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Getting By


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The mall was just as busy as it always is on a Saturday afternoon. Hungry shoppers milled about the food court, seeking out their lunch. Most sat in groups or pairs; a few sat alone. They chatted to each other between (and occasionally during) bites of tacos and pizza. Shouts and laughter punctuated the wordless din of voices. A group of teenage boys laughed uproariously at some joke; a toddler squealed happily. The shrill ring of a cellphone reverberated across the dining area. The smell of fast food and coffee wafted through the warm air, mixing with the buzz of chatter to create the distinct mall atmosphere. I sat with my family amid the crowd of shoppers, picking at my plate of sesame chicken. It seemed much fattier than the last time I ordered it. I tapped my pen against the blank notebook in front of me, trying unsuccessfully to figure out a topic for my English essay.

There were all sorts of different people visiting the mall that day. Teenagers were hanging out with their friends, children dragged their parents from one toy store to the next, couples walked hand in hand through the crowd. A mother and daughter tote a newly-purchased homecoming dress into the food court, the shimmering fabric protected by a clear plastic bag. A group of teenage girls carried electronic babies from a high school parenting class; at first, my mom thought they were real and it was a group of teen mothers. Husbands, young and old, boredom and impatience creasing their faces, waited for their wives to finish shopping. I smiled because I recognized the expression as the same one my dad wears when my sister, my mom, and I force these trips on him. In fact, this was the expression he wore while he waited for my mom to finish eating and for me to start writing notes, bugging me to put something, anything, on paper. I just sat there, clicking my pen and gazing around at the sea of people, hoping for a spark of inspiration. Then, finally, someone caught my eye. Although, truthfully, he caught my mom's eye first.

There wasn't anything outwardly unusual about him. He was probably in his forties or fifties, wore a white polo shirt and jeans, and carried a black backpack. He was wandering around through the tables a few yards away. I didn't think anything of it at first. I assumed he was waiting for someone, maybe waiting for his wife to finish shopping. After a few minutes, he sat down at a nearby table next to one where a woman was eating lunch alone. The woman stood up to throw her trash away and the man followed her. He asked her something and she nodded. He took the half-eaten bag of fries off her tray and walked away. We all thought this was strange, but didn't think much of it after he left. Then he came back and eyed my plate of chicken, sitting down again near our table. He waited until my dad left to throw out our trash, the same thing happened. The man walked away with my chicken and my dad rejoined us at the table. Later, we saw the man get some free samples, wait about five minutes, then get more samples. Afterwards, he put plastic silverware in his pocket. I was stunned and saddened by his behavior.

Although there was no way to know if the man was homeless, I've heard that homeless people resort to scrounging for food in garbage cans. Maybe taking leftovers before they get thrown away is a better way to get food. I wondered if this was a normal occurrence. That was the first time I had seen someone do that, but maybe it wasn't so unusual. It's amazing what lengths people are willing to go to when they are hungry. It's hard to imagine living like that when I've only ever known is a roof over my head and a hot meal every night.

What happened at the mall that day reminds me of a man my family and my friend's family met while on vacation in Chicago. He greeted us politely and engaged us in pleasant conversation. We asked him for directions to someplace we were going that day and he told us how to get there in exchange for a dollar from each of us. Both of these situations makes me think of all the different ways people come up with to earn money or get food when there is nothing else they can do. If someone doesn't want to resort to begging or going to a homeless shelter, they will probably do something like this. However, there are some people who choose to take a bad road and resort to robbery or selling drugs. It's sad that these people will go to such extremes when they're down on their luck.

Whenever I hear a story on the news about homelessness and poverty in our country and around the world, I think about these men and I think about everyone else who is in a similar situation. We all do our best to help them. During the holidays, we see someone in a Santa costume standing on a snowy street corner ringing a bell and we toss a dollar or two in the bucket, but it's not always enough. There are as many problems in our world as there are charities that help fix them and sometimes it doesn't always work. Although we are trying to help those in need and the situation is being mended, there are still so many people who have no home and who are going hungry. We are trying our best to improve their lives, but there is only so much we can do.

I hope that man has someplace decent to sleep when the mall closes for the night. I hope that someday other people like him will have a good home and good food to eat. It may just be wishful thinking, but I'm sure that in my lifetime there will be more progress toward the goal of reducing homelessness. Maybe someday soon, the man at the mall and so many others like him will have a better life.



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WritingMyEscape said...
Apr. 16, 2010 at 6:23 pm
I know the feeling...and I couldn't agree more
 
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