Thanksgiving 2011 was a bright sunny day with temperatures in the high 60s. While waiting for the feast to be ready, Jay and the kids set up Ben’s ping pong table in the driveway and had a fight-to-the-death tournament amid ankle-deep mulberry and maple tree leaves. Ben missed the tournament because he and his dad went to a matinee. When he returned, I had a rare pause in the kitchen so I challenged him to a game.
We were well into it when I heard a car pull up in our alley. Normally, this means someone is dumping a crapload of trash. Often this is an illegal dump of some landlord cleaning out eviction property somewhere no where near us and I am stuck with moving the big pieces–broken furniture, big plastic children’s toys, heaps of clothing, all someone’s now former life–out of the way, then collecting the garbage from the split bags and stuffing them back into the dumpsters. It is as depressing as it is annoying. Someone’s home is literally being thrown away. I often wonder where they went and what it is like when you have no resources and all your carefully collected belongings–the kids’ Big Wheel found at a thrift shop, the velour couch bought on time from Rent-to- Own, the end tables, the mattress and box springs are now lying split and broken in a filthy alley because you couldn’t make rent.
But I also feel a sense of rage towards the person, usually a slum-lord who thinks it is ok to dump all this stuff in back of my house. Se when I hear a car pull up, I’m out there in a flash.
This time it was a rumbley old sedan and its backseat was filled with what looked like trash. The dumpster lid was propped open and it seemed most of its contents had been removed to the alley. Where is the person, I thought. The motor is running. Where did they go? Then a small, 20-something white woman stood up from where she had been foraging, inside the dumpster. She was neatly dressed and her bare hands were grubby with trash handling. She was barely a head taller than the dumpster. She had some metal thing in one hand.
“I’m just looking for scrap metal,” she said. “Ok,” I said, looking clearly unhappy with her. “I can leave if you want,” she offered. “No, go ahead.”And I went back in the yard to grumble about how I was now going to have to pick up all this trash again. I did not even wonder why this young woman would be searching for scrap on Thanksgiving. I even went in the house and complained loudly to my family who were assembled in the living room and deep into a program on television, about how annoying the dumpsters are because I had just cleaned up the alley the day before an now I would have to do it again. Some of them look up at me blankly, but no one responded. They are used to my hot-headed declarations.
“Apparently, not only do I have to clean up after everyone I know, I now have to clean up after everyone I don’t know, ” I whined to Ben as we went back outside to think about our ping pong game. The Parker House rolls were cooling in the pan, the dressing and potatoes were ready to go. The turkey and supplemental breast (I wanted leftovers) were roasting in the oven and the house was filled with that wonderful all-is-good smell.
Ben and I decided to go back out to the alley to make sure she wasn’t going to dump everything and drive away. “I’ll clean everything up,” she told me when I told her I always have to clean up the alley and would really appreciate it if she didn’t dump stuff everywhere. “I’m just searching for scrap metal. I lost my job and my daughter and I are being evicted tomorrow and I just want to be sure I have something for her to eat,” she said. “See,” she said, pointing to a small pile of metal things she had already foraged. “I’m going to take all of this, it won’t be here, I won’t make a mess, I’m just trying to find some scrap metal so I can get something to eat for my daughter. But I can go if I’m bothering you.”
I had an incredibly uncharitable thought about drug addictions, and mentally noted that there was no child in the car. It was like someone from Fox Network had a set up a small office in my brain and was spewing its toxic waste into my polluted thought-stream. But she was so small and fresh-scrubbed for a dumpster diver, she could have been my daughter if I had had one. I mumbled something about it being ok and Ben and I went back in the yard.
“Well that was depressing,” I said to Ben. “What do you think about seeing if the turkey breast is cooked yet and giving it to her?” “Sure,” said Ben. Ben would give someone the shirt off his back if they needed it. From the moment he was old enough to hand things to you, he was sharing. If he has $10 in his pocket to buy movie candy, he’ll come home with nothing, not because he bought $10 of snacks for himself but because he bought $10 of snacks for whomever he was with who didn’t have enough money to buy a soda. He doesn’t make a big deal of it and wouldn’t even mention these extraordinary acts of charity if I didn’t grill him about where is the money, or what happened to whatever toy it is that is missing. He is a good influence on me.
The turkey breast was nowhere near done. I grabbed a grocery bag and Ben and I cleaned out the cabinet of anything that looked vaguely nourishing. But I was unable to face her. I didn’t want to hear her absolve me of my moral failing. I didn’t want to be absolved. I didn’t think I should be allowed to feel better for anything. I had not only been callous and heartless on this most symbolic day of sharing, but I had announced this heartlessness in front of my entire family, most especially Ben. It was Ben who took the groceries to her. He then, without prompting, retrieved the giant bag of aluminum cans he had collected and gave her that as well. He told me she had thanked us as said God bless. It went without saying that we weren’t in the mood for ping pong anymore.
Ben and I didn’t speak of the donation to anyone else. For all they knew, I had left it at complaining about poor pitiful me for having to clean up the alley. They hadn’t noticed our cabinet clean-out. I didn’t want to talk about it. I didn’t want anyone to think better of me for doing what I should have done without hesitation. Even writing this and posting it seems suspect. Why not confine these personal upbraidings to my journal and not run the risk of someone telling me what a good person I am?
In truth, I process most things out loud. In truth, I need an audience. In truth, I need someone to approve of me. And maybe putting this out there will lead to someone thinking less of me. A punishment, as it were. My admission of human smallness. I have never had to forage in a dumpster unless I wanted to retrieve a cool piece of furniture that I then repurposed. And almost always, those retrievals were things that sat alongside the dumpster. I have never actually gotten into a dumpster, and certainly never because I was trying to feed my family.
Thanksgiving dinner went off well. In less than thirty minutes, about 20 hours of cooking became 5 or 6 small left-over containers. I have some critiques of the final hour that I will record for next year: don’t cook the dressing so long, you’ll break someone’s tooth. It’s nice to have a couple of classic items on the menu that aren’t pimped out with fancy sauces and exotic spices. English powdered mustard is still mustard and some people will find it too spicy. Make more cranberries because apparently, word is getting out that they are good. Let people help. Don’t forget the appetizers. And most of all, don’t let your culinary skills go to your head. Because after all, the real blessing to be thankful for is that we could feed eight people we love well under our own roof one more year.