Scarlet, the Beggar and Me
Walking into the conference room of a continuing education course always makes me feel a little like the bumblebee girl in Blind Melon’s “No Rain” video. The bumblebee girl, you may recall, is so ridiculously out of place everywhere she dances. That garish leotard. That tutu accentuating her prepubescent potbelly. Those impractical tap shoes announcing her awkward arrival. At the end, though, she finds that she is not so alone. She passes through a gate and into a grassy field of frolicking tutu-wearing bumblebee dancers. They are her people.
My people are speech therapists. We don’t wear insect-themed dance wear, but we feel just as isolated at our respective places of business as the bumblebees when they’re out on the street, so the relief that washes over us when we get together en mass is strong. Palpable.
My table mate/bumblebee buddy at this weekend’s conference was a woman from Louisville. I felt her approach, looked up when she placed her leather-bound Franklin-Covey organizer on the table, and was so pleased to see that she was wearing a tucked-in turtleneck and corduroy blazer – just like me!
“Morning!” she said brightly. “I’m Scarlet. Anyone sitting here?”
“No. Please.” I nodded toward the empty seat. As she settled in, I admired her hair. It was copper-colored. She had used a flat-iron to flip the longer layers out – just like me!
During breaks, Scarlet and I, in matching clothes and overtly southern names, conversed easily on such nerdy topics as G-codes, the importance of dressing warmly for overly air conditioned conference rooms, and our sons’ food allergies. We were fast friends.
You hate to be cold? Me too! Your son is allergic to peanuts? Get outta here, so is mine! Anaphylaxis. The worst! Am I right?
During the mid-afternoon break, Scarlet accompanied me to lunch. She insisted I chose the restaurant, but when I pulled into Wendy’s she clinched her teeth. “I mean, I guess this will be fine.”
It was obvious to me that Scarlet avoided fast food. It wasn’t anything she said. It was her BMI. And hey, good for Scarlet. Time and options were in very short supply, however. She would have to suspend her discriminating eating habits for one meal.
On my way to the table, I was stopped by a man asking for money.
“I’m hungry,” he said. “Gimme some money. Come on, man, I’m hungry.”
“Yeah, okay. Let me set down my food.”
The beggar had dry, ashy skin, a strong odor, and an unkempt beard. He was the kind of thin you can’t conceal under layers of coats. The kind of jumpy you can’t hide by putting your hands in your pockets.
I placed my meal on the table: a spicy chicken sandwich, hastily wrapped, a large, wax-coated cup of tea. Scarlet watched as I plucked a couple of bills from my wallet. I was sure she’d discourage me from giving the man any money, that she’d say he would blow it on alcohol or drugs, so I preemptively defended my actions.
“God told us to give to the needy.” I said. “We’re not to judge what this guy will do with the money. It is on him.”
Scarlet nodded her approval. “I feel the same way,” she said, and with that exchange I decided she was probably a Methodist – just like me! Scarlet from Louisville, my bumblebee-dancing comrade.
I returned to the beggar with my offering. His fingers where open to accept the cash, but his thumb was clenched around a paper box of chicken nuggets. He had hit up another costumer, and she had given the beggar food rather than money.
I returned to the table and began eating my sandwich. Scarlet slapped her hand on her thigh.
“I got a cheeseburger!!!” she announced. Wild-eyed. A mischievous grin on her face. To see her gleefully naughty expression, you’d have assumed her confession would be much more interesting. I just untucked my turtleneck and flashed a random man in the drive through! Something like that. Nope. She’d ordered a burger. It was the most scandalous thing Scarlet had done in a while.
Our lunches were interrupted by confrontation at the register. The beggar was shouting at the cashier. He was trying to return his chicken nuggets for their cash value. $1.06.
“I’m sorry, sir, but you can’t return those. That’s the policy. I didn’t even sell them to you. You don’t have a receipt.”
“That’s bullshit, man! That’s some bullshit!”
“There’s nothing wrong with them,” said the cashier, a saint who tolerates profanity for minimum wage. “Why don’t you just eat them?”
Why didn’t he just eat them? It seemed like a legitimate question to me. He claimed to be hungry, and even if he would have preferred drug money, surely the chicken nuggets were better than nothing. He has to eat, doesn’t he?
We can all be a little like the beggar, if we are to be honest with ourselves. We make requests. We try to make them sound wholesome. Need-based. We go to our spouses, to our friends and family, to our employers and our coworkers, to God, we tell them what we need, ask them to nourish us, and when the need is filled, we start flinging the chicken nuggets around. We tantrum internally because what we needed and were given wasn’t really what we wanted. Metaphorically speaking, we don’t want to eat. We want to get high. It’s euphoria we are after, not sustenance.
That beggar didn’t need drugs. He didn’t deserve the cash I gave him. Maybe I didn’t need or deserve to have my bathroom remodeled last month. Everything we use, everything we throw away, and every swirling gang of dancing bumblebees we happen upon – it is all grace. That’s what I pondered on the long drive home from Charlotte. Maybe Scarlet, on a plane bound for Louisville with a belly full of cheeseburger – maybe she pondered it, too. Just like me.