ASPARAGUS

Lest snow two nights ago

The streets have more cars now. Massachusetts is still locked up but more and more people are leaving their homes. I park by the bench where Jimena and I always meet. A line of people waits a block away to buy ice cream, wearing masks and maintaining distance. Jimena’s not there; a man is there with a brown paper bag, muttering.

“Oh oh,” says Aussie from the back seat. “Don’t go there.” She hates men.

Harry whimpers: I’ll go! I’ll go!

By the time I get out of the car the man is gone. A woman and her small daughter are already waiting at the corner and I ask in Spanish if they’re waiting for tarjetas, food cards. Si. We wait for Jimena to arrive, but this is my chance to practicar mi espagnol. Her name is Grace (made-up), her 8-year-old is Manuela (not my oldest, she explains, the one in the middle).

“How many are there?”

“Five.” And then adds, “No mas.” No more. “Y usted?” And you?

“I have no children,” I tell her, “but my husband had two.”

She ponders that awhile. “Why not?”

How do I summarize a life in my 2-word Spanish mumblings? “Demasiada occupada.” Too busy. Not much of a reason, I know.

Jimena’s arrival spares me from further philosophizing in Spanish, and we go on with our business, which is giving out tarjetas, food gift cards from two supermarkets, to these families. Since those first days in April when I wrote about the need for food by undocumented families, we—mostly you, dear friends—have altogether given food cards and gifts worth at least $6,800 over 5-6 weeks and I have close to another $4,700 in the bank account. Jimena believes we’ve fed 90 families; I estimate a lower figure, 50-60. Still a lot.

At first, I wanted to go slowly. Jimena and I needed to build trust and transparency in our own relationship. At first it was only food; then it became help with rent, paying of utility bills, cash to an abused woman who’d put out a restraining order against her husband and now needed help, etc.

By now we all know that this is going to go on for a while; Massachusetts restaurants, hotels, and B&Bs aren’t opening up soon, the colleges are closed through the summer as are the schools, they won’t hire anyone back very soon and the farmers are cultivating a lot less. I’m now comfortable enough to urge Jimena to tell me about special cases where cash is needed quickly.

Sure enough, Carmen (made-up name) arrives holding a beautiful little boy in her arms. After she picks up a food card and leaves, Jimena tells me that the boy is autistic and Carmen’s husband just left them. Carmen needs money. I give her an envelope with cash and she hurries after her.

Usually we plan this ahead of time, when I ask Jimena to make a list of people she knows who need extra help in addition to food cards. I now make a mental note to myself to bring more cash anyway, because things will come up even as we sit there.

“Oh oh,” I hear Aussie from the car.

The man who sat on the bench earlier reappears and wants to sit down again, though this defies keeping distance. Jimena says okay. We wear a mask, he does not, but he’s also eating a big ice cream sundae. I’m jealous.

He asks Jimena her name and she tells him, he asks mine, ditto, and I ask his. “Greg,” he says.

Jimena and I stiffen. It’s not great to call folks to come and pick up tarjetas if he’s sitting right there.

Greg surprises me. “I’m leaving my place real soon,” he says. “Do any of your friends need some furniture?” He’d watched us do our work, he knows who our friends are. Jimena provides a phone number.

He then tells us that he drinks (I could smell the liquor) and that the ice cream sundae is his first food in two days. “They’re kicking me out because I went back to drinking,” he says. “I need to find another program that’ll take me in. But I can’t stop. I’ve tried, but I can’t stop.”

He mumbles to himself for a few minutes. It’s a gorgeous sunny day and I feel like crying. Finally, I say: “Greg, get your act together. You’re a nice-looking man, you can change things around.”

“Nice looks aren’t everything,” he tells me, “though the two of you are beautiful.”

A couple of minutes pass and he leaves, thanking us. Jimena takes a big breath and goes back to making phone calls inviting folks to come.

They are mostly concerned about what will happen to their children’s schooling, and Jimena, bless her heart, hands our pages with arithmetic notes and problems to a little girl and asks her to start working on them.

A woman arrives, sees me, and says in Spanish that she had freshly picked asparagus for me and forgot it by the door. “Would you come to my home to get it?”

“You bet,” I tell her, and when eventually I leave, I drive over to her home and knock on the door of a second-floor apartment. Three small, bright-eyed children are playing a game on the floor. Their mother shows me two bunches of asparagus that had been picked by her husband that very morning, still warm. “Just give me one,” I tell her, and she does.

I drive home, one hand on the warm asparagus next to me. If it’s a gift to give things to people in need, and an even greater gift to get things back from them. Jimena and her husband want to cook me a meal and I can hardly wait.

“Don’t forget to bring us along. I love Mexican food,” says Aussie with a sigh

“They’re not Mexican.”

“Whatever,” says Aussie.

This coming Monday., May 18, at 12:00 noon US Eastern time, Roshi Egyoku Nakao and I will talk again about householder koans. We’ll deal specifically with Andrea: Nothing, about a woman who wanted to help refugees in her home city in Germany but didn’t know what to do. You can register for it here. It’s free, but take care! You never know what it may eventually inspire you to do.

And if you want to donate for food cards, please use the button below and write on the memo: for food cards. Or else send a check with those words on the memo line to: Eve Marko, POB 174, Montague, MA 01351.