Op/Ed

Ways of Seeing by Alice Leeds: Encounter is food for thought

My husband and I leave Arches National Park in Utah on a bright morning, driving along the Colorado River then over the Rockies toward Denver, where we’ll visit his son and our eight-year-old grandson. The scorched river valley and vast mountains we traverse captivate our imagination. This place is the setting of countless Westerns.
It’s well past lunchtime when we pull off I-70 into a parched rest area. Three small picnic shelters are scattered across a scrubby field — each one shades a couple of tables and a handful of travelers. The only open table parallels another one where a leggy man lies asleep on its attached bench in a fetal position, his pack and what appear to be a collection of towels, rags and worn-out clothing strewn about him.
We observed this situation earlier in our trip in another rest area. At first glance, I thought the person asleep on a sheltered concrete table in Wyoming was catching a quick power nap, but her tattered clothing and blistered skin told a different story. The homeless turn to rest areas in a number of locations throughout the country. If they observe time limits they are free to stay awhile. However, they do so at the risk of assault or arrest.
We head to the table beside the sleeping man. I approach cautiously, uncertain how he may react to us. Small-to-medium-sized tattoos randomly cover his skinny arms and legs. It’s as if someone used him as a practice drawing space. His hair is a blonde stream of tangled waves, his skin the deep red of sunburn over tan, grimy around his elbows and neck, his face lined and sun-scarred. He opens his eyes and greets us quietly from his reclined position. As we unpack our ample food supply, an array of crackers, spreads and fruit, I realize he is probably hungry. I mouth this to my husband who has no idea what I’m saying and gives me a puzzled look. So I turn around and ask, “Are you hungry?”
The fellow answers, “Well, yes, I guess I am.” His voice has what might be a Southern lilt, with a courteous quality, almost gracious. He seems young, decades younger than I am. He might be handsome if he weren’t so grimy. I ask if he’d like an almond butter sandwich and he says yes, so I spread nut butter thickly on a large slender disk of puffed corn and cover it with a second one, then hand it over. Sitting up, the young man thanks me for it, so I nod uncomfortably. My road food isn’t likely the sort of thing he’d eat if he had a choice.
As we eat, I wonder what twist of fate placed this man in his situation. Perhaps he’s a veteran with PTSD, mentally ill, or dealing with substance abuse — more likely, a combination of these conditions. Whatever his circumstance, it seems this individual has no safety net at the moment. Sitting here beside him, I’m both grateful and uncomfortable regarding my good fortune — my husband beside me, our rental car and groceries, the ATM card in my wallet, our home and garden at the end of this road trip.
Rick interrupts my thoughts to point out our container of leftover Pad Thai from last night’s ample dinner, so I carry it to the next table. The man has finished the sandwich. “Do you like Asian food?” I ask. “It’s noodles and chicken.” I realize the ridiculousness of this question, as if I could offer a menu of options, but posing it feels somehow respectful.
The young man says yes, he does like Asian food, but then I realize we don’t have a disposable fork, so I ask if he has one. He nods yes, sure, so I pass him the Pad Thai and he thanks me again, which makes me sadder. We pack up and start heading towards our car.
“Safe travels,” Rick says as we go. “Be well,” I add. The young man nods to us, his face blank. I try but can’t fake a smile, then feel ashamed I can’t offer that small gift.
As we pull out, he’s hovering over the Pad Thai, placing small gobs of it into his mouth with his hands.
Alice Leeds, of Bristol, was a public school teacher for 25 years and is currently a writing instructor at the Community College of Vermont in Winooski.

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