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Exquisite Corpse - A Journal of Letters and Life

A La Carte
by Scott Rutledge ||
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You don't own anything. That coat for instance, remember who gave it to you, or maybe you found it? You aren't very particular, and will accept whatever comes your way. Some times you feel lucky, at others times simply fortunate, but you are always grateful.
     The garbage is offered to you before it is hauled off to the dump, and you pass by the displays lining both sides of the alley, selecting items which you place into the shopping cart. Today there is a blanket, worn and stained, but it will still hold in the warmth, and there are a pair of shoes which, though they don't fit you, someone will be able to wear.
     You have to make choices, to distinguish that which has value from that which is trash. This distinction is not always easy to make, and sometimes you wonder if you should just go live down at the dump yourself, and let them bring it to you by the truckload.
     At night you go in search of an empty bench, preferably one which is tucked away in the shadows, where you can settle down, and maybe get some rest, though you never really sleep. You lie on the bench, with the cart pulled up close to your body, and examine the photograph of a girl, soon to become a woman, which you salvaged from the trash, for you couldn't bear to see it thrown away.
     The cops sweep the park around this time every night, and so you aren't surprised to see them coming your way. You have had many such run-ins with the police, but instead of the usual routine, they seem particularly interested in the cart, looking it over carefully as they ask all sorts of questions. You tell them that you found the cart in an alley, that you were just borrowing it, but you didn't know how, or where, it was to be returned.
     The officers struggle to get the shopping cart full of items into the trunk, which has to be tied down with a piece of bungi cord. This cart is the closest thing to a possession which you have, though technically, that is, legally, it is not yours. You can't say that you own it, at least it wouldn't hold up in a court of law. It's more like a "protracted encounter." That is what your lawyer might say, if you could afford one.
     This is your first ride in a patrol car, and it isn't as fancy as you had expected, though it's the best ride you've gotten in a long while. The computer on the dashboard shows that you have no prior record, and the judge will take this into consideration when hearing your case, that is what the officer tells you on the way to the station.
     The shopping cart is wheeled into the room where they are booking you. The arresting officer lets you know that he's just doing his job, and that if it was up to him you'd be on your way. He says they've been getting a lot of complaints from the grocery store, and that they don't really have any choice but to follow up on these complaints. It's a matter of community relations.
     After a short while someone from the grocery store shows up, and identifies the cart as their own. Normally the situation would be settled right there, but the store has decided to make an example of you. The officers try to argue with this person on your behalf, pointing out to him that you have no criminal record, and that because of this the judge will probably drop the charges. They assure him that the police will be able to pick up others who can be more easily prosecuted, but his only reply is that the grocery store wants all of them to be prosecuted.
     The phrase "all of them" gets stuck in your mind, for you have never thought of yourself as a member of any group, while to this person you are just another one of them, as though you belong to a gang of shopping cart thieves. The officers take a more charitable view of you, yet they still lump you into a group, and don't know how to deal with you as an individual, though at least they try to be understanding.
     It doesn't make much difference to you whether people try to understand you or not, and you gave up on trying to understand them long ago. There is a woman sitting across the room, before a desk, just as you are, while a police officer asks her questions which are printed on a form. It is obvious that she has been arrested for prostitution, but this does not tell you anything about her, only about the conditions of the world. This you can understand. The world is easy to understand, but people, they're impossible.
     You had decided to live in the world, but not with people. You live amongst people. There are people everywhere you go. They pass you by, which is as it should be. The ones who stop think they can understand, and so you play along with them, give them what they want to think, in hopes that they will part with a dollar, after first making you promise to spend it on food.
     You won't deny that you drink now and then, though it isn't a habit. Sometimes you pretend that you have something to celebrate, a reason to feel good, that is, to not feel at all, but for the most part you like the world too much, and don't want to diminish its effect.
     You accept whatever the world brings your way, for no matter how much the world may hurt you, it has no cruel intentions. The same cannot be said of people, who, even though their intentions may not always be cruel, cause more suffering than they are willing to take responsibility for.
     If people would just admit that they don't understand, but they fear that they will end up like you, that if they are honest with themselves they will have to let it all go. This is why people avoid you, not because you are a reminder of their own lack of honesty, but because you are who they would become if they were honest.
     The officer inventories each item in the shopping cart onto a form, and then transfers it to a cardboard box, with the repetitive motion of a check-out clerk. Every now and then he dangles an item over the garbage can, like a dead rat held by the tail, waiting for you to accept his judgement, though your verdict is always the same. This stuff is just not yours to throw away, that is what you tell him, but when it comes to items of food he doesn't even ask, and tosses them directly into the garbage.
     The officers have given up on trying to convince this person from the grocery store to drop the charges, and have now begun to show disinterest, letting him know that it will be a low priority case. He believes that a person such as himself deserves more respect than this, for he is a manager, dressed in a navy blue blazer, on which is pinned a green name tag with orange lettering. This green is slightly blue in tone, almost an aqua, and the combination of colors is unsettling to the eye.
     He looks at you as though your appearance should be enough to prove his case, but the officers do not see you as he does. They deal with people like you every day, and also with people like the manager, and it is the manager who is a pain in the ass. He tells them that he has a cousin in the district attorney's office who will make sure this case gets prosecuted, but the officers know how the system works, and that regardless of how much clout someone has, they aren't going to be able to marshal any resources to convict a homeless person for stealing a shopping cart.
     The manager is outraged, while you remain calm. He wants to choke you, but there are too many witnesses. When all the items have been removed from the cart, tagged, and placed into the box, the box is then placed into the cart. The officer smiles at the manager, "It's evidence now," and begins to slowly wheel the cart away.
     The other officer holds up the arrest report with both hands, prepared to tear it in half, as he explains to the manager that if he drops the charges this whole thing will be settled, and he can take the shopping cart back to the store with him right now. The manager isn't going to budge; for him it is a matter of principle, even honor, that is how seriously he takes his position. The report is laid back down onto the desk in one piece, and the cart continues on its way to the evidence room.
     The officers are now solidly on your side, even though you have done nothing to ingratiate yourself with them, but then you didn't resist them in any way either, and in fact have probably made it easier for them to do a thankless job. You're just glad that you could help.
     The shopping cart disappears at the end of the hallway. The sight of this causes something within the manager to snap, and he jumps to his feet. He begins to pace wildly, taking a few steps in one direction, then pivoting, as he launches into a tirade against the mayor, the chief of police, the governor, and numerous other politicians all the way up to the President. From there he moves onto attacks against his more abstract enemies, such as bureaucrats, taxes, the U.N., and an endless litany of acronyms.
     Neither of you say a word, as you patiently wait for the manager to run out of air, but before this happens the officer runs out of patience, yelling at the manager to sit down and shut up. When that doesn't work he yells at him again, only louder, and this time the manager does as he is told.
     The other officer returns carrying a cup of coffee which he offers to you, even though you had made no request, and you nod to show your gratitude. This act of kindness further enrages the manager, who by this point has learned that he has to keep it to himself, and you watch him cram the anger down into his gut as you sip your coffee.
     The manager asks when the court date will be, and the officer tells him that a case like this rarely goes to trial. This is not exactly what the manager wanted to hear. He had envisioned a courtroom drama, which would culminate in the establishment of your guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. The officer knows that it will not come to this. The most that will happen is you'll be fed for a couple days, and maybe put in touch with social services, though he often wonders if there is anything that can be done for people like you. He just does what he can, which is all that can be expected from anyone.
     The manager expects more than the officers are willing to do for him. He treats them as though they are his employees, though this is not the grocery store, and he has no jurisdiction in such matters. This attitude gets him nowhere with the officers, who remind him that if he cooperates this will be over much sooner, and then he can be on his way. The manager doesn't want to be on his way. He wants this to be resolved right now. He wants the grocery store to have their cart back, and he wants you to go to jail for your crime.
     You show no ill will toward the manager, which infuriates him all the more, while you sip your coffee, cupped tightly in both hands so as to capture all of its warmth. This is a habit which you picked up on the street, and has made coffee your beverage of choice, even in the summer.
     The officer who brought you the coffee asks if you want a sandwich, that he is going to the deli around the corner, and would be glad to bring you back something if you wish. It has been a long time since you've had a roast beef on rye with mayo, no onions.
     The manager is incensed by the treatment you are receiving. Aren't they supposed to punish you for your crime, to make you pay your debt to society? But instead they are buying you lunch, and he can no longer hold it in: "Doesn't she want a soda to go with her sandwich?" To which the officer responds, "Of course, I almost forgot," and turning to you he asks, "Would you like anything to drink with that, ma'am?"

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