Last week, on a hot weekday afternoon, a woman came to my front door. I saw her shadow through the curtained glass, and went to open it before she could knock; it was the quarter-hour of the day when both my children are miraculously asleep at the same time, and I didn’t want her to wake them up.
She was about my age, in her mid-30s, and she was holding a bunch of grapes in her right hand. She looked healthy and ordinary. But her expression was contorted, desperate, almost revolted.
“Do you have any fruit to pick?” she asked.
I glanced down at the grapes in her hand. They were dusty, freshly picked; I recognized them as Concord grapes from a neighbor’s temptingly close-to-the-street vine. I looked back at the woman. She was hungry. She was ashamed, and afraid, and angry. And she was defiantly trying to retain her dignity by not asking for money or food outright, but by asking for a different sort of handout: the kind that required work on her part.
So I respected her request. “There’s a fig tree out on the sidewalk strip,” I said. “But I’m afraid it’s been a bad year, and there probably aren’t any ripe figs on it right now.”
She frowned in confusion. “A fig tree? Where?”
I pointed, and she turned and went down the steps to look. I stepped inside to make sure the kids were still quiet, then padded back out in my bare feet to see what she had made of the figs.
She had a bicycle parked out front, right by the fig tree, with a bike trailer of the variety designed for towing small children but often appropriated by the homeless for collecting and carting around recyclable cans and bottles. I was surprised she hadn’t noticed the fig tree — it’s the only tree of any significant size on the block — but then, as I saw her take a bite out of a hard, green, very much unripe fig, I realized that she probably didn’t have the least idea what a fig was.
Her face twisted and she flung the chewed fig aside. “Ach, it’s disgusting,” she said.
“Well, the neighbors across the street have pears and apples,” I suggested, pointing again. “They’re not quite ripe yet, but you can check them out.”
She thanked me and began to wheel her bicycle apparatus toward the corner, where she stopped, attracted by the pale purple berries on our currant bushes. “What about these?” she called back. “Can I eat these blueberries?”
“They’re currants,” I called out. “They’re edible, but they’re not very tasty.” She grabbed a few to try, then pushed on. And was gone, out of sight behind the bushes.
I went back inside, to listen for my children and to think about this odd woman. Part of me wanted to tell her about Urban Edibles, the community-sourced website that plots locations of free-for-the-picking edibles around our town of Portland, Oregon. Most of me knew, however, that this suggestion would be dismissed as daft — Sure, lady, like I got an iPhone in my pocket — and my follow-up idea of hitting the local library for its free Internet access would be deemed, quite simply, feeble.
Because the very fact that this woman was going about her project all wrong said to me that truly practical, big-picture suggestions would not work for her.
She was going door to door on a hot weekday afternoon. How many people are actually home at that hour? She was looking for forageable fruit with just the barest idea of what to look for. How many foragers go out without knowing what to look for? Even beginners bring a book of some kind, or preferably another forager who knows what he or she is doing.
This woman didn’t recognize a fig tree when she was standing right under it. She hadn’t spotted the bulging apple and pear trees across the street. She mistook flowering redcurrants — which produce berries palatable only to birds — for blueberries.
Ripe purple table grapes, sure — those are easy. But have you ever wondered why Concord grapes seldom turn up in supermarkets except in Welch’s grape jelly and juice? They are sweet — so sweet as to set your teeth on edge. Their skins are thick and rubbery. They are very seedy. They are, in other words, perfect for making jelly, but not much else.
Granted, this woman wasn’t making decisions based on logic but on hunger. But that, I thought to myself, was all the more reason for her to streamline her efforts, to conserve her energy. Going door to door on a weekday looking for food you can’t recognize struck me as the worst kind of ratio: exhausting expenditure for a minuscule yield.
How did this woman get to this place in her life? How did she end up not only with no material resources but no intellectual resources to call on? The best she could do was, by some measures, better than begging. But it was a largely wasted effort; it may have preserved her pride, but it didn’t fill her stomach.
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