What would be a good present for a little boy who loves animals but has no place to live? That’s what I was doing at Rite-Aid today: trying to figure that out.
I was down the street at the Hollywood A-Boy picking something up and didn’t even need anything at Rite-Aid. Somehow I felt myself heading in that direction. I turned the corner and noticed a small crowd in front of the store, right by the sign that said “FLU SHOTS TODAY”. As I got closer I realized it was just a couple with their child and a lot of stuff in big plastic bags.
Then the young woman started walking toward me. She was in her twenties, with a fresh and pretty face. “Should I try to get some bus tickets?” she called back to the man. “I guess so,” he said. “But then we won’t be able to get anything to eat.”
He was a tall handsome guy standing in front of a cardboard sign that said “Homeless family. Staying in shelter. Hungry.” Next to him was a child’s stroller piled high with blankets. Could they be on the streets with a baby? I wondered. When I looked more closely, I saw that there was a kid in there; a kid too big to be in a stroller. “Hi!” I said. “How are you doing?” The boy looked up with clear blue eyes.
“I’m good,” he said. “What kind of dog do you think this is?” He was holding a little plastic dog about an inch long. “I guess it looks like a cocker spaniel,” I decided. “You like dogs?” He said he did; that he likes all animals, especially lions and tigers. But not real ones. He said he was five years old.
I asked the dad how they landed on the street and he told me he lost his job as a painter. His friend’s business went under and he got let go. They had no savings and couldn’t pay rent. BAM, there they were. The shelter was about five miles east and they had walked all the way. There would be a free meal at lunch time nearby. Soon.
The boy said his name was Alexie. Junior, like his dad. He had a few pieces of candy on his lap and was slowly unwrapping and eating them, one by one. “Nice talking to you both,” I said. Alexie Sr. smiled at me and said, “You, too.” Then I ducked into the store.
What do you get for a boy who has nothing?
I wandered down the toy aisle at Rite-Aid. A giant pirate sword? My kids would have loved that but it was way too big to schlep around from shelter to shelter. I found a dinosaur that doubled as a flashlight but then realized it made a giant “ROAR” every time you turned the light on. Probably not a good idea.
A drawer full of money? That could be lots of fun, but for this kid it would be a cruel joke.
The rack was covered with cheap toys, all of which were now laden with meaning. Hand cuffs portending a life of crime? A smart phone so he could call for help?
Then I saw the perfect thing: a miniature dog crate with a little stuffed dog inside. There was even a toy dog groomer kit. The label on the top pretty much broke my heart.
I paid for the toy and went back out front. The three of them were together now, standing in a bunch. A woman came up and handed Alexie Sr. a dollar. “Thank you, Ma’am!” he said.
I gave Junior the toy and his mom said, “Oh, wow! That’s so nice of you!” Then, to Alexie: “What do you say?”
“Thank you,” he said. He seemed to love it. “Look, Dad! There’s a doggie inside!” He pulled out the toy comb, scissors and mirror. “Look at this!”
Mom said her name was Crystal. “I grew up really poor, so I’m used to it,” she said. “But I don’t want him to be used to it.” She cocked her head towards her son and her eyes filled with tears.
I had a hundred in my pocket and I pulled it out and handed it to her. “I hope this helps a little bit.”
Time stood still for a second as both she and her husband just stared. “Oh, my god!” cried Crystal. “We’re going to a motel tonight! Oh, my god! Thank you!” She reached over and gave me a hug. “Oh, wow,” I heard Alexie Sr. say.
Crystal started packing up their things. “Come on! We can get out of here! We can go get warm! Are you hungry, baby?” she asked Junior. He nodded solemnly. “Let’s go get something to eat! We’re going to sleep in real beds tonight!”
“I’m grateful for the shelter. I really am,” she rushed to assure me. “It’s just that it gets painful sleeping on those cushions after a month like we’ve been doing. There’s hardly any padding at all. Oh, my god. I can’t believe this!”
They thanked me again and let me take their picture. Then we said goodbye. “You have a beautiful family,” I said. “I hope things get better real soon.”
“Oh, they already have!” said Crystal, with a smile. When I was down the block I heard her call to me. “See you around!”
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