I know a restaurant that sells amazing Wonton soup and each time I go there I'm reminded of the Seinfeld episode where Jerry, George, Elaine and Kramer patiently wait in a long line-up to buy a bowl of soup from the infamous "soup guy" at this hole-in-the-wall restaurant in New York that draws crowds of people from all walks of life.
Same thing at this restaurant. There's always a line-up, never enough tables, and the same broad mix of customers. I love going there, because its not pretentious and it speaks to the soup's ability to cut through the invisible social barriers that so often divide us (like how much we make for a living, or the kind of car we drive, or how big our house is).
That said, last Friday I made an impromptu trek into the city to buy take-out soup, a reward for completing a chapter I'd been working on and (more importantly) finishing the last coat of paint on my basement-wall-from-hell which had been ripped apart ten days earlier to accomodate a plumbing repair.
When I arrived, there was the usual line-up. I took note of three businessmen obsessively checking their blackberries, a teenage girl texting, two construction workers and a man who looked like he was homeless given the Safeway cart he'd just parked outside with all manner of bags tied to it.
One of the blackberry-obsessed businessmen stood out more than the others. His suit screamed money and he kept talking on his phone in a too-loud voice. He also wore a fistful of garrish rings that he kept playing with as he tapped one foot impatiently, and a Rolex watch that clearly wasn't made on a production line focused on less-is-more. But what I noticed most was how often he glanced back at the homeless guy behind him, a look of disgust on his face.
When the businessman finally made it to the front of the line, he placed both hands on the counter and ordered his soup (loudly) then flushed red when he realized he didn't have his wallet with him. (Insert an awkward pause here while he pocket slapped for his missing wallet).
And then the most wonderful thing happened.
The homeless man stepped around him, walked up to the till, and withdrew a handful of small bills. With more class than the businessman would ever have, he then spoke to the teller in a polite, hushed tone, and paid for the man's soup. "Oh, no!" the businessman said, mortified. "You don't have to do that."
"I know," the homeless man replied. "But I want to."
The businessman thanked him and left with his head down, jumping into a Lexus and tearing off like his tires were on fire. Not long after that, it was my turn to order. I was distracted, smiling to myself as I watched the homeless man steer his Safeway cart across the icy parking lot outside, cradling his soup. I handed the teller my money, but she waved it away and nodded at him through the window. "He paid for yours, too."
"Mine?!" I said. "Why?"
The woman shrugged. "He said he wanted to pay for the homeless lady's soup behind him."
My eyes about popped out of my head. Homeless lady?! It wasn't until then that I glanced down and realized how I looked: hair sticking up everywhere, minimal make-up, a too-large but incredibly warm winter jacket, paint-splattered pants and a beat up pair of comfy clogs. In some ways I guess you could say the only thing I was missing was the Safeway cart!