By Diana Creel Elarde
I sit up at the counter at the retro diner, slowly munching the last french fry. The cook, probably the owner, keeps staring out the window behind me. Each time, his lips are pressed together and his head shakes. It doesn’t take much to figure out something out there is annoying him. I don’t need to look out the window to know what his problem is; I’ve seen that expression before. In fact, even though he doesn’t recognize me now, I used to be part of his problem. His restaurant sits not far from the shelter, right by the bus stop, among a series of small mom-and-pop restaurants on the street. This area is an ideal spot to hang around for those who need to scrounge for a next meal. I’ve been out there in the heat of the summer and the snows of winter. Hunger is hunger, and opportunity lies on this street. I look behind me to see if I recognize those on the street. A face or two looks like it might be familiar, but time has obscured the faces, the clothes, and even the personalities of the people I met during my homeless period. The cook yells out to a customer leaving with a box of leftovers. “Make sure you don’t feed those people. I don’t want them thinking they are going to benefit outside my place.” The customer nods, toothpick in his mouth, and ducks his head down to avoid eye contact as he walks past “those people.” I burn slowly, my anger at a simmer. I struggle with what I could say to him, how I might change his mind. Instead, my hand reaches for the menu and, calling him over, I start to order, mentally calculating how much I could afford with what’s in my wallet. He swipes away in shorthand, recording my order. His tongue repeatedly licks over the corner of his lip; he’s calculating, too. Then he stops; he debates his next words, his actions. Does he stop the order and question me, perhaps giving up the money to be earned? He looks over my appearance, searching for signs of which class I belong to. I have no fear he would recognize me; he barely registered me when I was one of those people. Finishing up with my order, he stares into my eyes. I stare back, not flinching, not giving him any reason to doubt the order I want. He turns to start cooking, but he just can’t resist the temptation to ask. Returning to me, he forces a smile and asks, “just who will be enjoying all this food you are buying?” “Why, food critics,” I smile back, offering nothing more. “Critics?” he questions, with a bit of irritation and suspicion in his voice.
The old days surface in my mind, the degrading feeling when food was denied. Old, trapped feelings overtake my awareness, almost cloud my goal. Those days are past, I remind myself, and after a few seconds my determination takes hold of me. Standing, I look him in the eyes and say in a low commanding voice, “I’m in a hurry. I need this order, if you would be so kind.” We stare for a lifetime at each other, me not quite breathing, not even wanting to swallow. The diner is quiet, all attention on us. “Just fill the order,” comes another voice sitting at the counter. “Yeah,” says another, “just give her the food. Who cares who’s going to eat it?” “Yeah,” I add in agreement. “Who cares?”
Diana Creel Elarde is a psychology professor, author and speaker. She can be reached at Diana.E@emerginginsightsgroup.com