Waiting in line at a Greek food truck I’d like to hijack, I ran into a longtime acquaintance I like and admire. So much so, she’s officially being upgraded to “new-friend” status. I know she’s vegan, so she was buying bottled water to support the small business.
A unique and caring person, “Jane” has had more than her fair share of life’s sucker punches. Despite some really terrible events, she always has a smile and kind words. I find both of these traits embraceable and enviable and have questioned if Jane’s steady positivity is for real.
But there’s no doubt it is and that’s why her pandemic survival story, while sadly not uncommon, is keeping me up at night.
Among the proud core of self-employed Mainers, Jane hasn’t been phased back to work yet but refuses to fret over something she can’t control. A talented and established massage therapist who also practices other mind/body modalities, she is concerned about the health and well-being of regular clients who fill her schedule during better days. She displays the most upbeat worrying I’ve ever heard. If it were me, I’d be sedated, in a padded room whining to anyone who’d pretend to listen. But it isn’t me.
“I have yet to receive an unemployment check and it’s been 10 weeks since I first filed,” Jane told me. “I didn’t get the stimulus check either and am wondering if I’m caught up in the unemployment fraud investigation that might be slowing things down. I’ve called many times, and no one seems to be able to help. Well, they are all newly hired being trained to try and straighten things out, and that can’t be an easy task. It’s a little frustrating for me but I feel bad for them.”
Jane said this with no sarcasm or impatience in her voice, even though I’m sure she isn’t independently wealthy. Sadly, our “new-friend” status still makes it inappropriate to ask about the nuts and bolts of her financial stuff.
What I do know is Jane has family and many people who are well past the “new-friend” phase in her life and I’m guessing she has support. Still, I can’t help but wonder about those who don’t.
Jane was still on my mind when I went grocery shopping later that day. Snaking through the store wishing the big red arrows led to Space Mountain instead of still half-empty paper goods shelves, I heard a male voice in front of me saying, “No, it’s not on the list. Put it back right now, please.” Sounding like a prerecorded public service announcement, that grocery store mantra has been uttered by parents everywhere from small farm stands to Super Walmart.
As I got closer, I saw a little girl was picking stuff up, standing on her tippy-toes and chucking things into the cart. There was a six-pack of candy bars, a box of Frosted Flakes, a green magic marker, and a jar of peanut butter.
The dad said, “We have some peanut butter at home, honey. We have to be extra smart with our shopping, remember? Mommy’s not going back to work either so let’s make sure we get things she likes, too.” Both of them looked dejected and I slid past carefully, as far away as I could, for physical distancing and not wanting to make eye contact.
What I did do was quickly follow the red arrows again and pick up the four items the girl put back, all in one place. Going through the self-checkout line, I asked one of the baggers to make sure the child in the blue overalls got the goods and not to say who bought it. I may have jumped to conclusions about her family dynamics and situation, but I did it anyway. It was a drop in the pandemic bucket of people doing and going without, and I could easily put my finger in this particular leaky hole.
Online later, I saw a post on Nextdoor North Portland from someone thanking the stranger who bought her daughter peanut butter and candy at the store earlier.
“It was a generous act,” said the writer identified as MoniquesMom. “My husband was unhappy to say no when our daughter was asking for food, and not a toy. We don’t see any end in sight and are afraid, so thank you.”
Running parallel to the fear and uncertainty brought about by COVID-19 is the celebration of Pride, and the reality and responsibility of kneeling and saying Black Lives Matter with genuine feeling. Acts of love, no matter how small, and working for the rights of others as an authentic ally, can only help us all.
That, and voting in November. Speaking of voting, did I mention my “new friend” Jane has a Biden sticker on the bumper of her pink scooter?
Natalie Ladd is a Portland restaurant veteran, freelance writer, and connoisseur of all things Bruce Springsteen. She loves Boston sports, chewy red wine and has never sampled a cheese she didn’t like. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.