Outside the grocery store, a worn-out looking man in tattered clothes asked me if I wanted to buy a copy of Street Roots. “The paper just came out yesterday,” he said, his voice hopeful.
These newspaper vendors are a familiar sight on busy Portland sidewalks.
“No thanks, I already bought my copy this week,” I said, walking into the store. The glass doors slid shut behind me. I grabbed a cart, scanning my list.
But something tugged on me as I bagged up three tomatoes. By the time I got to broccoli, I changed my mind and walked back outside.
Street Roots, a local nonprofit, produces a newspaper to give people experiencing homelessness or extreme poverty a means to earn money. The vendors buy the papers from Street Roots for a quarter and then sell them for a dollar. Or more than a dollar, if the buyer is willing to share more.
It’s a great publication put out by an amazingly dedicated and talented editorial staff. I volunteer on the copy-editing team weekly, right before the paper goes to press.
I tracked the vendor down and pulled a crumpled five-dollar bill out of my coat pocket—change from the coffee I bought earlier—and handed it to him. He slid a copy of the newspaper out of a plastic bag, protecting his treasures from the inevitable Oregon rain.
I looked at him more closely. Brown eyes. Sandy-colored hair. Coat two sizes too big. Sunken cheeks. About my age.
He started to peel off the four dollars change. “Please keep it,” I said.
He thanked me and I returned to my shopping inside the store.
I walked up and down the aisles, tossing items into the cart. Feeling hungry, I wandered over to the hot-and-ready section of the store.
The man who sold me the paper was standing over the steam tables, scooping mashed potatoes into a little container that already held a slice of meatloaf. He kept adding a bit more potatoes, a spoonful at a time, and then weighing it on the scale. At first I couldn’t figure out why he was being so slow and methodical. Then it hit me: he was being careful to only load up no more than five dollars worth of food.
Jeez. Life can get so hard. Maybe this was his first, or only, meal of the day.
It simultaneously made me feel grateful that I could help him, for the low price of five dollars, and broke my heart that we, as a society, cannot figure out how to use the enormous riches of this country, of the world, to make sure everyone is cared for, to give shelter and nourishment to those who have trouble finding it on their own. To help folks like him so they don’t have to worry about being a few pennies short for lunch.
We will get there, someday. I have faith in humans. But it’s slow going.
Still, I was humbled to be so vividly reminded that the smallest gestures can add up to something consequential, even when most of the times, we don't see the immediate impact as I did that afternoon last week.