By BOB CHAREST
We like this grocery store because it is usually not crowded when we visit, and the prices are good. As good as they can be these days, that is.
The man standing with his back to me at the produce counter didn’t catch my eye at first. I was busy picking out my favorite bag of trail mix.
I soon saw his left hand moving furtively, and I realized he was plucking several of the grapes off the bunches in the open bags before him, and he was either popping them into his mouth or into his pockets. I caught his sideways glance as he looked at me and I looked away.
I studied him a little more closely and I spied the small bits of silver duct tape that covered holes all over his ratty coat. He was wearing what looked like a pair of bright red, oversize nylon shorts and white sneakers. I looked a little closer, and it was obvious he hadn’t had a beard trim or a haircut in a seriously long time.
My assessment: The guy was homeless.
And here he was standing in a grocery store eating the grapes out of bags with his unwashed hands.
My first reaction?
I won’t be buying grapes today. Or ever, at least not from this store.
My second reaction: I should probably tell someone.
A few aisles over was a store worker, and I came up behind her and said, “There’s probably not a lot you can do about this, but there’s an obviously homeless guy over there at the produce counter eating the grapes out of the bags.”
She thanked me and went on with what she was doing. I saw her later upfront at the cash registers. I’m not sure if she told anybody, but I never saw anyone confront the guy. In fact, he continued sauntering down the aisles looking at food on the shelves.
My wife and I left the store and debated whether we would shop there again. I thought about all the people who would be buying grapes later that day. I was glad I was not one of them. I hope everyone washed their grapes before they ate them.
I’ve had a chance to think on this a bit, and I think I have fallen into the “thoughts and prayers” mentality. It’s that Facebook attitude that causes people to sit on the sidelines and watch, hoping for the best but trying really hard not to get involved. After all, there will be people who will insist I should have done more. Some who will insist I should have done less. I think of those who bought grapes this week. Shouldn’t they know they have bought food that could have diseases on them?
But the one thing I did not think of when I was in that situation is something my wife pointed out to me the next day: Why didn’t we just buy the guy a bag of grapes? (My wife has always been more thoughtful than I.)
I am no longer wired to think that way. I try not to infuse myself into a possibly uncomfortable situation. It’s the “don’t get involved” mentality.
There are of course some who do get involved, who jump into danger (not that a man pilfering grapes is dangerous), but we have a million little ways to get into uncomfortable situations these days, and I think most of us would rather avoid them. Too much trouble. Too much could go wrong. Maybe we are just misreading the situation.
I don’t know the answers. All I know is this: It sucks. We don’t live anymore in the world I grew up in. We see someone, or at least I do, who is down on his or her luck – that guy standing on the traffic island holding a sign – and we turn away. But some don’t. And I don’t know how I feel about you who stick a dollar bill out your car window. Are you helping or hurting? These are questions we have to ask in our society.
But I saw the guy with the grapes, and I never thought of buying him a bag. It never occurred to me.
Bob Charest, a board member of the New Hampshire Center for Public Interest Journalism, the parent organization of InDepthNH.org, writes this column from time to time.