Standing next to the gas pump, it was 9:30 in the morning but the air was hot. The wind blew her recently brushed hair onto her nose, and in her eyes and mouth. She held the pump with one hand and pulled the hair out of her mouth with the other. The temperature of the breeze was just enough to feel perceptibly cooler than the hot morning air.
The breeze carried with it the smell of tacos. They made her hungry. She had no desire for a taco but the smell beckoned her. She fleetingly thought how difficult it would be to work so close to that smell without wanting to eat one every day.
Six feet away from her was the emaciated frame of a man with long gray-blond hair parted in the middle and braided down his back to his belt line. With a back pack on, he was bent over the trash bin.
At first, she thought he worked there, changing the liners of the bin. On second glance, and hearing the clinking of aluminum cans, as she filled the tank of her enormous SUV, she saw that, yes, indeed, the man was working. He held a black plastic trash bag in his hand and was sifting through the garbage for recyclables. It was clear, though, that he was not an employee of the establishment. His face never turned toward her. He never made eye contact. Nonetheless, she had that nagging discontent that he might come forward and panhandle from her. He did not.
He found that for which he was searching as she continued to fill her tank. The metal clinking moved from the receptacle to the bag. Then, he left, crossing the street and disappearing beyond the taco place. She wondered if he too, wanted a taco.
The irony of their life stations was not lost on her. She felt a twinge of guilt. Why was her circumstance so different from his? Why was he searching in the trash bin for the elusive nickel of aluminum to trade for cash, while she was able to pay $4.29 per gallon to fill her vehicle? Why was she traveling so comfortably while he traveled on foot with nothing more than a backpack and black plastic bag?
She often wondered what led people to homelessness. What separated her from them? Why was it that there was such dichotomy in life? Was it just luck? It pained her to her core.
More importantly, she could see how social missteps could lead to this place. Misunderstood, missteps in a society that pushes for social conformity. Unable to place the square peg in a round hole, perhaps the man searching for cash in the trash said or did the wrong thing, or a series of wrong things that led to one loss after another. Perhaps he was an addict. Maybe, he did not think like the majority and was ostracized for his ways.
It was comfortable for her to think he was lazy, a drunk, a thief or worse. Any thought wasted on him at all was easiest if she could dismiss him. She could only do so if she thought he wanted others to do things for him for selfish or immoral reasons, instead of having the pride, self-respect and desire to it himself.
If she made the effort to think otherwise? It might hit too close to home. It might bring her to thoughts of the little boy waiting in the car seat inside that SUV, while she stood next to the grown man bent over the trash. The little boy whose needs were different from the rest. The little boy whose social skills were missing. The little boy whose social missteps might, God forbid, lead him down the wrong path someday.
In her heart, she knew that. And she could not bring herself to say anything to that man before he ran across the street and away. So, instead, she said a prayer. And left it in God’s hands. Was that a coward’s way out? Would she really do anything differently next time? Was she soothing her own needs with that prayer, or was she foolish to think that this man might have some value, some worth to contribute to others?
She did not know the answers. She did not know that she ever would. She only knew that between her life and his, there was a huge contrast. A contrast that could evaporate in an instant, and one that she never wanted to face.