My mother pushes a grocery cart,
I tug at her blue pleated skirt.
She puts her change into my hands,
For the old soul slumped against the wall,
His gray mouth covered by a beard of wind and dirt.
I place the coins into his cupped hands
And he stacks two neat columns of cents
Next to his seat on the curb.
He nods his chin half-solemnly.
I turn back to Mother,
Suddenly a cop—he came out of nowhere—
Tells me, Take the money back.
I brush the coins
Back into my palms like table crumbs.
As the old man,
Silent as those pennies,
Gets cuffed and hauled off to jail.
I ask Mom why—
We only tried to help.
The cop says bums make thirty bucks a week
Begging for change
And are not too unhappy
Since they get food, shelter,
And a hot shower for at least a week.
My mother pushes the grocery cart without a word,
Knowing that as newlyweds she begged outside markets for change
While Dad stole bread and sliced honey-ham inside.
From The Date Fruit Elegies (Bilingual Press/Editorial Bilingüe, 2008). Copyright © 2008 by John Olivares Espinoza. Used with the permission of Bilingual Press/Editorial Bilingüe.