We called her The Napkin Lady. She’d come into the restaurant during off hours like after lunch. She’s order something small from the swing shift waitress. And then, when she was in the empty-ish dining room, she’d grab all the napkins from the settings of the neighboring tables and head for the bathroom. The toilets in the lady’s room would always be stopped up after her visits.
I’d like to tell you that we all felt sorry for her. We kinda did but that toilet situation made it difficult for those of us who had to clean up the overflow. And eventually she was given a warning. I don’t know if she was banned. But I do know that she was also a “cat collector” and lived right down the street so that I would walk by her house occasionally. She was weird but sweet. And no one wanted her shame to rub off on them.
We distance ourselves from people who seem needy or less fortunate. As if shame and misfortune and self-loathing may be contagious. Who wants to serve the homeless food at the holidays when it reminds people of where they never want to be? Let’s go the mall instead where everything is OK, shiny, and perfect. Why bring the holiday mood down by taking a hard look at where we could go but for the grace of God.
Sure I find myself frustrated when I am confronted with homeless men at every stop light in downtown Baltimore holding cardboard signs claiming their shameful plight. I don’t ever remember there being this many of them. And I am very tempted to take the beltway round next time. Because I don’t want that poverty and need in my face. Somehow it reflects badly of society or the city and of me.
But what if we didn’t cause it and we came from a place of compassion for the people who are whacked and downtrodden. What if we disengaged from all the judgements and defenses and panic and just sat with the idea that world cooks up lots and lots of recipes for people and not all of them are good. But there they are and deserve to be seen but not necessarily fixed by you or me. If we didn’t make it about us then maybe we sometimes could make it about them. And show our humanity every once in a while.