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Gimme an A!

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Her social-justice efforts weren't always this straightforward; while a student at Rollins College near Orlando, she spent time working for a film festival but was turned off by bureaucracy. In May 2000, just two classes shy of graduation, she moved back to South Florida and into the Villa. Now about once a week she instead takes to the lettered, grid-patterned streets, which are riddled with one-way signs and crisscrossed by low-slung chainlink fences that, like a length of butcher's string, seem to both dissect and restrain the neighborhood.

Melodie modestly says she's not nearly as good at distro as Waffle -- in part, she suspects, because her Spanish is lousy. She's also a bit shy. With tiny hair clips tucked into her short, brown, bed-head hair, she has a grrrlish look and a warm, irrepressible grin. Her short, wool tartan skirt and lavender T-shirt were culled, like most of her wardrobe, from thrift-store racks -- a practice she adopted in high school, where secondhand clothes were considered cool. Now 24 years old and usually un- or underemployed, Melodie wears thrift-store clothing and eats a steady diet of expired food.

Every week or two, Melodie or one of her housemates backs her turquoise, late-model pickup truck behind local health-food stores and produce stands to collect damaged and past-pull-date merchandise the stores cannot sell. There is usually more than can be distributed in the neighborhood; the Villa people eat the rest. No one, Melodie notes, has ever gotten sick from it.

At a house overgrown with foliage, a white-haired man in a tank top with "Key West" printed across the chest emerges, a ball of plastic bags in hand. He opens one and begins to fill it with food, and hands the rest to Melodie, so she can give them to her other "shoppers."

From a nearby alley, a man and a woman holding a little girl walk barefoot in the gravel. They take a few items and wordlessly express gratitude, their smiles revealing gold teeth.

Melodie speaks with persuasive authority when she advises an uncertain young mother about the food's safety. That bulging carton of milk is still good, she says. After all, she drinks it, too.

Tonight's haul features a dairy mother lode. There are dozens of cartons of Stonyfield Farm yogurt in flavors like maple cream and "banilla" as well as the children's version -- tiny tubs called Planet Protectors. Melodie also offers stacks of soy cheese, water-packed tofu, cappuccino-flavored kefir, vegan "chicken" patties, organic orange juice, and the occasional tough loaf of millet bread, which costs about $4 when fresh. Cartons of Zendon soy milk are emblazoned with a panda and a series of haiku poems.

To the neighborhood's population of mostly low-income Hispanics, the selections are often exotic. A man picks up a plastic bottle of cappuccino kefir and turns it over curiously.

Melodie tries to explain. In Spanish she calls it "coffee milk," but her description doesn't quite fit the thick, sour, drinkable yogurt. Later Melodie confides that she feels a little guilty calling the rectangular cartons of vanilla soy milk leche de soya or meatless patties pollo. She laughs at the subversiveness of it: "I wonder if people go inside and say, "This isn't chicken!'"

The man finally decides to take the kefir and smiles. "Gracias," he says.

"De nada," Melodie replies and wheels the chair around a corner, following the route she knows by heart. She knows where people will sidle up to her makeshift cart, picking gingerly through the bins. She knows which families will take whatever she has left and which ones will always wave her away, her persistent but unheeded calls a shared joke.

Like most of the Villa residents, Melodie is painfully self-conscious about her place in the neighborhood. "We're gentrifying it by being here," she says matter-of-factly. And she knows how weird it must look: a young, white woman with a wheelchair and rolling table full of exotic food, calling out like a barker from some bizarre carnival.

A car drives by, a small, fringed Cuban flag hanging from the rear-view mirror. It slows down, and the twentysomething men inside refuse the food but suggest a house nearby: "The people are hungry there."

Melodie continues down a potholed street to a cluster of small apartment buildings shrouded in weeds. At the gate an elderly man and woman wait, staring and gesturing anxiously. Another woman shuffles out, her white hair sticking straight up, as if she just hurried out of bed. She tries to speak, but her words are slurred and unintelligible, obscured by a picket fence of missing teeth. She asks for spare change.

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Amy Roe

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