Tuesday, August 3, 2010
The Grace of God
One evening, on a recent visit to New Orleans, a friend and I went out for dinner in the French Quarter. We wanted authentic New Orleans food & chose a place advertising gumbo.
We'd been walking in the humid heat all day, seeing sights. We were hot, sweaty and hungry. When we stepped inside the air conditioned dining room we both almost groaned with relief.
We were immediately seated at a cozy table for two. Our waiter appeared instantly to present the specials of the evening and to inquire what we'd like to drink. We each requested a cold beer.
While we were perusing the menu, our glasses, frosty with condensation, arrived filled with golden coldness, droplets of moisture already beginning to pool and run down the sides. John and I both immediately took a refreshing drink.
We ordered gumbo to start followed with crab cakes, jambalaya and creamed spinach. We leisurely ate, conversed and drank, in the coolness of the restaurant among the other patrons until we felt we'd used up our fair quota of table time. We paid our bill, collected our things and stepped back into the streets, the air greeting us like walking into a hot, wet blanket.
Across the street, John spied a gelato shop and commented on how good that sounded at that moment.
"Let's go get you some then."
Inside, John took his place in line and I found a corner to stand where I'd be out of the way of others. Even though I was full and wasn't going to order anything, I read the lighted signs that described the various flavours of iced sweetness they offered.
The line moved slowly, giving me ample time to observe patrons around me. Some were young. Some older. Some had purchases with them. Others chatted happily and animatedly. All were seated and obviously enjoying a little rest.
I watched a gaunt woman in a thin t-shirt & worn denim shorts take a cold drink in a red can out of the self-serve cooler and approach the cashier while reaching into her pocket. At the register, it was obvious that the change in her hand wasn't enough and she walked back to the cooler, replacing the can. Then she walked outside & sat quietly, perched on the edge of a chair at a table, her back straight, hands folded in her lap, as tourists passed her by.
I watched her for a few moments, taking in the calm of her thin, leathery face.
I stepped over to the cooler & opened the door looking where she'd replaced the can. Side by side were cans of Coke and Dr. Pepper. Both red. I took one of each and approached the 16 yr old behind the cash register.
"Which was it that the lady wanted? Coke or Dr Pepper?" I asked him.
"Dr. Pepper, I think it was," answered the young lady who'd just paid for her gelato.
I put my money on the counter beside the Dr. Pepper and replaced the Coke. I went back and peeked out the door to make sure the lady hadn't left. She was still at the table.
"If it was Coke she wanted, can I trade this back?" I asked the boy.
"Uhh. I don't know... I guess so, but we're actually trying to discourage..." he was saying in a disgusted voice.
I took my change, turning my back on him, not wanting to listen any further and went outside.
"Hello," I smiled, placing the red can on the table in front of her. "Was it Dr. Pepper you wanted?"
"Oh, yes! Dr. Pepper. Thank you because I'm homeless" she beamed at me.
"You're very welcome," I assured her.
"Thank you!!" she called behind me as I returned back inside to wait for John.
As I stood waiting, a middle-aged, well-dressed couple looked at me and the lady said, "You are such a good person!"
"A cold drink is not much to ask at all," I replied dismissively. I might have snapped at her. I know for certain I was abrupt.
John was at the cashier paying for his dish of gelato when I felt a touch on the back of my arm near my elbow.
I turned and found myself looking into the gentle, smiling face of this lady. It was creased with hardship.
"Thank you again," she said. "God bless you."
Tears burned in the corners of my eyes. God bless me? God bless ME? I grasped her hand in both mine.
"Please don't thank me. You deserve it," I told her and squeezed her palm. She looked into my eyes a moment then turned and went outside.
As we left the store I felt so ashamed. All those people who noticed that she didn't have enough change for a cold drink. Yet no one did anything. No one spoke to this dignified lady, proud enough to want to pay for herself, proud enough not to ask anyone for anything. I felt ashamed at all the blessings I have in my life but this lady who obviously had so little wished blessings on me. I felt disappointed in my fellow human beings. I felt disappointed in myself for being praised for giving what every human deserves. I did so little. I could have done more, though I don't know what.
I felt angry that this woman with the creased face, sunken mouth and beautiful eyes was so grateful & appreciative for something as simple as a cold drink when most of us take it and most everything for granted, not even giving a thought. I felt shame.
I thought, "There but for the grace of God go I. Or the kid at the register. Or the 20-ish girl with her ice cream. Or the well-dressed couple." Not much separates any of our circumstances from this unfortunate woman's. It wouldn't take much for any of us to find ourselves in her situation.
Yes, I gave a thirsty woman a drink, but she reinforced my resolve to be grateful and thankful and appreciative for everything I have. I gave her a drink. She gave me more...much, much more.