The Man at the Barrel
It was a gorgeous day, with a slight crispness in the air left over from what remained of Autumn. After packing up a hundred or so children, several teachers, aides, and a few room mothers in school busses, we then headed out on our field trip to see the play Rumpelstiltskin.
Afterwards, we rode a few miles to Oakland Terrace Park for sack lunches of hot dogs, potato chips, and large red apples. The children, more eager to play on the equipment than to satisfy their appetites, quickly took a bite of this, a nibble of that and a gulp of milk, so as to not miss one moment of valuable play time. Our plan was to stay another hour and a half, weather providing.
There was so much laughter, along with a few tears, as there might be with so many children running around bumping into others. A couple of already loose teeth found the opportunity to come out. There was a skinned knee or two, but nothing we couldn’t handle. Children forget so quickly when they’re busy playing. They have such a way of getting right back up and carrying on. Teachers and aides wandered around watching groups of children, some not even their own.
At one point I turned around and glanced down the row of picnic tables to the one farthest from me. There stood a man wearing a tattered shirt and worn out blue jeans. His skin appeared weathered beyond his years. He was clutching several paper grocery bags, and was reaching deep inside a large trash barrel. Curiously I watched, not wanting to be seen watching, though. I couldn’t help myself. There was a lot of emotion in what I was witnessing. Can after can was lifted out and placed in his sack. I continued to watch. He reached back in and pulled out some more. After awhile I realized that he was not planning to recycle.
Even more curious now than before, I continued to watch the man. He reached in again, but this time it wasn’t aluminum that he pulled out. It was food. There’s no telling how long some of it had been in there. He leaned over so far. He had to be reaching to the bottom of the barrel. Up his hand would come, clutching unidentifiable pieces of food. He seemed to be so involved in what he was doing. I believe he’d been to this park many times before, probably always knowing the best times to come.
After spending several minutes at one barrel, he moved on to the next one, working his way towards me. At this point I don’t think my attention was where it was supposed to be, on the children. I was too involved in the feelings I had about this man and what he had to be going through. I’d never be able to live with myself if I didn’t try to do something to help.
I glanced over at the table where my group had eaten. Sitting on the table, on a flattened out lunch sack were two of those large, red apples. I picked them up and began to walk toward the old man. Not knowing what to expect once I approached him, I said, “Sir.”
He turned halfway around, still hunched over, not completely stopping what he was doing, as though he had a deadline to meet. “Sir,” I said again, “we had a few apples left over from our lunch today and I wondered if you would like to have them?”
“Thank you,” he replied very quickly, barely looking up and without a smile, “I found some in here that are still okay.” And he turned back to the barrel.
Later on he made his way past me to the last barrel. It was getting to be time to load the buss up again with exhausted, sand covered children and worn out adults. I wanted to be sure that no one was leaving jackets or any other belongings behind, so I checked around the tables. On one table that I had not noticed earlier, there stood three sacks. I walked over to see what was in them. There was an apple in each sack, half full bags of chips, and even a few cookies.
Once again I walked over to the man with my bags of goodies. “Sir,” I said again, “I found these three bags with a little in each, if you would care to have them.”
Again, he hardly looked up from his work, abruptly taking the bags from my hands and thanked me. “Have a nice day, sir.” I said, not wanting to leave him. Still I got no smile.
Later on, upon returning home, I found myself reflecting on my emotion-filled day. I wondered if my expecting a smile from the old man meant that I cared more about receiving recognition for my good deed as the almighty bearer of offerings, than for his dire need for a warm meal.
Is this what we expect when we are charitable? Who are we doing it for, the needy, or are we needing to feed our own selfish egos? Shouldn’t we give because we care and we genuinely want to help those less fortunate than ourselves? This is how it ought to be. I can’t help wondering how many people find their daily meals in this manner, and how many don’t have shelter or warm clothing.
How long has this old man been wandering in parks carrying empty grocery sacks, hoping for full trash barrels or a kind person with an extra apple or two? I’ll never begin to understand how a situation like this could ever happen in our country. Why should anyone have to dig through trash barrels because they’re hungry?
I can’t begin to express the emotional impact this experience has had on me. I’m only one person who would like to make a difference, if only I could do more than offer large, red apples to a needy stranger. I believe most of us have it in our hearts to want to give, we just aren’t sure how. Hopefully, someday soon, the only people we will see standing over trash barrels will be those putting trash in, not taking it out!
© 1999 Colleen Lewis