Albertson’s Chicken for the Soul
Her text message arrived about 6pm.
“Is there n e way u can drop me some food? We’re at Tatum and Shea so we are close. Just no place to stay or food money. If u cant that’s fine”
It was monsoon season. A storm was coming and I was just getting in the car to drive her brother to a concert. I figured I’d be back home in an hour. I’d pick them up and take them to a pizza place where we could sit down and eat. I’d assess the situation over dinner.
The last time I spoke with her was two weeks ago when I visited her in the psych ward. The next day she checked herself out. A social worker called on the doctor’s behalf to ask if I thought she might harm herself or anyone else.
”I don’t really know,” I heard myself say.
My daughter is mentally ill. She is a heroin addict. And she is more than that. She’s creative, strong-willed, kind, generous and protective of others; she’s a math whiz with a love of bright clothes and shiny accessories. Just 18, she has already been through five rehabilitation programs. Her most recent one lasted over a year and cost the equivalent of a private undergraduate education. When she came home she enrolled in a community college. Her father and I were never so happy to write a tuition check. Her brother went with her to scope out the campus and her sister, who is away at school, put her anger aside, to wish her good luck. We were all so hopeful.
The “we” she refers to in her text is her 22 year-old, mentally-ill, heroin-addicted, felon boyfriend. He too, is more than the labels I’ve assigned him. They were living together, in what can only be described as squalor, until the lease was up. Now, they are homeless.
Back in my home, I look through the cupboards and in the fridge: cereal, crackers, apples, a banana, a half jar of capers.
Capers for the homeless. Every Sunday, I pass the large food collection box in the lobby of the church I attend. The community is affluent and generous. The box fills up weekly with macaroni, canned tuna, peanut butter, stuffing mix and the like. But every now and then, there is a truly curious donation: capers, pate, spiced almonds or a tube of marzipan.
Are there people who think, “You know who I bet would love these spiced almonds? The guys down at the homeless shelter. The salt’s so good for them. Helps them retain water, keeps them from getting dehydrated in the summer heat.”
(But that package is tiny. It would barely make a snack for one person.)
“Those people at the shelter know who could use a nice pack of peanuts. They’ll get it to the right person.”
And about those capers, does someone imagine that a jar of capers would be just the thing to “give the soup kitchen macaroni and cheese a lift.” I say this to a woman I hardly know but who happens to be standing near the donation box. She defends the caper-givers. “You know,” she says from her high-horse, “just because they are homeless doesn’t mean they don’t have refined palates or that they wouldn’t appreciate something different.”
“Touché, in a Donna Reed way,” I say smiling.
But inside, I’ll have none of it. I imagine it this way:
Preparing to escape the Arizona heat and head to their summer home in Nantucket, Mary & Nigel are cleaning out the cupboards. “Put anything the kids might like in this box,” Mary says, “food for the shelter in that one. We’ll throw the rest away.”
“Do the kids like capers?”
“No, besides those have probably expired.”
“When did we get them?”
“Oh, I think they came in one of the Schmidt’s Christmas baskets. About five years ago! Throw them out.”
“No. I’m going to give them to the homeless. That and the pate and all the other crap people send us that we will never eat.”
“Really, they’re old, throw them out. Besides, the people at the shelter don’t want capers and pate.”
“Well, they should want capers and pate. In fact, they should be exceedingly happy with whatever they get. Where’s that tube of marzipan?”
Roast Chicken with Caper Sauce
- 1 whole 3-4 lb. chicken
- 4-6 Tablespoons unsalted butter
- Salt and pepper
- 1 small lemon
- 1 small onion
- 1 jar of capers (optional)
Preheat oven to 475 F.
Remove innards from chicken cavity, rinse chicken inside & out and pat fully dry.
Rub 2-4 Tblsp. of butter inside and out of chicken.
Sprinkle salt on chicken, inside and out; then a little pepper.
Cut lemon & onion in half and place inside cavity.
Place chicken, breast side down, in a V-shaped rack in a roasting pan.
Cook for 20 minutes then turn breast side up. Baste with pan juices. Cook 6-8 minutes and repeat until skin is nicely browned. Then, turn oven down to 350 F.
Chicken is done when internal thigh temperature reaches 170 F.
Let chicken sit 5 minutes before carving.
Optional capers sauce: Pour pan juices into a clear measuring cup & remove most of fat. Return to medium heat. Add capers and 2 Tblsp. butter. When warm (2-3 minutes) drizzle over sliced chicken.
I put the capers back on the shelf and fill two plastic bags with crackers, apples, peanut butter, bread, cereal and bottled water. By the time I’m ready to go, the monsoon is howling. I go to the closet and find two raincoats.
Out of kindness and loyalty, a friend asks if she should come along. She doesn’t want to and I know it. “No need to drag you into this,” I say. She is relieved and in an uncharacteristic flood of words, she explains why. It boils down to this; it’s uncomfortable, very uncomfortable. She doesn’t know what to say or do.
I understand but I feel sad. I want my friends to be willing to tolerate the discomfort and treat this daughter the same way they treat my other one.
I know it is too much to ask. I can’t even do it myself.
I’m coming, I text her, where exactly are you?
At Albertson’s. Thks mom, we havn’t eaten in 2 dys.
The rains have flooded the streets. It’s dark out but I see them. They are under the overhang that protects the shopping carts. The cart closest to them is filled with bulging plastic bags. I see someone who looks like he could be an assistant manager coming out of the store. He’s twenty-something. He is wearing a white button-down shirt and dark slacks. I brace myself for what I imagine will be their eviction.
But he is handing them something. My daughter dashes toward the car. She has lost more weight. “Hi Momma,” she says in a cheery voice. “That guy just gave us a chicken. You know the kind they roast in the store.” I feel a rush of gratitude. That young man, with a job and an education and every reason to ignore them or shoo them away from his store, chose instead to give them a chicken. I want to grab him and thank him. His kindness pierces me. My eyes tear up. I catch my breath. Roast chicken, the quintessential comfort food—how perfect!
“How nice,” I manage. “Hop in the car, I’ll take you guys somewhere dry for dinner.”
“We can’t mom. We have too many bags to try to load up and carry around in this rain. Did you bring any food?”
I give her the two bags and the two raincoats. “Oh thanks, C is going to be really happy about these raincoats.” I glance over and see C pacing and smoking. She makes a move to leave.
I can’t stop myself. Instead of grabbing her and hugging her, I say, “When are you going to get your act together? This is no way to live.”
“I know, Mom, but this is my life right now, I just need to deal with it.”
It is hard not to admire her moxie. We are in Phoenix. For the last two weeks the average high has been over 110F. At night it rarely cools down below 85F. The bridge they sleep under is overrun with biting red ants. Last time her father saw her, a 3” cockroach crawled out of her bag.
“Do you have a plan?” I ask.
“Yeah, we’re still trying to get into a halfway house.”
I know this is a lie. They want to be together. There are no halfway houses that will take them both.
As I prepare to pull away, I glance over and see them sitting side by side on the store’s 50% off patio furniture. The rain continues to pour. The open plastic dome of the roast chicken package bobs as they pull meat off the bone. They are smiling and chewing.
And for the moment, thanks to a stranger with a chicken, they are happy and sheltered.