Monday, August 9, 2010

Food Court: Speaking in tongues

She was new here, sitting at a back table where I found a seat. A man in his late twenties sat across from her, though he could have been older or younger. Age is a hard thing to judge in a place like Manna Meal where some of the people look like they've been pulled out of a John Steinbeck novel, though reinterpreted with new costuming.

I'd seen the man both at the church and on the street holding a cardboard sign and panhandling. He had the sunken eyes and drained expression of an addict of one kind of another, but not one so far gone as to have given up basic hygiene. His clothes were ratty and dirty, but he was not.

Methodically, the young woman ate her barbecue, chewing rapidly. She had overly bright eyes that flitted from object to object. Occasionally, she looked over at one of us and smiled.

"I don't much care for the barbecue," the young panhandler said. "But when I get hungry enough, I'll eat anything."

She nodded, a shaky bobble of her head.

"I'm Andrew," he said.

"Virginia," she told him.

"So, do you live around here?"

"Just up the street."

He nodded. He understood and, like me, took it that she meant the shelter for women.

"Maybe I'll see you around," he told her then carried his tray away, leaving the two of us alone at the table.

I admired the panhandler for his ability to strike up a conversation. Of course, his motives were probably a bit different than mine, but I admired the ease. Since I've started taking lunches at Manna Meal, I've only barely muttered a handful of words to anyone. Others talk. They chatter like crows in a corn field, but not me. It's always, "Please, pass the salt," "thank-you," and "Can I get another spoon of the chicken?"

Part of it is fear. I don't want to intrude. Coming to a soup kitchen to eat is difficult enough without having some asshole trying to unnecessarily relate.

She seemed safe, didn't appear to be overtly crazy or particularly dangerous, but I drew a blank on what to say. The only thing that came to mind was "So, do you come here often?" which sounded like a particularly low-rent pick-up line and besides, I knew the answer: no.

She looked at me, expectantly. Evidently, she was used to a certain amount of light dinner conversation.

I finished my meal, looked up and told her, "I like your t-shirt."

"Thanks," she said and watched me leave.

Maybe I'll try again tomorrow. Maybe the panhandler will be there. I'd kind of like to ask him about his job.

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