In the coronavirus era, I go most days to our neighborhood McDonald’s, where I purchase a cup of coffee and take it outside to a patio area where I sit and eat peanut butter crackers which I carry with me.
Today as I stood in a short line inside the facility, with persons standing the approved distance from one another, of course, an older man came up behind me and tapped me on the shoulder and asked how much a cup of coffee is. I tell him, “About a dollar.” He doesn’t move away but continues talking to me, saying he doesn’t have enough for a cup of coffee, and I tell him I will pay for a cup for him.
I then realize he is a street person, carrying a plastic sack with likely all his possessions. He tells me he has instant coffee in the bag and intended to ask for hot water before I offered to pay for a cup. He wants to chat, that’s clear, and I notice the people near me (but six feet away) and they are eyeing me, clearly uncomfortable, as is the woman behind the counter, the MacDonald’s employee. To complicate matters, the man is kind of a close talker. Nobody says anything, but one young woman in line abruptly leaves. I make her that uncomfortable, I figure.
I decide this man is not the brightest person I’ve met this week. He may not even know anything about social distancing or sheltering in place — he may not even have a place to shelter. I can’t bring myself to shove him away, six feet of course, so we chat as we wait for our coffee, much to the disapproval and stern looks of the other patrons of MacDonald’s.
My neighborhood is on the affluent (not rich) side, and it tends to attract panhandlers because their reception is ordinarily better here, move positive, than other parts of the city. Of course, these are not ordinary times.
This experience reminds me of what I have been thinking about a lot lately, and that is the many poorer neighborhoods I have frequented over the years as a social worker. Ideas such as sheltering at home or social distancing are not easily practiced there, if practiced at all. The concepts may not even be fully understood.
When you see a two-room apartment, as I often have, with a dozen people living there, sheltering in place or quarantining becomes, well, difficult. As for social distancing, I suspect that it is not widely observed anywhere I’ve gone.
TV cameras show us a deserted Times Square, but not the central part of Watts or Harlem or Roxbury (in Boston). Activities there might be quite different from what is expected, almost have to be, given the needs of the population, mostly very poor people.
So the curve is flattening, we are being told now. I have to wonder if it has much to do with the practices of being observed so dutifully in the neighborhoods, or is something else happening to cause the decrease in numbers of deaths or those afflicted with coronavirus.
As for my new-found friend at McDonald’s, he got his coffee and left, wandered off, going who knows where. No place awfully special, you can almost make book on that. Truth is, though, I have no place very special to go either.
Raymond Abbott is a social worker and novelist.
Image credit: Shutterstock.com