The man behind me in the checkoutline has but one item, so even though I'm racing to meet a print deadline, I wave him to the front. He shuffles past the display of chocolate bars and bottles of fruit spritzers to the till, and drops a largely empty bag of quick oats on the scale. As I finish unloading my shopping cart, I hear him fumbling for change.
"Just add it to my bill," I tell the cashier, impatient.
The oat-buyer thanks me.
"Don't mention it," I say, and am vindicated to see the oats ring in at 25 cents, well worth the time saved.
He continues to express thanks, thanks that are out of proportion to my unsolicited generosity. For teh first time, I look at him rather than his purchase. I look at him, I don't comprehend, my stomach clenches. His arms are the diameter of his bones; beneath tightly stretched skin there is scant sign of flesh. Our eyes meet and he nods, perhaps he smiles. Cane and oats grasped in the same hand, he maneuvers his skeletal frame out othe door.
"That guy comes in every couple of days," the cashier says, interrupting my staring. "He buys a cupful or two of some staple food from our bulk bins. His tab rarely breaks a dollar."
I wish the oat-buyer's bag had been full. I wish he'd suddenly pulled out from behind his back a basket loaded with food for a week, a basket representative of all the food groups in the Canada's Foog Guide. I would invite him to put it all on my bill, who cares about the hurry I'm in, or the cost, this man urgently needs to eat, and eat more than oats.
A question from Michael Moore's latest movie, Sicko, echoes in my mind. What have we become, if, in one of the wealthiest socieities of all time, we are unable to show solidarity to those most in need? I don't know what ails this very conservative shopper. But I do know I can't feel good about my society, when a sick man is only able to buy oats, one cup at a time.
- Tom Green
As appears in Adbusters #74 November/December 2007