Monday, August 24, 2009

Glitch at the Grocery

The other day after work, I decided to run by the grocery store for some necessities for Kensie—milk, juice, fruit, cereal, you know the drill. Since my mom had kept her that day, it should have been a quick-and-easy stop for me—no dragging the kid out of the carseat; no walking through the parking lot at a snail’s pace while Kensie checks out everything she possibly can before we get in; no wobbly race-car buggy that is almost impossible to turn and get through the narrow isles. It should’ve been a simple enough endeavor—but then, it’s me.

I was trying to get home somewhat quickly because my mom had left Kensie with my dad for a couple of hours so she could meet some friends for dinner, and I really never know how the whole Kensie-and-Pa-left-at-home-alone situation is gonna go. Will the diaper get changed? Will Kensie get juice and a snack? Will Dad leave the front door unlocked and K walk on out into the yard and then the street before he even notices she’s gone? Who knows what could happen!?! But there were things we needed that we couldn’t live without until morning, so I had to stop. In the back of my head, I knew it needed to be a quick trip, so when I got in the shortest line I could find, I figured I was good to go. But, again, it’s me.

I had seen the woman who now stood just ahead of me in line shopping with her son, who looked to be about three. She was pregnant, but what I noticed most was that her son, a redhead, was wound up! He buzzed up and down the aisles, said hello to everyone he came across (myself included), grabbed items off the shelves and launched them across the store—the usual male redheaded child stuff. If you don't already know, redheads are known for being feisty creatures. But from my personal experience, redheaded boys are downright nutty! And this little guy was behaving true to form (though he was cute as a button). So as I stood patiently awaiting my turn to check out, the woman’s (saying woman makes me feel so old; I’d say she was about my age) bill was totaled up. She swiped her card and . . . nothing. The clerk told her the card had been denied. I remained patient and not too concerned, as sometimes these things are simply a glitch. So she tried it again. Again . . . denied. So the woman pulled out another card (as her little redhead took the front of the store by storm), and same thing. She was noticeably getting nervous (her hands were shaking, and she looked quite concerned). The woman explained to the clerk that she’d need to make a phone call, so he put her tab on hold while she stepped aside and got on her cell phone. (Just a side note: This woman and her little boy looked very normal, not needy at all. They were both dressed nicely, and, well, she had a cell phone. How poor could they be?)

Soon after the pregnant woman with the wild child began making phone calls, my items were being rung up. When I got my total tab, it was within pennies of what the pregnant woman’s was (around $80), and that’s when it struck me: What if she’s a single mom with one child and one on the way who was just laid off and receiving $250 a month unemployment just trying to buy her kids milk? What if she’s just lost her home and has no real home for her family and has just spent her last few dollars on doctor’s bill for her son? What if these groceries are the only items she has to feed herself and her son, and she’s about to be told she can’t have them? What if she has no one and nothing, and two children to support? All of the sudden, I had this overwhelming feeling that I wanted to help her. I don’t have much money; everything I make is allocated for the most part. But I wanted to help. I’d pay for this woman’s groceries to save her the humiliation she must be feeling trying to figure out what to do next. But how? Do I go up to her and offer to loan her the money, thus focusing even more attention on her unfortunate situation? Would that just make it worse? But what about her child? What about those necessities like milk and cereal and bread that I know she needs for herself and her child? Do I just tell the clerk I’d like to pay her bill while she’s on the phone and then leave? How can I help this woman!?!

In the end, I decided that it was not my place to interfere. I decided that it might be insulting to her for a stranger to come up and offer her “charity.” If not insulting, I knew it would be embarrassing. I figured I didn’t know her situation, and maybe she didn’t want me (or anyone else close-by us at the time who would inevitably hear the exchange) to. So I left the store conflicted and wondering if I’d made the right choice.

I thought about that woman all weekend. Was she able to pay her bill? Was she a victim of identity theft and robbed of all of her money? Did her loser ex run off with all the money and leave her with a kid and one on the way to support alone? Did she just get laid off and was hoping that she had enough to cover groceries but ultimately didn’t? Had it simply been a mistake and minutes after I left the store this issue was resolved? I had no way of knowing. All I know is that when I looked at that woman, I saw myself and thousands, maybe millions, of women just like us—doing whatever it takes to make sure our families are taken care of no matter what it costs us.

I thought a lot this past weekend about parents all across our country who are trying their very best to take care of their families in these hard times—many just squeaking by; many creating mounds of debt simply feeding and clothing themselves; many unable to stay afloat and being forced to split apart their families. I realized how lucky I am to have such a strong support system in my family and friends, and I hoped that the woman with the wild redheaded little boy (and possibly another wild one on the way) who touched my life so briefly yet so profoundly was as lucky as I to have people around her who would make sure that everything was OK.