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The Woman in the Trader Joe’s Parking Lot

Pennie Nichols took a leap of faith and believe what the woman in the parking lot told her. It felt good. Read more from Pennie on her blog.

I had swept through Trader Joe’s for a couple of culinary delights and was on my way to my car when: “Hi ma’am, I don’t want your money. I just want to feed my four grandbabies. My daughter is locked up again for crack, and they left me to take care of the grandbabies, and . . . ”

The Woman in the Trader Joe's Parking: compassion

Marketing folks who specialize in the five-minute elevator pitch could learn from her. She crystallized the essentials in under three minutes. I didn’t shut her down. I admired her for not watering down the drug challenges in her situation.

“Hold on, let me unload my groceries.” I was almost embarrassed to say “groceries.” Costa Rican Tarrazu coffee beans, dried orange flavored cranberries, sparkling water, organic heavy whipping cream, triple ginger snaps, . . . and the list didn’t get less embarrassing. Not a single suitable I-need-to-feed-my-family item.

As we walked to my car and I unloaded my cart, she rambled a bit about her situation and her gratitude. I was silently assessing her. Missing several (maybe most) of her teeth, worn out clothes, and worn-through shoes.

The what-ifs started ticking off (escalating) in my head.

  • What if she’s the crack head?
  • What if there are no grandbabies?
  • What if it’s a trick to kidnap me?
  • What if she whacks me over the head and takes my car and all of my “hard-earned” “groceries”?

And the perpetual what-if when we see an outstretched hand or a cardboard sign:

  • What if she’s taking advantage of me!?

I stopped myself and tried to channel my friends V and Jane.

On a chilly night during my visit to San Francisco, V stopped for several people. Looking them in the eyes, she greeted them and asked them a question or two. She tenderly placed coins in their hands as she wished them a good night.

During a trip to San José, Costa Rica, Jane seemed to have a special pocket just for the people she met on the street. Like V, she looked each one in the eyes, asked real questions, exchanged a genuine greeting as she gently handed over coins. She didn’t pause to consider where the coins would go, assess the condition that human’s condition was in, or worry that the person might be taking advantage of her.

Impressively, Jane and V both seemed to carry a stash of coins just for those moments.

I didn’t have a pocketful of coins to reach for, but this lady didn’t want my money. She wanted groceries. I reached past my what-ifs to find the compassion to look into the her eyes. As I closed my car I asked, “What do your grandbabies like to eat?”

“God bless you, ma’am. I knew the lord would hear my prayers. God bless you. They like chicken.”

For this sweep through Trader Joe’s I focused on the “real food” aisles. She steadily talked as if our connection depended on it. I would interject every few minutes for direction.

“Whole chicken, or a package of breasts, legs, or wings?”


“Potatoes or rice?”


I picked up a bag of red potatoes and headed to the bananas. She lingered behind, then ran towards me with a bag of white potatoes.

“These are cheaper and they’re just as good.” She was a frugal shopper.

As we picked out a loaf of bread, she asked, “Can I give you a hug?” I realized then that as subtle as I had tried to be, people were beginning to notice us. I didn’t care. She wanted a hug. Genuine. I knew because I wasn’t looking away. Her god bless yous floated over my shoulder and danced around the bananas and bread. I felt unworthy of her gratitude. Just a few coins. I had just spent more on my frivolous purchases.

During checkout, I was the one maintaining the chatter. I didn’t want her to feel awkward or apologetic. We left the store, another hug, then parted ways.

From my car, I saw her pull the grocery cart up to a big pickup, probably newer than my car. A young man was closing the hood, then wiping off smudges as she put her groceries into the covered bed.

Was this a scam?

Before I sank deep into assumptions, I pulled myself out. So what? She earned the chicken and potatoes with her three-minute parking lot pitch. She repaid me for the bread and bananas with a hug. We set a positive community compassion example. Noteworthy as well, I felt confident that none of the food in those bags could be chemically processed into street drugs, and certainly not traded for them. New what ifs started ticking off in my head:

  • What if she does have four hungry grandbabies?
  • What if that young man with the nice truck was just a kind neighbor (or stranger) who agreed to give her a ride to the store?
  • What if those few little things made a big difference to someone today?

All over the world, Vs and Janes gracefully and graciously reach out to the less fortunate, in small and great measure. They are greatly outnumbered by those who look away and coil up with their “hard-earned” coins. I would rather be like V and Jane. Even in the uncertainty of it, sharing those coins feels better.

 © All Rights Reserved. Pennie Nichols 2015

Pennie Nichols

I have long been an editor, writer for hire, and textbook author. I wrote my way into a freelance career and suddenly I’m here, with socks covered in the bothersome burrs of freelancers and middle-aged women. I am not weary of writing. Every day is a new opportunity to define, invent, and discover myself through words. Words are the tools that help me dig deep into my experiences and relationships, the energy that draws me out into light and understanding. Through sharing my experiences and words, I hope to connect, to share a little light.

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Wednesday 3rd of June 2015

It is such a difficult situation, if you are being scammed or not. Good for you for buying her real food that with her comment about potatoes she knows the value,how to cook and has a place to cook!

Leisa Hammett

Tuesday 2nd of June 2015

Good for you! I agree with you! It's not our place to judge. Give from your heart-space compassion. According to one of my early mentors when I was a journalist covering social justice issues. even if you'd given money and she'd spent it on alcohol, that substance may be the only comforte she's got. If more people could see through the heart and not major on judgment, we would have less women making pitches in Trader Joe's. xo


Tuesday 2nd of June 2015

Thanks, Leisa. The letting go of judgment and control is perhaps the biggest challenge in these situations. Giving from the heart requires that we let let go and allow.

Carol Graham

Saturday 30th of May 2015

I've been in that situation a few times and sometimes I buy them food and sometimes I don't. I think we get a gut feeling of who is in need. Maybe the guy in the truck was just giving her a lift?? As you said -- the pitch was worth every penny spent


Tuesday 2nd of June 2015

Yes, Carol, she did 'earn" it. I think I'll forever struggle with turning to vs. turning away, but I am more sure than ever what feels better after that experience.

Suzanne Fluhr

Thursday 28th of May 2015

Sometimes it's so hard not to be judgmental. Congratulations for having the strength to let it go.


Thursday 28th of May 2015

I think the grandmother had more strength and courage that I ever will have. And personality. She won me over.

Lisa Froman

Thursday 28th of May 2015

What a sweet story. I had a similar experience in a Barnes and Noble a few months ago when I was approached by a man who told me he was a diabetic and needed food. I helped him but fought through some of the same questions. This is what I came to: I would rather be a chump than to pass on helping someone who might truly be in need. Further, whatever that person does with the money is between him and th e heavens. I take comfort in honoring my conscience. Good for you, too.


Thursday 28th of May 2015

I totally agree. I'd rather be a chump than keep my chump change.

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