In a ball cap and a windbreaker, a bearded man checks out the spread: fruit and pastries, sandwiches and soup, chocolate milk and iced tea.
"What's up?" he says with a nod at the guy standing in line to his right.
"Same old thing, different day."
Each rips a banana off a bunch, grabs a couple of sandwiches and a cup of soup. But before they dig in, they dig through a bucket of hotel soaps and shampoos.
"Got any razors?" one asks. "Any socks?"
Chances are you don't ask those questions over lunch. But for these guys, and the rest of the women and men who frequent the Kaye Prox Food Bank in Town 'N Country, it isn't unusual.
That day — the day before Thanksgiving, while many of us watched our turkeys defrost or fought over Publix's last pumpkin pie — they just asked for what they needed.
They are homeless.
• • •
Their paths first crossed mine last month, when I stopped by the food bank after a volunteer invited me. Her invitation couldn't have come at a better time: Our country is in the middle of an economic crisis, our culture is obsessed with having the latest, the biggest and the best, and 20-somethings like me can barely tell the difference between the words want and need.
"That's why credit cards are maxed out," said Marilyn Ruggiero, 60, who has volunteered at the food bank for 10 years. "It's about what you want, not what you need."
What I want and what I need started to separate a little while I handed out socks to homeless people outside Lutheran Church of Our Saviour. The church runs the food bank with Incarnation Catholic Church, Wesley Memorial Methodist Church and First Reformed Church of Tampa.
Last month, volunteers gave up time, money and food to feed 429 homeless people and 360 financially struggling families who have homes. Similar efforts to help stretched across the county. Other organizations, such as Metropolitan Ministries in Tampa Heights, fed hundreds on Thanksgiving Day and provided thousands of others meals.
Rubbing elbows with those in need, you learn who likes mystery novels and blueberry pie. Who might have health insurance soon. Who has the same sense of humor that you do.
I thought of things I never thought about before, like how I've never worried about affording socks or razors. Like how the guy in the ball cap and windbreaker might not be warm enough tonight. Like what his reality says about mine.
"We are a wasteful people," said Rita Blyden, a retired registered nurse who has been volunteering at the food bank for more than four years. "We take a lot for granted."
Not only do many of us take things for granted, but some of us have a stash and a half of stuff we haven't used in years. Blankets. Sweaters. Socks. And these days, all that we have — whether things we wanted or needed — could be gone at the drop of a pink slip.
Single fathers like Roger Matson know this firsthand.
Matson had to sell a car and furniture to make ends meet last month. He lost his job as a salesman five weeks before he had to rely on the food bank for help.
"Without something like this, I don't know what we'd do," said Matson, 41, whose trip to the food bank last month was his first ever.
"When I do get on my feet, I'm going to pay it forward," he said. "That's what it's all about."
What the food bank does is what all of us should do, Blyden said.
"I firmly believe we are our brother's keeper," she said.
• • •
When faced with folks whose situations are like Matson's or worse, it's easier to see how much I really waste and how much I could help others. But in a culture like ours, at a time like this, it isn't always natural to give up what you have. It's easier to live as if my rights to liberty and the pursuit of happiness trump somebody else's.
"I worked hard for my money," Blyden said, "but I can do without going to the nail salon this week and use the money to buy a couple of cans of beans and pasta for the needy."
In spending time with some local homeless, giving a little of what I have gets easier. It gets easier still when I think about how it could be me.
So while we're having cart fights at Target over holiday gifts or we're rolling our eyes in line for a Christmas turkey, it's a good time to rethink what we need.
It's a good time to remind ourselves of how good we really have it. It's a good time to give to those who don't.
Arleen Spenceley can be reached at (813) 269-5301 or [email protected]