Wednesday, March 21, 2018

"Give and Take"

The Eatery opened at seven o’clock in the morning, every day of the week except for Sundays. It wasn’t in quite the same neighbourhood as True North Elementary, but it was certainly within walking distance of the school. There were very few restaurants in that part of town that served more than fast food and french fries, and that was part of the reason the Eatery was a popular place to spend money on a meal.

The building that housed the Eatery was a renovated bank. Money still changed hands behind its old wooden doors, but cash wasn’t the only thing being exchanged at the Eatery these days. Customers were encouraged to connect with each other in conversation; patrons invited to invest in the lives of strangers. Those who ate at the Eatery were expected to spend time in the space, to linger and to laugh, to share their thoughts as well as their tables. If anyone felt inspired to do so, they were able to buy buttons that could be later used as money, when someone was unable to pay for their meal. Every time a dollar was donated to the project, one button was moved from a supply jar to the active jar, ready to fill a future need. The atmosphere in the Eatery was one of welcome and generosity, and that brought people through the doors as much as their food ever would.

At seven o’clock in the morning, every day of the week except for Sundays, a huddle of regular customers could be found waiting at the door of the Eatery. They each had a favourite spot to sit, and a favourite breakfast to eat. Some came in sets and some in pairs; others took their food alone, with a newspaper, a book, or even a cell phone to keep them company. More often than not, Eben could be found among them.

The Eatery was staffed primarily by volunteers, and Eben’s mom was one such person. She preferred working in the early mornings and would arrive at the restaurant quite early to help prepare for the day. She straightened out chairs and tables, wiped down countertops, started the giant coffee machines and so on. As she got things ready to open, Eben would tuck himself off to one side of the large, open room, keeping himself busy until it was time to leave for school. At 8:30 his mom would take a break so they could eat their breakfast and walk to school together. Then she would return to her shift at the Eatery, heading just after lunch.

One morning a man that Eben had seen around the Eatery a couple of times came in just after the initial morning rush. He was dressed in a grey suit, complete with shiny black shoes and a pocket square. He looked like he’d just stepped off an old-fashioned movie set. He looked like an African-American James Bond. A few heads turned when he came in, but the place settled back down pretty quickly. It wasn’t all that uncommon to see slick-looking businessmen eating elbow-to-elbow with a slightly bedraggled looking soul.

Eben watched and listened as the fancy man ordered his breakfast: double eggs and toast, with some kind of tea to sip at. “The old button jar’s looking a little bare this morning, Jenn,” he commented.

“I’m afraid so,” she agreed. “The morning rush often clears us out for a while.”

“How many buttons in that one?” he asked, indicating the colourful supply jar.

“About three hundred,” she answered. The fancy man opened his wallet and pulled out six crisp $50 bills. He handed them casually to Jenn, who thanked him warmly. Then he took the flag with his order number and settled down at the large communal table, in a seat close to Eben’s own.

Eben was gobsmacked. He’d never seen so much cash outside a game of Monopoly -- and even in Monopoly, it wasn’t often that someone was so willing to give their money away. When the man was just about finished his eggs, Eben picked up the book he was reading and carried it over to the big table, sitting just across from the fancy man, who smiled politely as he sat down. Eben popped open his novel.

“I saw what you did with the buttons,” whispered Eben from behind the book. He was holding it up as though he was reading. He was acting the part of a spy.

“I didn’t exactly mean it to be a secret,” the older man said with a chuckle. “I’ve been blessed with a great life and a good job that allows me to be generous with my money.”

“Money isn’t something I have very much of,” said Eben, still using the book as cover.

“You don’t need money to be generous,” he said. “I bet you have lots of something.” The fancy man swirled the last dregs of his tea around in the cup and swallowed it down while Eben tried to think up something he had lots of, but he came up blank. “How about time?” prompted the fancy man. “Look at this place here. It only runs because all sorts of people offer whatever they can to keep it going. For some of us, it’s money. For other people, it’s food. For still others, it’s their time and labour. It takes all kinds of generosity.” He stood up to leave.

Eben thought about his mother, then. She didn’t have spare cash, but she was generous with the resources she did have. Maybe volunteering was just as valuable as $300 in buttons. When the fancy man had gone, Eben looked at his watch, then around at the restaurant tables. He put his book away and started tidying up, giving what he could.

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