashiers). I'm touched by the thoughtfulness of this gesture, but I'm also very uncomfortable with it. It's not really that I feel beholden to these kind people, but I do feel frustrated at my inability to do anything for them by way of thanks. I consider offering them some money so they at least got some dollars off their bill, but that feels crass somehow, and I fear it might even offend them. It also seems to put a monetary value on their act, and there's more to this gesture than $13. I don't know what else I can offer to do for them (carry their groceries home? Pack up their car? Wash their car? Get their address so I can send them flowers, bake them bread, at least send a card?). If I run into them at a later date, will I be quick-thinking enough then to come up with a thoughtful gesture then?
I'm mulling over all this as I move closer to check-out. The elderly woman in front of me notices how few things I have and almost unhinges me when she offers to let me go before her. I politely decline. I'm not sure she would understand if I started sobbing and threw myself around her neck.
My benefactors get through check-out just before me, and call me over so the cashier knows who to give the bird to when I leave. I introduce myself to them in the hopes that they'll at least tell me their names, but only the man (Jose) does. "Enjoy" they both say, as I kiss the woman on the cheek.
I keep mulling this over as I head home. I realize my discomfort (only slightly abated) includes a sizeable dose of guilt. All around me people had been buying huge piles of non-perishable food, and paying for it with food stamps (now in handy credit card form). For the price of my $13 turky, you could get 18 cans of black beans, probably a month's supply of rice, or an entire carton of ramen. The bird would feed a family of four for maybe two meals, three if you made soup, but that ramen, rice or beans would go much further, maybe for a month of meals if you budgeted right. How many people there hadn't even bothered to put the bird in their carts, seeing it as a luxury? Finances can be touch and go sometimes for me, but I have rarely gone hungry, and this Autumn has been pretty good work-wise. I do not need a free turkey. I consider heading back to the store, standing outside it and offering the bird to the first old person who comes out the door, but my unwillingness to draw attention to myself wins out. Right now the bird is thawing in my fridge. My friends and I will enjoy it tomorrow, I have no doubt.
(On a side note, I had to go to another part of town to pick up cranberries. Either Dominicans don't care for cranberries, or they store them in a part of the store that didn't make intuitive sense to me. At the second store, this one on the Upper West Side, I was again in line behind an older woman who, when she noticed what I had said "is that all you got? Here, you go next." I assured her it wasn't necessary, I was in no rush, but she insisted LOUDLY, causing the cashier to join in, so I took her/them up on the offer. I did not burst into tears.)
I do not deserve this bird. I remind myself, however, that is the point, really. Gifts like this are most precious and meaningful when they come out of the blue like this, with no thought to justification or merit. I'm still curious what made them pick me, out of everyone in the store. Maybe I was just the first person they saw carrying a turkey. I sort of hope it was that random. Whatever motivated it though, I'm still moved by it. I remember that I'm always uncomfortable receiving gifts, and compliments for that matter. I love getting them, but never know how to respond. I'm not sure how one gets better at this. I realize though that a few years ago I wouldn't have been able to accept this offer at all. So that's progress, I guess.
I'm still mulling over how I might do something nice in response, for my benefactors, in the unlikely chance I run into them again, or barring that, for someone else. Any ideas?