Bakery wisdom

Between tasty tartlets and free sandwiches, Elizabeth Guia finds out what happens when the needy don’t need more.

Elizabeth Guia
15 May 2009
Photo by Fabrizio Magoni

It’s a warm and sunny Saturday afternoon and I’m driving along Coral Way to visit some friends in Key Biscayne. On my way, I decide to stop by a bakery to get something to bring along. There is this little place I’ve heard about where I hope to find something special and delicious that my friends will appreciate.

As I recognize the bakery and get ready to park, I notice a homeless man sitting on the ground. He’s leaning against the wall of a vacant store located between the bakery and my parking space. I hesitate. Will the homeless man be dangerous? I see another metered parking place across the street and catch myself thinking that I could park there and get to the bakery from the other end of the sidewalk. I wonder why I have to be so distrusting. The man could be perfectly harmless but I can’t help thinking that he may accost me for money or outright mug me and run away with my purse. I realize it is a very unkind thought; the man looks calm and immersed in his own world. His eyes are down, staring at the pavement, and were it not for his lit cigarette, I could swear he’s asleep. I decide to brave the situation. I park and walk by him, looking straight ahead, without turning. I enter the store. I feel good about myself. I have overcome ridiculous fears.

I take a number and began to scrutinize the goodies behind the glass shelves while I wait. When an employee comes to help, I ask questions—kind of out of character since I tend to be shy. But I want to feel out-of-character, I want to break the rigid ways of an anxious, guarded personality continually bombarded by crime news, accustomed to living in big cities often characterized as dangerous or hostile or impersonal. I engage in a conversation with the young attendant. What is this and what is that I ask, until I finally make up my mind: I’ll be taking a few fruit tartlets. They are one of my favorite desserts. I can almost taste them, the crust dry and soft and the filling creamy, and sweet and sour at the same time. My friends will just love them, I’m sure.

While the girl is preparing my purchase, I get ready to pay and engage in a conversation with the older lady at the cash register. I guess I’m on a roll, friendly and talkative, instead of the usual introvert and aloof. Along with other chitchat, I tell her that it’s my first visit and that the place has been recommended to me by friends. In reality, I had been there once before, a couple of years back, but of course it was the “other” me who frostily ordered the first thing in view and paid and left without looking anyone in the eye.

The lady at the cash register hands me the box with my fruit tartlets and a paper bag. I look inside the bag; there are three or four sandwiches I have not ordered.

“I’m sorry, ma’am, this is not mine.”

She looks at me with an “I know,” and adds authoritatively, “Take it and try other things we have.”

Surprised and delighted, I thank her and leave. I think to myself, “I should try this being friendly stuff more often.”

As I’m walking to my car, I see the homeless man still sitting where I left him. I slow down to look at him and notice he has a small plastic cup with, coffee? He’s holding his cigarette butt, no smoke coming out. His eyes remain fixated on the pavement. I think to myself he’s probably been on the streets forever. I wonder if he’s high on drugs.
I stand in front of him.

He doesn’t look up. His clothes are dark from dirt. Inside his fingernails are black. His skin and hair are filthy. He has an unpleasant odor.

“Have you had breakfast today, sir? I ask with a strong voice, in case he is asleep.

He looks up a bit, sort of wondering if I’m talking to him.

I repeat, “Have you had any breakfast today, sir?” I realize “today” is almost metaphorical. He may have been going without a real breakfast for years.

Now he looks up directly at me. The skin of his face is dry, burnt by the sun, blemished and also very dirty, old looking, very old. But his eyes tell me he’s not that old at all, probably in his late thirties, early forties at the most. His expression is serene, not threatening at all.

I hand him the bag with the sandwiches.

“Please have this.” I say this not without some embarrassment.

He takes the bag, looks inside, pulls one of the sandwiches out and hands me the bag back.

“Too much, this is too much.” And looking at the sandwich in his hand, he adds “This is enough.”

I insist, while I wonder if his dirty hands had touched the other sandwiches inside the bag.

“Please keep it. You’ll have food for later, dinner maybe…”

His eyes are clean and blue and peaceful like a calm ocean.

“I really don’t need this. It’s too much.”

I want him to keep the bag and I won’t take it back.

“Please, sir.”

I look into his eyes. It’s me who is begging. Something inside of my head is quietly begging, “Make me feel good, sir. Take the sandwiches.”

He accepts the bag, I smile and leave.

But as I’m about to drive away, I see him coming toward the car, looking directly at me. I don’t dare to take off although some of the old fears have come back. What do I do if he asks me for a ride? How do I say no? But I can’t. I couldn’t. He maybe one of those weirdoes who look like angels and then turn into cannibals. Oh, God, why did I have to be nice?

I cautiously roll down the right side window of my car to hear him.

He hands me the bag back, one sandwich in the other hand.

“Thanks but I really don’t need more.”

I have to take the bag. He doesn’t give me a choice. He thanks me without words, with his beautiful eyes, nods when I accept the bag, turns around and goes back to his spot.

I follow my thoughts and try to see beyond what is obvious, reflecting on other possible layers of deeper motivations and feelings. Certainly, I disappointingly realize, I’m also looking for my friends’ appreciation, the store clerk and owner’s approval, the homeless man’s gratitude, and my own ego’s recognition of my kindness and renewed self-confidence. Is that it? Has it all been for those ulterior motives? Wait! Let’s not rush into such harsh conclusions. This appears to be a win-win situation for every one; after all, we all ended a bit happier, didn’t we?  Oh, dear, there’s more. In actuality, I have been the needy while the others have been the givers; especially the poorest, the homeless man who told me he doesn’t need “more.” I have asked and I have been given. I take the lesson humbly and with gratitude.

Elizabeth Guia

Elizabeth Guia is currently working on Unveilings, a memoir that describes a life-transforming spiritual life experience and the internal journey that it set off. This story is part of that recount. She lives in Miami.