Jam on the sidewalk
He was Mexican, so for the sake of simplicity, I’ll call him Juan.
Juan was a worn-looking man, middle aged, with sad eyes and black hair speckled with gray. I saw him outside a grocery store in southern Colorado. My wife was shopping while I sat in our camper listening to the radio.
He came out of the store with three small sacks of groceries and walked over to an ancient bicycle. He carefully placed his groceries on the sidewalk and slowly divided all his goods in half. Out of his pockets he took two empty sacks and double-bagged his purchases. His bike had no basket or rack, so he tied the two plastic bags to his handlebars. The entire process was performed with a slow and methodical purpose – this obviously was not the first time.
I watched as he carefully swung his leg over the top tube and began to ride away.
Even from 40 feet away, I could see the bag beginning to break.
It could have been much worse. He did have some time to slow down and grab the bottom of his sack before the entire contents hit the pavement. The bread was only slightly crushed. The hand soap skidded across the cement. Scattered among the cans and cardboard boxes were jars of peanut butter and jelly. The P.B. made it, the jelly did not. It looked to be strawberry; it spilled-out over the hot concrete like an open wound.
I watched as Juan tried to salvage what he could by scooping it into the broken jar. Shoppers leaving the store took pains to not make eye contact. Though most ignored the spectacle, some actually appeared angry; none offered help. When I looked away from the other shoppers and back to Juan, I saw his tears.
I’m not the hero of this story. I sat in my truck listening to NPR as it fanned the flames of my liberal leanings while right in front of me was an opportunity to walk the walk of compassion … yet I hesitated. Sometimes the difference between apathy and humanity is not being afraid to get involved. I truly wanted to help, but I was paralyzed with vacillation and self-consciousness. I had more then enough change in my truck’s ashtray to get Juan another jar of jelly. I wasn’t numb to his plight but embarrassed and indecisive. What would I say as I walked past him into the store to get his jam? How could I make him understand that the price of a jar of jam meant nothing to me? Would he be insulted? Did he speak English? Would he accept my help?
“The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” Why is it so much easier to act impulsively with anger than kindness?
He divided his spilt goods into the remaining unbroken bags, including the broken jelly jar, and bent over to wipe his hands on the grass. I grabbed what cash I could find, got out and headed towards Juan. I was half way to him when a middle-aged woman with a limp and an apron bearing the store’s name hurried over and carefully removed the broken jar from his bag and handed him a fresh sack with a new jar of jelly. He wiped his eyes with the back of his hand and smiled with the teeth he had left. She returned his grin and patted him on the back and turned to walk back towards the store. I wasn’t close enough to have heard what was said or in what dialect, but I do know kindness is multilingual.
He passed close by me as he biked away. Though his skin was still moist with tears his face beamed. He returned my smile but obviously had no idea I had watched his mishap.
We live in a world where so many have very little, and so few have more than one could ever need. We live in a country where it is still possible to make a difference in someone’s life with just the price of a jar of jelly. If you’re born with even a small amount of privilege in this country, you are better off than 90 percent of the rest of the planet. Many people make the mistake of assuming they “deserve” what they have when it is as much a matter of geography and luck than labor and ingenuity.
Does that mean we should all feel guilty for our undeserved bounty? No, not guilt but certainly gratitude. It is also helpful to be reminded that you’ll never see a hearse pulling a U-Haul. The cold truth is that you can’t take it with you to the grave, so why not use it to help a guy like Juan out of his jam? How often can you fell like a hero for the price of some crushed fruit?
Hopefully next time I’ll do more than just write about it.
Jeffrey Bergeron, under the alias of Biff America, can be seen on RSN, heard on KOA radio, and read in several newspapers and magazines. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Biff’s book “Steep, Deep and Dyslexic” is available from local book stores or at Backcountrymagazine.com.
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