Writers and actors always attempt this impossibility- chewing with someone else’s teeth. We know it as speaking for another character. But there was a poignant reason this Yiddish saying came to my mind yesterday afternoon.
I was running an errand and passed the large beggar-lady who is perennially parked, in her wheel chair, on the corner of College and Ashby Avenue. I had dropped coins in her cup in the past, though I usually just walk on by. I pass that corner a lot, and I can become oblivious to the fixtures that are always there. Life’s busy-busy-busy, y’know?
The Beggar-lady is always carefully covered with a thick blanket, and while I can’t see her disability, she is clearly down on her luck. She isn't starving, because her abundant body testifies shortage of food is not the most immediate problem. But her distorted features, her one permanently sewn-shut eye, suggest struggles few will know outside of fiction.
‘Tis the season, and more passers-by were dropping coins and bills in her cup. But I could hear she was trying to make them slow down, and was asking for something. No one stopped long enough to listen. Busy-Busy. The beggar-lady didn't help her cause by starting every approach with an “Excuse me Sir, Ma’am, can I trouble you for something?” and no one seemed to stay long enough to hear what that something was.
Not sure why I slowed down then. Maybe because our Hanukkah has passed, and the others’ Christmas is a couple of weeks away and, well, maybe I just didn't feel that busy. But when the beggar-lady put this to me, I stopped before plopping a quarter her way.
“Can I trouble you for some milk and stale bread?” she said. “I’ll pay you, it’s just that they won’t let me in the store.” She offered me a few dollars, but I waved them off.
I told her I would go to the grocery-store half a block away and be right back. The whole way there, I wondered why she asked for stale bread. I bought a pint of milk and the best fresh bread they had, and came right back. The beggar lady blessed me, and when she smiled I saw she was missing a few teeth.
I began walking away, pondering all the while what a person with missing teeth would have done with stale hard bread. It even occurred to me that the use of the word “stale” was kind of odd. Not “day-old,” or plain “old.” She said “stale.” Funny.
Then I looked back. From underneath her blanket, the beggar lady pulled out a miniature dog. She carefully tore the very fresh bread I had just bought, dipped a piece in the milk, and offered it to her dog.
You really, truly, can’t chew with someone else’s teeth. That’s what I've been thinking about.