There is the old saying, “Beggars can’t be choosers!” It was used to teach us not to be rude when we were offered a treat or a trinket when we were children. It was the first myth to be busted when I started to serve among the homeless in the 1980s. Beggars sure can be choosers! However in Phila. parlance, the word is “choicey.” Someone would be taking too long deciding which cookie they wanted. The person behind them, “Don’t be so choicey, now. Cop and roll!”
When I first observed this, I admit, I was just a little bit miffed, and a trifle confused. Here were people, standing smack dab in front of me, receiving something for free, sometimes openly criticizing or complaining about it, or asking for more options. It went against my mother’s voice in my head, which had always, unfailingly, reliably told me that “beggars cannot be choosers.”
I needed to process this. It is not an easy thing when the world conflicts with your mother’s voice in your head.
I decided to put myself in their shoes, not literally, imaginatively.
OK. I’m homeless. I have little to no real choice over where and when I can sleep. I have to scramble to find a way to keep clean and find clothing or find a way to change or keep clothing. My stuff can be stolen by the police or anybody else at any moment. Everything is out of control! What’s to eat? At least I can exercise some control over what I eat, can’t I? Give me that. Leave me that shred of human dignity and free will.
Two weeks ago, one of the men approached me as we were unloading the TKJ-mobile and asked me if we had any beans. He is vegetarian and he asked me if I could please make him some beans, even if it is just a small serving, just for him. He is not a fad vegetarian. He has a foreign accent and has been a lifelong, vegetarian. He now finds himself needing to find meals on the street in an American city, where meat and eggs are cheap and ubiquitous. That night, we did have oranges and some peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. I told him that I would make him beans for the next week.
Last week, I made a big pot of mixed beans and rice, with lots of garlic, celery, onion, turmeric, sage and various other spices. This man and others were very pleased. It was unlike any beans and rice they had ever had before. Yesterday, I made a huge pot of smoked turkey soup with cabbage, baby pea pods, potatoes, broccoli, green beans, kale, leeks, etc. Then I made three pounds of pinto beans, with cabbage, kale, celery, turmeric, garlic, cinnamon, sage, basil, ginger, black pepper, St. John’s wort, and a few other spices. We offered it as our vegetarian alternative. It was a big hit! Again, they were like no other pinto beans they had ever tasted! I did take a tiny taste. It was quite marvelous. Don’t ask me to replicate it. When I cook, there’s no book. It’s jazz!
One older gentleman asked for some of the beans and cabbage, but was concerned that it might have too much sodium, since he has high blood pressure. I told him that I did too, so I don’t use much salt. I figure people can add their own. You can always add it, but you can’t take it away. Some of the spices I used are actually known to lower blood pressure. He thanked me. He told me that the people who serve on Monday seemed to be conscious of nutrition. He wondered if there were any way we could reach out and educate the rest of the people serving to improve the health of their offerings. Now that is an interesting and rather daunting question.
If we believe the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” shouldn’t we be offering the healthiest, most palatable choices to our brothers and sisters who have fallen on hard times?
I know, something is better than nothing. Many of us are just doing the best that we can with what we have. Call me Pollyanna, but I still believe in progress. I think we can all do a little better.
Let’s be people of action.