A gift to make me look up and see

I shifted my weight from the foot that had gone to sleep to the one fully awake. For over an hour now, as I waited in line at the food stamp office, they had been relieving each other.

It was called the food stamp office, but it should have been called the emergency office. Here was where you came when you were really in trouble. There was a line for people who had no money to buy their food stamps at the post office. A line for people who couldn't pay the rent that month. A line for people who couldn't pay the light bill or the water or the garbage. A line for people who had to go completely on welfare. It was a tangle of lines.

I was at this time working at a car wash. It didn't pay well, but I'd been getting by, and even feeling a kind of soapy pride. Then my landlord had raised the rent, siphoning off my food money. Every day I read the housing and want ads , hoping to find a better job or a cheaper apartment, but always I would end up having to report that I still couldn't afford to eat. And I would get another week of emergency food stamps.

To be a grown man, and yet to need help to lift the spoon to your mouth, it fills you with shame. Sometimes, on my way home with the stamps tucked away out of sight in my pocket, I would see crows up on the telephone wires, and it seemed to me that they were cawing shame, shame at me. In my dreams they would turn into eagles, like those on the twenty-five-cent pieces, and cry shame, shame even louder than the crows. It was as though America were up there on the wires, shaming me.

There is an old saying that the heart is half a prophet. On that sleepy-footed morning as I waited in my line, my heart kept prophesying that something wonderful was going to happen to me today. Something that would change my life for the better. But I wouldn't believe it. Looking around that huge, high-ceilinged office with its fluorescent lights and gray walls and unswept concrete floor, who could believe it?

I felt a tapping on my shoulder. A young girl was looking up at me, smiling. Her arms were full of many different colors of flowers.

''Would you like one?'' she asked. ''This is Do-a-Good-Deed Day at my church. Our minister says nobody ever brings flowers here. Please, sir, take one. They're really lovely.''

I looked down the line behind me. Every person was holding a flower, sniffing it, or letting it be sniffed. For once in its sad, sterile life the food stamp office was alive with color and fragrance and promise.

''Thank you,'' the flower girl said as I took one, too, a daisy.

A memory came back. It was a day in childhood when I was helping my father and mother carry sacks of groceries home from the synagogue, charity to see us through a hard time, my first and theirs, too. My father, trying to lighten the spirits of the caravan, spotted some daisies growing at the edge of a field, and he picked one for my mother.

But before he could give it to her, a man came running up, shouting that my father had stolen the flower from his property. We knew this man. He was the richest man in the synagogue, and he had always opposed the charity program.

He ripped the flower from my father's hand, scattering pieces on the ground. He called us names - ''freeloaders''; ''beggars''; ''all-around no-goodniks.''

Throughout the tirade my father and mother remained silent, their heads bent, as if in punishment. They didn't turn to go until the man had ranted himself out of breath.

My mother called to me to follow, but I was too angry. This man had humiliated my father and mother. To do such a thing, our religion taught, was as if to shed their blood.

I took a potato out of my sack, a very big potato, perhaps the biggest, a potato we dearly needed. And while the man's eyes bulged with disbelief, I cocked my arm to throw it at him. It was only my mother's cry of ''David, our potato!'' that stopped me from knocking him down as surely as David had knocked down Goliath.

If you can't deal your abuser a potato blow you can at least give him a potato shout. Still brandishing it, I joined my parents and shouted, ''We're not any of the things you called us. We're human American beings!'' Then we all faced the man until he went away.

Now, standing in the flowery meadow of the food stamp office, remembering my potato shout, my childhood gumption, I lifted my head higher than on any previous occasion. I looked around the room, and I met many, many eyes.

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