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A couple's hunger highlights the economic low

February 06, 2009|DANA PARSONS

Back in my old stomping grounds the other night in Huntington Beach, I ordered dinner at a restaurant, a ritual repeated thousands of times over the years. I eat out almost every night, seeing it as little more than a refueling stop on the way home to nights of relative ease in a mostly comfortable life. A little TV, a snack or two, a book at bedtime and a pretty good night's sleep.

Except that this night at the restaurant will stick with me for a while.

This was the night that whatever is going on in the country these days came out of the shadows and sat on a bench, right under a light.

I'd ordered a plate of fettuccine that came with a thick sauce and chunks of salmon. It was too generous a portion, and I did something I almost never do -- asked for a take-home box.

The God's truth is that I was thinking I'd take it a few blocks down Beach Boulevard to a large parking lot where I'd seen homeless people gathered in groups of six to 10. In the past, they'd almost seemed communal in their plight.

Before you anoint me, the God's truth also is that I've never done that before. I've never taken food to street people. And it's not like I'd have been giving up anything on this night: Even though I had asked for the box, I hardly ever eat leftover restaurant food. I asked for the box partly because I felt guilty at leaving so much food. It was only in the minutes afterward that I hatched the charity plan.

It's also possible that I wouldn't have followed through. I might well have gotten into my car, decided not to go out of my way and bypassed the homeless group (who knows, maybe they wouldn't have even been there). Once home, I might well have chucked the food in the trash bin.

So, no medals for me.

But when I stepped outside the restaurant, there they were. A man and woman next to each other on a bench. I won't stretch for dramatic license and say they were huddled, but they didn't look like people who had signed up for a table and were enjoying the cool night air while waiting.

Rather, they had the all-too-familiar look of people down on their luck. They looked like people who find a way to make do when the sun goes down. Maybe they were in their 40s or 50s, but when you're street-weary and short of options, the years probably add up faster.

I wanted to say something, but it's not like you ask: "Hey, are you homeless?" What I came up with was: "Are you waiting for someone?"

The man replied: "We were hoping to get something to eat."

"Do you like noodles?" I asked.

"Yes," the woman said.

"Hope you like it," I said, giving them the box before heading to my car without saying another word.

Before I left the parking lot, I had tears in my eyes.

I replayed the moment on the way home and again later that night. Maybe my hormones were on the fritz, but every time I got to his line -- "We were hoping to get something to eat" -- I misted up.

And wondered why. It's not like I learned that night that many people don't have enough to eat. I certainly wasn't choked up by my own generosity.

What did it, I think, was that instead of stepping out from the shadows or approaching someone on the sidewalk for small change, the couple was sitting outside a restaurant at dinnertime.

And it was that look in their faces. Not hopeful or hucksterish. I can't even say for sure if they were going to ask me for anything. I was the one who spoke first. Maybe they were going to depend on the kindness of strangers.

But in the end, it was his words: "We were hoping to get something to eat."

I thought about the pride-swallowing that requires. About the primal simplicity of asking another person for food. About the desperation the two of them must have felt, going to a restaurant and hoping a customer might give them something to eat.

Like you, I've been panhandled before.

But this just felt different. Maybe I overreacted to what seemed like the karma of actually having food with me.

All I know is that, after eating out for most of my adult life, I've never met anyone on a restaurant's doorstep hoping for food like a penniless child from the Third World who didn't want to go to bed hungry.

I don't know where this economy is going. I hope the couple aren't reflective of what lies ahead.

I just know that, outside the restaurant, things felt different -- in a way they hadn't before.

Even though the news has been grim in recent months, things felt like a whole new kind of bad.

--

dana.parsons@latimes.com

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