Mean Streets

The Stacks: A Chicken Dinner That Mends Your Heart

This happened in 1987. It could have been yesterday. But the next time you are eaten up with rage or powerlessness, ponder Pete Dexter’s transformative encounter with a hungry kid.

New York Daily News Archive/Getty Images

In the wake of the verdicts in Ferguson and New York City, many of us are still sore with emotion. If we are at all united, it is in pain and anger. Moments like these shake us to the core.

Of course, most of the time we stifle our sense of outrage at the world and just roll along disconnected, numb to the suffering and kindness around us.

Sometimes, though, we’re snapped out of our self-absorption by an everyday encounter, something seemingly inconsequential, easy to pass over, like the chance meeting columnist Pete Dexter had one cold winter morning in 1987.

Reprinted with permission, it is taken from Dexter’s essential anthology Paper Trails: True Stories of Confusion, Mindless Violence, and Forbidden Desires, a Surprising Number of Which Are Not About Marriage.—Alex Belth

The kid was big, but he was a kid.

He was standing beside the drive-in window at Church’s Fried Chicken on North Broad, asking the people who came by for money. “Do you have some change so I could get somethin’ to eat, sir?” He said it like it was memorized.

It was early last week, the weather was catching up with the season. He had taken his arms out of his shirtsleeves and put them underneath, trying to stay warm, so when he tapped on the window I figured he had at least a machete under there.

“Get the fuck out of here,” I said. I did that without thinking about it, the same way you check for cars before you cross the street.

He looked at me, I looked at him. He took his hand off the car and put it back underneath his shirt. He began to shake, then he moved away. I turned on the radio to put the kid out of mind. If there is anything you have to know in a city, it’s how to put things out of mind.

If you can’t do it, you better not be here.

I have been in Philadelphia more than six years. It took a while, but I can do that now.

The kid moved back to the corner of the building, stared at the car. I could see him in the side mirror. He looked like he was seventeen or eighteen, but you couldn’t tell. He looked cold in every way there is to be cold. I put him out of mind again, but every time I looked in the mirror, he was standing there, black and cold and angry, and he wouldn’t move away.

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I don’t know exactly when it happened, but somewhere along the line I got tired of victims in groups—women, blacks, Puerto Ricans, gay, and all the self-promotional bullshit that went with it—then I got tired of victims in person. I didn’t want to see the mother and father nodded out on heroin at the Fox Theater Sunday afternoon while their four-year-old kid tried to wake them up anymore.

I didn’t want to see old people who had been mugged, or fourteen-year-old alcoholics or abused children.

So, as much as you can in the city, I quit looking. At least I tried to only look once. There is too much of it to carry around with you.

And to do that, you have to forget that you have been hungry, too.

The kid moved again, slowly across the parking lot to the garbage bin. He began going through it a piece at a time.

I was a couple of years older than this kid, but I went about a week once without anything to eat. In Minneapolis, in the coldest winter, I was hungry enough to go through garbage, but in the morning it had passed and what replaced it was just an empty, weak feeling, and later on a dizziness when I stood up. And much later, something inside that kept saying I was getting myself in serious trouble.

I wondered if the kid had heard that, too. If he knew what it meant. I turned around and watched him a minute. He held the garbage close to his face, then put it back in the bin. A piece of paper stuck to his hand, and suddenly he was throwing things. Picking up cans and bags out of the bin and throwing them back, over and over. A beat-up gray cat with milk in her nipples jumped out of the other end of the bin.

He stopped and sat down, exhausted. He put his face in his hands. I said it out loud, so I could hear how it sounded. “Get the fuck out of here.”

I ordered two chicken dinners and drove back around the lot to where the kid was sitting. I don’t think he recognized me because he got up, tapped on the window and asked for a quarter to buy something to eat. There was garbage stuck to his chin.

I gave him one of the chicken dinners and said I was sorry. “I didn’t see you were hungry,” I said. The kid was looking at a two-dollar box of chicken with something close to love.

“Thank you,” he said. “Thank you very much, thank you…”

“I’ve been in the city too long.”

He studied me a minute. “Me too,” he said. Then he took the chicken and walked over to his spot near the garbage and sat down to eat it.

The cat came out of the weeds toward him, a step at a time. The kid looked up and saw her. He tore a piece of meat off the breast and stroked her coat while she ate.