Wednesday, December 8, 2004

Brother Can You Spare a Bagel?

Brother Can You Spare a Bagel?
Stacey Greenberg

As a mother of a two-year-old and a three-month-old, most of my socializing occurs at the local playground: a brand spanking new, rubber-matted Mecca replete with swings, slides, monkey bars, grassy knolls, and a super fun sprinkler filled “spray ground.” Our playground is an ever-changing landscape of alt/punker parents, Kate Spade diaper bag ladies, church groups, and homeless people. When we pull in, I’m never really sure who will be there. Some days I am pleased to see several people I know from college or Satchel’s school. Other days I am lost in a sea of relatives from a family reunion BBQ or all alone with a guy asleep on a bench. Spending time with such a wide array of ages and outlooks has allowed me to successfully navigate some sticky social situations, such as swing etiquette and toy sharing among toddlers, but there are still some circumstances that leave me at a loss. Like taking food from strangers. And who should qualify as a stranger and who shouldn’t.

Last Saturday, my husband and I loaded up the kids and headed to the playground to find it pretty empty. As I pushed Satchel in the swing, I couldn’t help but notice two women, about my age, dressed in white Ghandi-esque robes. They were barefoot, blissed out, and sitting on the far side of the park talking to, I presume, a homeless guy. They didn’t look like ordinary nuns, more like Grateful Dead “spinners” who were home from touring Indian ashrams. Maybe they were in a cult! Who knows? I couldn’t help staring. The homeless guy looked like a scruffy, middle-aged Santa Claus in street clothes. He was sitting on a bench and the women were sitting on the ground at his feet. Whatever they were discussing, it seemed way more interesting than the run of the mill “Accept Jesus” talk that is the norm here in the Bible Belt.

My curiosity was piqued even more when an outdoorsy-looking couple, strangely juxtaposed in a shiny Mercedes station wagon with the temporary dealer tags still on, pulled in the parking lot to pick up the two blissed-out-nuns (BONs). The BONs slowly took their leave and gave the homeless guy big, long, bear hugs goodbye before walking to the car. Once at the wagon, the BONs chatted with the couple for a few moments and then waved the man over. He eagerly joined them and shook hands with the crunchy duo, exchanged a few words, and then resumed his station on the park bench. As the BONs made their way into the car to leave, one stopped to give the man a final wave, a huge smile, and then a deep, humble bow.

It was so strange. I loved it. I felt like I was in a Tom Robbins novel. Minus all the sex, of course. I asked a nearby mama if she knew who the strange women were, but she didn’t. She only said that they had been there for hours talking to the man. Maybe the man was the one who was special. Maybe the BONs came all the way from India to get some divine wisdom from him. That’s surely the way Tom Robbins would have it.

The next day, Sunday, we went back to the playground per usual. It was a busy day and I knew several people there. The only thing unusual was that instead of sitting on the bench on the outskirts of the playground, the homeless guy, a.k.a. Tom Robbins, was sitting in the middle of the padded play area. He had on a vest with no shirt, a couple of plastic bags at his side, and seemed to be happily sunbathing.

My husband chased Satchel around the play equipment while I lay on the grass next to my sleeping baby. I was sort of zoning out, enjoying the quiet, when I noticed that Satchel was standing at the bottom of the ladder staring at Tom Robbins. Tom was eating a chip, Satchel’s favorite, and had held one out to him. Satchel stood there torn between shyness and his love of salty snacks. I sat frozen wondering what the etiquette was in this situation. I didn’t want to be rude and make the guy feel bad, but I didn’t really want Satchel taking food from him.

Political correctness should take a backseat to the health of my child, right?
Satchel, having often been allowed to take chips from friends, random kids, and grandmotherly types at the playground (picnics were a common occurrence), didn’t sense any imminent danger. We had never had the “stranger” discussion. Until this incident, we knew no strangers. I continued to deliberate, hoping that my husband would swoop in and save the day, but he was oblivious to the events that were quickly unfolding.

The homeless men in the park always sat on the benches on the outskirts. They didn’t enter the world of children playing. Judging from the cardboard boxes and empty beer bottles, I always assumed they were just killing time until sunset when the playground became theirs again. It was a sharing of space divided by time. But, suddenly my child was interacting with one of the park’s late night inhabitants. Tom was no longer a character in a novel, he was a strange man offering food to my precious offspring.

I watched as Satchel walked over to him. Instead of taking the chip in Tom’s hand, Satchel peered into one of his plastic grocery bags, and reached in. His little fingers emerged grasping a bagel. Finally, my husband noticed what was happening. Instead of pouncing from the top of the slide to stop Satchel from taking the first bite, he smiled and waved at the guy.

Oh shit.

I gave my husband a look, but it seemed neither of us was willing to play parent in this situation. I hoped that the man was still high from his meeting with the BONs the day before and that he harbored no ill will, but I couldn’t help assuming the worst. Having grown up in the age of the “white van” and razor blade-infested Halloween candy, it is sometimes hard for me to trust the kindness of strangers. Especially vagabondy strangers who spend time around kids.

As a friend pointed out, if you’re homeless and have nothing to do, you might like to hang out at the playground and watch kids play all day. But if you were a homeless pedophile, you might really want to hang out at the playground and watch kids play all day. And being homeless would allow you to go unregistered as a sex offender.

I looked longingly at my three-month-old asleep on the grass and thought about Satchel at that age. My heart filled with sorrow as I imagined having to rush my trusting toddler to the ER as soon as the poisoned bagel had a chance to digest. I knew they would take him from me and I wouldn’t see him again until he was lying on a stretcher with a sheet over his head, forgotten in a hall somewhere, like the body Lily Tomlin stole in “9 to 5.” I pictured his little leg peeking out from under the sheet, easily identifiable by the two-tone oblong birthmark on his left shin.

I awoke from this morbid reverie to find my husband and Satchel coming to sit by me. I looked at the bagel in Satchel’s hand and admittedly, it looked okay. Actually it looked quite tasty sprinkled with Parmesan cheese and herbs. I asked my husband what we were supposed to do since Tom Robbins was just a few feet away. I didn’t want to cause a scene or appear freaked out. I mean, this is Midtown. I am a hip mama. I used to run the soup kitchen in college! Why should I just assume that homeless equaled dangerous? Warren, compassionate but clearly not equipped with maternal paranoia, seemed more concerned about the man going hungry than Satchel dying.

Warren sat down with the baby while Satchel and I returned to the equipment. Satchel happily continued to eat the bagel. Trying to appear relaxed, I looked away from my carb thief for two seconds, in which time a little boy we know came over and asked Satchel for a bite. In a rare moment of sharing, Satchel obliged. The boy’s mom, a college friend of mine, saw this and kind of laughed at the cuteness. Still feeling freaked, I said, “Well, you know where he got that bagel,” and motioned my head towards Tom.

My friend looked horrified. She has been a mama a year longer than me and seems to excel at it. She knows all the kid songs, the games, the recipes, the tantrum avoiding tricks. She’s a very pragmatic sort. Not the sort to sit by idly while her child accepts food from strangers.

Shit. She was going to seriously lose it on me. Now, I not only endangered Satchel, but her son too. Shit shit shit. What if they both died! Or had a really bad acid trip that scarred them mentally for life! How could I be so stupid! Why didn’t I just cause a scene? I’m sure the other mothers would have come up with some way to stop their child from taking food from a random guy at the playground. I was ashamed of myself. Mortified. Stupid stupid stupid.

“Stacey!” she said, “That bagel was probably in the garbage!”

The garbage? Garbage? Garbage isn’t so bad. I mean, not bad like poison or LSD. I can deal with garbage. I hadn’t even considered that scenario. Garbage, yes! The bagel was probably just in a nice, clean plastic bag filled with other bagels. Garbage is an overstatement. Ha. Garbage. What a relief!

So, thankfully and through no fault of my own, both boys were okay. Having averted disaster, my mind is now at ease in regards to Satchel’s health, but I am still curious about the BONs. Who were they? Maybe now that I know Tom isn’t out poisoning children, I could just ask him. But do I really want to be the mom who befriends a random man in the park? Is that good? In college I knew lots of homeless people. I used to eat dinner with them once a week. I was fearless then. Optimistic. I wasn’t a mother. I didn’t have to turn off the news on a regular basis just to be able to fall asleep at night. I could have watched “Sylvia” without wondering where her kids were while she slowly lost her mind.

If I did strike up a conversation with Tom, would it be the beginning of a long relationship? Would I have to say hi every time I saw him at the park? Would I feel obligated to give him money? Would I find out more about him than I wanted to know? It would certainly be easier to just not go there. Keep him in the realm of convoluted fiction.

But how do I teach my children compassion and open-mindedness if I assume that people who don’t look like us don’t think like us? That it is better to always keep a distance? For all I know, the BONs who looked like me (but were better dressed) might be the ones to fear. In discussing the issue with my husband, he said he was more afraid of the food that strangers served him at McDonald’s than anything he could scrounge in the park. I have a feeling that the answer lies in letting go of fear and not falling prey to urban myths and media hype. And taking each situation as it comes.

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