The bag lady and the banquet

In this third excerpt from her journal, Aggie Max wonders how much middle-class guilt can be appeased by one sandwich.

By Aggie Max

Published July 22, 1997 8:22AM (EDT)

I regularly wander down to Lake Merritt now on sunny days, sometimes on chilly or foggy days, mainly because I can't stand to be inside, especially inside the hotel. I like to take a loaf of St. Vinnie's stale bread to feed the birds and a pocket full of nuts or sunflower seeds for the squirrels. A Pepsi and a bag of fries for me, or lately (following some unwritten but well-known pattern?) a bottle of wine or quart of beer or, if short on funds, a tall can of Green Mamba.

+ + +

I always pass by a house which is in the park between the lakeshore drive and the water, across from the main public library, called the Edgemere House. Once the private residence of a wealthy family, it is now a landmark belonging to the city and free guided tours are shown through it on certain days. It can also be reserved for private parties, wedding receptions, and such.

Not a peaked and gabled lunatic Victorian structure such as one is accustomed to seeing in the area, the Edgemere House is rather stiff and square-shouldered, blocky and precise. Edwardian or Georgian, maybe. Inside the house, which isn't very large, are a lot of too-small rooms (I took the tour once), also stiff and square, stuffed with heavy antique furniture and spindly tables and lamps and knickknacks and whatnots and carved cherubs. As though the people who built it and lived in it were fleeing and hiding from the wild-and-wooly, wide open spaces of the American West.

Today as I pass the house I notice that it is set up for some sort of event, with tables on the back lawn and a multitude of white flowers and ribbons. A wedding party, I assume.

+ + +

On this particular day I was hoping the Canadian geese would be there again, but they had flown, Lake Merritt being one of the less desirable pit-stops on their migratory itinerary. I walk on along the waterline anyway; you can usually spot something interesting if you're looking.

There seem to be no decent-sized fish left in the lake, as far as anyone knows. Just a lot of tiny minnows that wouldn't make a meal for a mouse. Schools of them by the shore, where the water is a few inches deep. All jerking around in tight harmony, all changing direction at the exact same tenth of a second, nobody knows why. Maybe nobody wants to know why. Jacques Cousteau could explain it, I'm sure. Jacques Cousteau Explores Lake Merritt!

A little kid is watching them, holding the hand of his mom, who is probably afraid he'll jump in if she lets go. He is tugging on her hand, jumping up and down, pointing at the water. He's all excited by the minnows. Little kids often think real life is more interesting than TV. Even the most trivial, ordinary things.

KID: "Mommy, Mommy! How come they all do that? How come they all turn at the same time? How do they know when to all turn at the same time?"

MOM: "I don't know."

KID: "But you're supposed to know! You're supposed to know everything! I bet you know but you won't tell!"

MOM: "I don't."

Kid: "You do. Why won't you tell me? I'm your kid! You're supposed to tell me stuff. That's your job."

MOM: (sighs) "OK. See, all those little fish are attached to little strings, right? Only you can't see them. They're like little spider web strings, OK?"

KID: "But Mommy! I can't see them!"

MOM: "I said you can't see them. Nobody can see them. But they're all attached together, right? All the little fishies. By these little invisible strings."

KID: "Wow!"

MOM: "And there's this bigger fish, out in the lake, and he pulls the strings, alright? And they all move together, the little ones, because the Big Guy is out there pulling the strings."

KID: "How big is he?"

MOM: "He's really, really big. That's why he stays out in the middle. Because he's really really big."

KID: "As big as Jaws? As big as Godzilla?"

MOM: "Yeah. He's about the same size as Godzilla. That's why he can't come close to the shore where we can see him. Because it's really really deep out there, so there's room for him. And he just sits there pulling the little strings."

The kid stands quietly, for a moment. Then: "Can we go to McDonalds now?" He starts pulling mom off in a different direction. "Can I have a Kiddie Mac?"

I wonder if grown-ups get any points for thinking that sometimes real life is more interesting than television.

+ + +

A bit later I walk back by the Edgemere House. The wedding party has assembled.

Perhaps a hundred people dressed in gowns and tuxedos, coiffed and jewelled, enveloped in the invisible aura of money. They sit at tables on the back lawn surrounded by cascades of flowers and ribbons and balloons; some wander in and out of the house chattering gaily, holding drinks, laughing, and sparkling. Two of them (which two I couldn't figure out) had just been married. Poor fools ...

A chamber music ensemble with recorders and flutes replaces
the string quartet which has been playing on the glassed-in sun porch, and the music is exquisite, lovely, like music you'd hear on the PBS Channel 9, only real.

The people at the tables are being served by uniformed waiters and waitresses. (A waitress stands outside the service entrance, smoking. A wino approaches her and asks her for a cigarette. She gives him one. She lights it for him.) Imported beer and wine, lush salads, thick sandwiches. The back lawn is not very large; it slopes toward the lake and is surrounded by a tall, heavy, spiked wrought-iron fence. The guests seem crowded inside the fence.

I sit on the grass, maybe twenty feet from the fence, listening to the music. About halfway between me and the fence, a skinny, homeless black man sprawls asleep or unconscious on the scraggly grass. I sip my concealed quart of Bud through a drinking straw. (You know you're in a bad neighborhood when the liquor store clerk gives you a free straw with your beer.) A couple of derelicts wander by, automatically ask me for a cigarette. I distribute a few; I have a full pack.

After a while I move a little closer to the fence. The guests are all talking loudly, perhaps unnecessarily so, and I want to listen to the conversations. I think of the image of a zoo; it is They who are in the cage. Loud, young fat men are talking about their investments, their legal or medical practices. Well-preserved old men talk about their golf games and their portfolios; the middle-aged about their insurance packages and European cruises and the kids in grad school.

Some other Lake Merritt regulars have paused in their wanderings to check out the wedding party. A few sit on the grass nearby, mildly interested but not excited; we'd be sitting on the grass some where or other anyway, and the music is nice, and it's more interesting than TV. A bag lady rummages endlessly through her bags. A few joggers, even, have interrupted their revolutions to contemplate the spectacle. As the silent crowd grows, the talk of the guests becomes louder. Women talk and talk about their luncheons and their committees and their charity benefits and their museum work.

A mild-looking middle-aged woman, sitting at a table near the fence, has attracted my attention. She smiles at me, makes a little gesture. I stare back but do not acknowledge. She points at me, then at the table in front of her where there sits a plate containing a large uneaten sandwich. She assumes that I'm hungry. Maybe it's part of my bag lady gig to be perpetually hungry, I don't know. But I'm not; I'm still faintly queasy from luncheon at St. Vinnie's.

She sneaks a look around to ascertain that no other wedding guest has observed her gesture. Maybe it's in bad taste to take such liberties with the host's catered food. She doesn't want to be seen giving me the sandwich, but she wants to be able to talk about it later. Or feel good about it later. How much middle class guilt can be appeased by one sandwich? In such a way as not to be observed from within or without, except by me, she eases the plate through the bars and places it on the grass just outside the fence.

She looks at me hungrily, waiting for me to accept her offering. This pisses me off, for some reason, and I turn away. The Deliberate Snub. I conceive the scenario of myself crawling to the food on my hands and knees and cramming it into my mouth like an animal with appropriate slobbering and grunting noises. What I would really like to do is wrap the sonofabitch up and take it "home" for later. But I can't bring myself to do anything. When I turn back to look, the woman is gone but the plate is still there.

A ragged, skeletal, fevered-looking derelict stumbles by.

"Hey, man," I say to this specter. "There's a sandwich over there if you're hungry."

He looks at me, then at the plate. His eyes light up. "Gee wow thanks!" he says. He stumbles toward the fence, falls on his knees, and begins to devour the food with grunting, slobbering noises. I get up and walk away, not looking back.

+ + +

This whole episode allowed me a feeling of small triumph which lasted about ten minutes, until I stopped to think about this woman. Who had the kindness to notice the less-fortunate stranger outside looking in.

I begin to wonder -- what if I were in her position? Would I have shown such generosity of spirit?

I suspect not. I'd probably have turned my back on the whole miserable assortment of dregs and creeps and said, as Dudley would, "Fuck 'em. They get what they get."

Copyright © 1997 by Aggie Max. Used with permission by Chronicle Books.

Aggie Max


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