Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Early Thanksgiving

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?


Cooper said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Cooper said...

The mother and son simply saw a man who didn't have enough groceries to merit the free turkey, so they gave your theirs. Patrick, this is a beautiful example of a random kindness by good people. You deserved it and I'm very glad you accepted it. What better way to begin the spirit of Thanksgiving?

I am often humbled by the small sacred acts in our midst. The things which kindle that transforming something more. You have obviously been gathering good karma. It made me radiate happiness just reading this.

As for what you can do to "pay it forward" ... One day that will be made clear to you at a time or place where you're perhaps least expecting it.

Happy Thanksgiving, Patrick!

(Oh, and your Dad sounds like a wonderful man.)

Jess said...

The point wasn't to do anything in return, other than thank them. These were people being good to a fellow human being. All you need to do in order to honor their gift is try to be a better person yourself. Don't think of some other thing to do as a sort of exchange for this kindness. Rather, look for ways to be kind, courteous and generous throughout your daily life. I'm not saying that you should become a one-man charitable organization. Just allow yourself to act on the instinct to go out of your way for the sake of generosity or kindness, as they did.

By the way, being kind, generous and thoughtful feels very good. It is its own reward, as I'm sure it was for those people who gave you their turkey. So enjoy the turkey with your guests, share the story of how it came to be on your table and discuss how you plan to try to be nicer to complete strangers. Maybe you'll make better people of your guests, too (and I'm sure they're good people already, if you're spending the holiday with them).

Sooo-this-is-me said...

What is it with you and old ladies? I agree with the above comments, the best thing you can do is just accept the act of kindness on it's own merit, doing anything in exchange is almost like trying to cancel out a good deed.

As for your father, strange I am Irish decendent as well but the men where I came from were very cold and saw emotion as a sign of weakness.

Hope you have a good thanksgiving!


somewhere joe said...

"Gifts like this are most precious and meaningful when they come out of the blue like this, with no thought to justification or merit."

That's a pretty good description of grace. And it's agent and recipient are both blessed. You don't have to do anything, Patrick. You were ready for it.
Trust me, you made those those folks Thanksgiving as well.

There will come the day, as Cooper said, when you will pay it forward without even trying. You'll know that moment when it comes, and feel blessed anew. God thinks of everything. ,oD

Meanwhile, you're touched and delighted, and a better man for it. Grace - the gift that keeps giving.

Patrick said...

Good men: thanks for your thoughts. Yes, just accepting it was the point, I was surprised at how hard I found it. The effect it had on me will no doubt shape future actions in ways I don't need to predict. As Joe said (and each of you had a similar sentiment), I'm a better man for it. My dinner guests were also moved by the story.

Steven: re: Passionate Irishmen. Yes, I'm making use of a stereotype, and like all of them it's only useful to a degree. There's a book you might enjoy called "Irish Hunger: Personal Reflections on the Legacy of the Famine." The subtitle says it all. I found many of the essays seemed to connect with my experience quite directly, even though I can't claim to have grown up in a Irish-American enclave. Whether the ideas convince you or not, you might enjoy seeing how some people explain why so many Irish and Irish-Americans are silent, emotionless people and why some of them seem to hark back to an older way of being that first earned them (mostly from the English, natch) the reputation for being overly-emotional. It's fascinating stuff.

Patrick said...

Oh, and Steven, you cracked me up. I don't KNOW what's up with me and old ladies, but whatever it is, it's been true for my life as long as I can remember. I'd forgotten that I had told another fun old lady story recently, so it surprised me for you to ask that. I'd been asking myself the same thing that day. Thankfully they don't ogle my ass too often.

Java said...

You have been given some excellent advice from these wise men in these comments. Another thought to add: Perhaps it is time for you to learn to accept gifts, accept grace. Maybe that is the karmic lesson. It's a tough lesson to learn for those of us who like to think we don't need or deserve graciousness from others. I'm so much better at giving than receiving.

Eric said...

Great story, Patrick. You know what? If I had been there with you I would have said, "Just take the damn bird!" Appreciate the gift for what it is, and don't over-analyze it. Someday you'll return the favor to someone just as unsuspecting.


Patrick said...

Hey Eric, nice to hear from you. So are you ever writing on your blog again?

Seems like we're all on the same page with the whole "accept the gift gracefully" response. Just to be clear, everyone realizes I DID take the damn bird, right? And didn't do anything rash or embarrassing to 'pay them back'? Just checking.

Kris said...

Try not to think of it too much. As others have said, it can just be a simple act of kindness. It's really hard to say it's because of this, or that. Sometimes it's the doing alone that can brighten someone's day. Maybe they needed to feel good, or maybe they might have hoped that doing so would have touched you in a way which it did.

Maybe it's a reminder to you that you deserve the good things that happen to you. I know sometimes I question it when someone gives me a compliment or whatever? Like why would they even say that? Did they mean it? Why did they even tell me? Sometimes though, it feels nice to kinda just sit and sorta know what others think about you. Exciting yet scary at the same time

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