So last month, I joined my dad in serving lunch at a soup kitchen, or as I now refer to it, my exhaustive work with the homeless.
My father, it seems, is currently responsible for lining up the volunteers who serve this lunch, available in San Rafael from 11am-1pm every day. According to their website,
the St. Vincent de Paul Society of Marin County is committed to ensuring that all individuals have equal access to our assistance, programs, facilities, and employment opportunities. We do not discriminate against any person with regard to race, religion, color, creed, gender, marital status, sexual orientation, age, national origin, political affiliation, immigration status, mental or physical disability, income level, or medical condition.
I can attest this statement to be true, as every single one of those described above showed up for some tuna casserole. Including my father and myself, there were six of us serving lunch, and upon arrival, I was immediately assigned to the dessert station. Apparently, the dessert station is the most fun job at the soup kitchen and my fellow volunteers seemed both jealous of my awesome responsibility and excited that a new recruit would be sucked in to the wonderful world of community service by this plum assignment.
My father gets into the "zone" immediately. He's got his apron and his latex gloves and he's already trying to speak Spanish to a gringo hobo before the line even gets moving. I was torn between paralyzing embarrassment and overwhelming pride.
The set-up consists of this big hall with lots of dining tables and cafeteria style kitchen. Those receiving lunch gets trays and we hand them whatever they want that's available, 100% of which is donated. Soup, tuna casserole, brown rice, red beans, rolls, sliced fruit and dessert were available at the kitchen. There was a salad bar and water jugs in the main dining room.
The six of us volunteers stood shoulder to shoulder, with me at the very end in the coveted dessert station. An array of desserts sat before me, from giant apple pies donated from Costco to individual brownies and cookies. Various and complex looking cakes and cream pies each called out to the diners, many of whom wished for a description.
Unlike one of my fellow volunteers who secured himself a plate of food before even getting started, I wasn't about to rip sustenance from the mouths of the poor. So I had no idea what the hell to tell these folks.
"Hello! What can I get you!" I overcompensated.
They'd look through the glass, occasionally making the obligatory calorie joke before asking, "What's that one?"
"Oh dear, let's see. Well, it's got green mousse so perhaps some sort of mint? Chocolate mint cake?"
Huge cakes and pies were cut into like, 8 pieces each. So the portions were gigantic. But I wasn't about to cut someone's grasshopper pie piece in half right before their literally starving eyes. And next to me, the wonderful volunteer Rick would ask, "Fruita?"
We were supposed to push the fruit, for obvious reasons, but I found that pretty hypocritical as when I looked down the kitchen at my father, spooning out tuna casserole, the chef came over and started drizzling something orange on top. He drizzled with such flair, as if he was sprinkling truffles or organic lardons atop the noodles. My father moved out of the way with enthusiastic reverence. I looked closer, the orange drizzle coming into focus.
As a special treat, cheddar flavor squeeze cheese was swooped and swirled atop each huge steaming tray of tuna casserole.
I later asked my father what was with the squeeze cheese. Apparently, the entire meal is directed by the chef and it never occurred to my father, or I assume anyone else, to question his culinary vision.
For 2 straight hours, the line never let up. We served around 400 folks lunch, and not all of them were your standard Central Casting hobo. Lots of folks just seemed down on their luck and happy for the free meal. About half spoke English, the other half apparently from Mexico and Central America.
There was one couple in particular that just looked like, well, us. Like my friends, like people that certainly could be my friends. I couldn't stop wondering what had happened.
I was probably staring, just dying to know what their situation was, and a knot crept into my stomach and a tickle in my throat and my cold, heartless soul got a little choked up.
But then Rick came over, screamed, "You need a towel!" and shoved a dishrag into my apron with a familiarity I wasn't expecting.
I got back to work.
One of the donated dessert items was a plastic box filled with 4 massive, brick-like brownies. A woman requested one, I placed it on a plate and slid it under the glass towards her. She took it and departed. 10 minutes later, she returned holding the brownie in her hand.
"This is stale. I can't eat this." She shook it at me.
"Okay." I paused, noting that beggars apparently can be choosers. "Would you like something else?"
"No! It's all crap!" She spun around and was off, probably to Tartine.
Most of the diners were grateful and friendly. There wasn't a ton of dramatics or picky eaters. If they didn't want something, they said no. If they did, they took it and usually said thank you. There were no overwhelming, gushing gratitudes. Most of the folks were quiet and quick.
They just wanted lunch.
I realize this is an obvious statement, but quite frankly, it struck me. I would like everything to be a very special episode of Webster. I envisioned tears and tales of woe, insane people throwing things and crack deals going on the corner. But everyone seemed to have the system down and folks just wanted some food, even if it had squeeze cheese on it.
Except for this one guy.
2 or 3 nuts out of 400 people isn't bad. That's better than movie theater odds. But this one guy arrived holding everything he owned, plastic bags slung over shoulders and a sleeping bag attached to his back somehow. I don't know where everyone else's stuff was, by the way. But they had all seemed to park it somewhere. Very few people were lugging around their worldly possessions. But in addition to everything he owned, this guy had a cane, was wearing a plastic garbage bag as a raincoat and was in no mood.
Under the circumstances, I would be in no mood myself.
"I don't want none of that!" He yelled at my father, who was no doubt trying to shove some food at him with a smile and a greeting in a foreign language.
"Okay!" My dad kept smiling, completely unbothered. I, on the other hand, do not take kindly to those that take a tone with my father.
Hefty moved his way down the lunch line, spitting out commands at the volunteers and precariously balancing his food tray along with his luggage. I braced myself as he neared the dessert station. When he got to me, he looked over the dwindling dessert offerings. Hefty was taking his time, really eyeing each cake and pie and cookie.
After what seemed like an eternity, the gentleman behind him in line quietly asked, "Can I get apple pie?"
"WAIT YOUR TURN, BROTHER!"
His food tray wobbled with anger. Hefty turned to me. "Give me one of them cookies in the box."
He was referring to the giant Safeway sugar cookies, each in their own plastic box. I had a stack of them, some decorated with daisies and some decorated with sports clip art. There were clearly girls cookies and boys cookies. So I gave this motherfucker a daisy.
Without missing a beat, "Nah, nah, nah. Gimme a baseball."
Wordlessly, I complied. He snatched it from beneath the glass, hollered at someone in his way to move and was off. With my blood boiling, I felt someone kiss the top of my head.
I turned to find my father, full of energy and cheer announcing, "Okay! The sandwiches are here. "
Turns out, after lunch we pass out plain ham (jamon, according to my father) sandwiches (two maximum) to anyone who wants them for later. There is no dinner or breakfast service. Lunch is it. But folks can take to-go boxes and get these sandwiches.
Again, the unnamed volunteer took one for himself. We had about 200 sandwiches and 400 people. I was appalled. Upon revealing what I'd seen to my parents later that week, my mother erupted into hysterics. "I always thought that man was weird."
At 1pm on the dot, the doors close and we're done. Our two hours of work was exhausting and seemed to go both really slowly and really fast. There was never any break, there was always another person in line. And that was it. We just left, leaving clean-up to another team of volunteers.
"What did you think, Bethy?" My dad walked me out into the rain.
"It was really interesting." I said. "And hard work!"
"I know! I'm really glad you came with me."
"Me too, Daddy."
"Where do you want to go for lunch?"
The realization that I could go anywhere, have anything stopped me in my tracks. And I froze, overwhelmed with guilt.
I guess I am a Catholic after all...