The big man at the food pantry pushes me to take groceries I don’t want. He offers me boxed mac’n’cheese and I tell him I can’t eat powdered flavorings. He tells me not to be proud – I fib and tell him I’m allergic to them to get him to leave me alone. When I get home, I find boxes of powdered mac’n’cheese in the bottom of one of my bags anyway.
He offers me a big tube of toothpaste. I remind him I got one just last month and still have plenty. He tries to get me to accept it, but I hold steady. “No. I do not need toothpaste.” He offers me a choice of combs and I remind him I got a comb last month, but he chooses one for me anyway and slips it into my bag.
“How about tomatoes?” he asks, “Do you need tomatoes?” I am delighted and say so. “How many do you need?” I ask him to show me how big they are so I can determine. He frowns and holds two up.
They are small but not grape-sized. I ask if I can have three or four. He parries with “Do you need more?” I tell him I can use as many as he wants to give me. He sounds gruff when he chides me that it’s not about what I WANT but what I NEED. I shrug, unwilling to fight with him about words or tomatoes. When I get home, I find ten tomatoes.
Another man asks me if I can use meat. I tell him ground turkey or chicken or beef is fine. He asks “Hot dogs or bologna?” and I answer hot dogs. He puts a package of hot dogs and one pound each of ground chicken, turkey, and Black Angus grass-fed beef in my bag. I’ve never even eaten Black Angus grass-fed beef before but I know it’s not good for hamburgers – too lean. This will be the first time I’ve had the too-lean problem, I think.
I tell him I have lots of peanut butter but he insists on knowing “creamy or crunchy” and I admit defeat and ask for creamy.
I say I could really use some spaghetti and sauce, and I’d love some bread. They have dozens of loaves of bread, so much bread that it’s going moldy and they’ve started a stack of throw-away bread. I’m asked what kinds of bread I like and I ask if there’s any rye because I want to make a Reuben sandwich, but I forgot to ask if they have sauerkraut in a can.
They give me a loaf of Jewish rye, and a large whole wheat, and a package of hot dog buns and hamburger buns. I have a lot of bread this time. They put a huge lemon torte into a bag. It was marked down for clearance to $5.99. I wonder how much it cost full-price. My birthday’s coming up so I don’t feel guilty for accepting the cake.
They make me take cans of beans and fruit and a tin of some sort of canned pork and a can of evaporated milk and some sweetened condensed caramel milk. It is a lot of food. I am grateful. He always gives me a roll of toilet paper – one roll per month. My imagination runs free and I rein it in.
Sometimes I wish they had eggs, sugar, flour, ingredients to make more wholesome things with. Instead, they put three packages of Ramen noodles in a bag and set it down. He asks if I like carrots and I smile and say yes, and he puts a can of them in the bag with the Ramen noodles. He tries to get me to accept canned turnip greens and I decline, assuring him I would not eat them.
When I get home, I’m tired and I doze after the frozen meats are put away. I dream of canned carrots and Ramen noodles with caramel sweetened condensed milk and Jewish rye bread with no sauerkraut or corned beef, and I picture a can of black beans and a roll of toilet paper all jumbled up, and I’m grateful, grateful for those who donated food, grateful for these strange food choices, grateful for the volunteers, grateful for sleep.