On Wednesday morning, Jason Spencer was on the hunt, the same as thousands of Houstonians across the metroplex, prowling the streets looking for an open grocery store to stock up on bottled water and other essentials. The Oak Forest Kroger’s lights were off, and Spencer knew from just driving by the Heights H-E-B that the line was too long to bother with, so he decided to swing by the Food-A-Rama.
“People get in their habits and don’t always think to go there during times like this, so I’ve had good luck with them in the past,” Spencer, public affairs director for the Harris County Sheriff’s Office, told Houstonia on Wednesday afternoon.
His luck held. The store on Ella and 18th was busy, but open, so he grabbed a cart, and, weaving in and out of the line that was already stretching from two open cash registers through the produce, the meat section, the dairy, and the frozen foods, he quickly snagged ground coffee, paper plates, and cases of water.
As he slid into the end of the line in the frozen foods section at the very back of the store, Spencer was already noticing what an essentially Houston scene was playing out at the Food-A-Rama, with people patiently shuffling forward, chatting with each other while a pair of cashiers worked briskly checking everyone out.
Spencer started talking with the man in front of him, a 69-year-old diabetic who’d ventured out with his service dog, Trouble, to get some water. Noticing the man was hauling the water through the line because there were no carts, Spencer made space on his cart and they passed a pleasant half hour talking and moving through the line. “It was moving a lot faster than I expected it would,” Spencer said.
Then abruptly the power slammed off, stalling out the whole intricate dance of the place. Across the store, people got quiet, peering into the dimly lit space, hoping the store would somehow stay open even as they were preparing to leave their supplies and file out. But employees moving along the line made it clear they weren't letting the power situation stop them. They only asked that people just purchase the essentials and use cash. Reluctantly, Spencer put the paper dinnerware, the coffee, and even the beer back, keeping nothing but the water (Spencer and his family had been relatively fortunate so far during this historic winter storm, but although they hadn't lost power, they also hadn't had running water since Monday, due to some frozen pipes. So the water was non-negotiable.) Patting his pockets, Spencer found a few dollars, just enough to cover the purchase.
“I don’t have any cash,” the man next to Spencer said, a refrain that was beginning to echo through the store as word spread.
They moved along in the line. Maybe the lights would come back on by the time it was their turn to pay, some cashless customers reasoned. It was worth a try, anyway.
1/5 Went searching for drinking water today and found the @foodaramatx at Ella and 18th open.— Jason Spencer (@JSpencer_HCSO) February 17, 2021
The line of customers wrapped around the entire inside of the store as two cashiers worked their tails off to ring everyone up.
I’d made it about 1/4 of the way when the power went out pic.twitter.com/9v1jTWw8nf
The power stayed off, but as Spencer, Trouble, and Trouble’s human moved toward the lone pair of cashiers, a tall Black man appeared in the darkened store, Spencer said. He was wearing a mask and a winter cap and was moving briskly down the line.
“Who needs cash? Who needs cash?” the man called, pausing in front of anyone who said yes, eyeing the contents of their cart, pulling crisp, bank-fresh $20 bills from a stack he was holding, roughly enough to cover their transaction, and pressing the money into each person’s hands.
It happened in moments. Soon the man, who Spencer took to be in his 30s, had handed out funds to anyone who said they needed it, shelling out about $500, Spencer estimated. Then without a pause, the man strode out the front doors.
Spencer tried to catch up to him—“I’m in media relations. I wanted to take his photo, maybe shoot some video to share his story,” Spencer told us—but the man was already across the parking lot and behind the wheel of his Ford F-150. He lifted his hand and waved back at Spencer as he motored away.
Spencer took that in, how the man didn't even pause to be thanked, or acknowledged, and soon shared the story on Twitter. He noted this is the kind of story that is so essential to Houston's identity, because it's simply the sort of thing that happens in this town, especially when the chips are down. The store, meanwhile, remained open despite the power outage.
“It was beautiful to see, but honestly not that surprising,” Spencer said. “It’s the way people are here. So much of what happened at the Food-A-Rama is what Houston’s about. When the lights went out, it wasn’t a free-for-all. No one complained. People were just grateful the store was staying open, and when they asked us to get essentials only, everyone in there started taking out everything they didn’t absolutely need. And then the Food-A-Rama angel showed up. Everybody just took care of each other.”