My husband and I practically crawl up the steps of the subway station, huffing and puffing. It’s a hot, muggy day. A few feet away, a young, homeless man sits on the sidewalk with a sign I can’t make out. What I can see, however, is the look of absolute pleasure on his face as he licks a soft-serve ice cream cone with rainbow sprinkles.
The ice cream truck is parked at the curb. I’m not sure if a passerby bought him the cone or the ice cream guy served him one on the house. Maybe the homeless man used his own money to treat himself. In any case, the image of him enjoying that cone on a broiling day will be with me forever.
It also shuttles me back about twenty-three years to when I was volunteering at a local church.
I had recently moved from New York City to a suburban neighborhood of comfortable homes, manicured lawns, and annual family vacations. My first lesson in Real Life 101 came from a kind, middle-aged woman who was a fellow volunteer. Driving home one day after an event, I voiced my confusion about why our church had a food pantry when no one in the area needed one. Silly, silly girl.
She explained how her family once used the food pantry when her husband lost his job and they were having trouble making ends meet. This stunned me. I mean, surely they had an extended family who could help them out, right? But no, they didn’t. She was grateful for the food the pantry provided each week. It inspired her to give back to others in need—people like me, in need of her candor and patience to dispel my ignorance and naïveté.
Many of my life lessons have come in response to pre-conceived notions, judgments, or my logical brain overtaking my empathetic heart. When I later saw the food pantry’s request for items in short supply, I again scratched my head. On the list were things you’d expect to feed a hungry family. But there were also…FUN foods—sweetened cereals eaten in front of Saturday morning cartoons while fighting siblings over the lone decoder ring…cookies…pretzels and chips.
What was this insanity? Why wouldn’t we just stock the pantry with basic, wholesome necessities?
Modern-day nutrition data aside, all kids deserve to enjoy a treat now and then as they navigate a life made more difficult by food insecurity. And adults, no matter their economic level, should be able to plop down on a couch at the end of a stressful day and lick the frosty, white cream from the inside of a dark, crunchy cookie—to forget, for a brief moment, that they are dangerously close to losing their home, or that snow is in the forecast but their child has outgrown his boots. It’s the small bursts of sweetness in life that help you through the rough patches.
The homeless man’s delight in that ice cream cone is evidence that the little extras buoy us. They are the cherry on the sundae of life.