Because of an accident I had on the construction site that put me on workers' comp for a week, the day labor service I worked for was afraid to send me out again. I spent my days sitting in the grungy waiting room, usually alone watching whatever video was playing, waiting for a job they might be willing to send me to, but except for three days at a laundry company and three days washing dishes I was not getting any work. And not getting paid.
The motto of the day labor was "Work today pay today," which was how it went, unless you didn't get sent out with a ticket. That day as I sat in front of the television watching an Eddie Murphy flick for the third time, I was not alone for once. Gloria, a young woman with a deep Southern accent suitable for The Beverly Hillbillies, did not get work either. As I silently sipped my Styrofoam cup of coffee (50 cents for the cup, but you could drink all you wanted all day), she went on about her lack of a job. "This is the third day in a row, and y'all know I gotta pay bills. I don't know what to do, I surely don't, but I place it in the Lord's hands. Y'all have no idea what a struggle it is, y'all know."
There wasn't a "you all" there, just me and her, and I knew what a struggle it was. I was whittling down my savings and running out of options. It was rough for me, but how much rougher would it be if I were a woman with no education? And then she said, "Y'all wanna go out to eat?"
For the first time I noticed how hungry I was. I had been skipping breakfast to save money, but that was not a good idea. I checked my wallet, saw two dollars. "I can't afford it," I said. I wondered if she meant for me to pay for her meal as well. I couldn't even afford anything for me. Maybe a bag of chips for her and me at the store nearby; maybe that would be lunch. I cringed.
"Don't y'all worry about money none," she said. "C'mon, let's go."
I followed her out the door, knowing it was a bad idea. Her husband worked there, too, and he might think there was something going on if he heard we left together. We walked past old Florida houses in the summer heat, me silent, she going on about who had died in her family over the years, and how none of them ever helped her or her husband out. Most people who worked day labor had serious problems, drug addictions, some were homeless and some emotionally troubled. We were not the cream of the crop. I had a college degree, but I was here now. What did that say about me?
An hour later we reached a lonely building between warehouses, and Gloria guided me to the side door. It was a Christian soup kitchen. I wondered if it mattered that I was Buddhist, and then I wondered if we were going to get a sermon after lunch. The dining hall was crowded, four long rows of people eating silently, people in rags with garbage bags of their property behind them. They looked dirty, worn, sad-eyed, but they were eating at least. I thought how I had gotten in a shower before I pedaled off to work at 5 that morning, probably the cleanest one there.
Gloria took me to the kitchen counter where young men and women were helping us decide what we wanted, pizza, soup, meat loaf, vegetables. At the end of the counter was an empty jar with a sign that said "Donations." Gloria and I filled our plates and found two chairs side by side where we sat, she still talking between bites, me still silent. There were plates of bread and butter on the tables, doughnuts, a bowl of fruit. I looked at my fellow diners and then at the volunteers. Love and compassion appear in the strangest places.
When we were done I told Gloria I would walk her back. She had to wait for her husband to get off work; I had to pick up my bicycle. As we headed out the door I dropped my two dollars into the jar. It was the only money the jar saw that day. It wasn't nearly enough.
David Wood is a writer in St. Petersburg.