January 30, 2011

Five Hours

I spent my morning at a soup kitchen today. It was a service project on a checklist of things we do as part of a group I belong to. We do the soup kitchen as a group. We arrive, cook the food, serve it, bus the tables and clean up. Pretty simple, I've done my share of fundraising dinners, family celebrations, and other assorted open houses where I cook, serve, and clean up after. This is right up my alley, I thought with a bit of smugness. Five hours. We started cooking at  9 AM, served lunch from noon to one, then cleaned up. Very straightforward.

We arrived in the tidy church kitchen, greeted by industrial sized cans of green beans and fruit cocktail. I tried not to cringe at the thought and instead focused on the 20 pounds of thawed ground beef that needed to be browned and mixed with the vats of Sloppy Joe sauce. Rummaging through the cabinets of an unfamiliar kitchen, filled with equipment not designed to entertain but rather to feed the masses, I decided to make the best of it. I looked at the shelf of dried up, outdated seasoning and thought maybe some dehydrated onion and seasoned salt would improve the beef.

My kitchen cooking partner got cauldrons of water set up to make the macaroni and cheese food. We had two vats of bright orange cheese in a can and a massive gas stove that sometimes turned on immediately, but often had us fearing asphyxiation or explosions. We set about our task; to cook lots of food to fill the tummies of hungry people. I tried not to focus too much on it, but I admit I couldn't resist voicing a time or two, "I never eat like this."

It gnawed at me as I cooked. I wanted to treat the diners with the same hospitality and courtesy I would show any guest if I were the hostess. I wanted to fold fancy napkins, set a centerpiece, and put out fine tableware. Instead we set paper place mats on the vinyl table coverings. I took a dead poinsettia off the old piano, deciding it was just too depressing. I set it on a stack of 1940s hymnals in a storage area.

I put on a smiling face as the security guard arrived to explain how the lunch would work. There was another security guard at the entrance, handing out tickets. We were to take the tickets as they walked into the lunch hall and then they would receive one plate of food. My job was to bus the tables and take the dessert cart around. Busing is a fancy description for throwing out the Styrofoam and plastic and paper, then wiping the vinyl table covering. I watched the coffee table and watched the guests.

I wheeled around the dining area, offering cookies, wishing I could give hope. Some folks lit up, others wouldn't make eye contact. One lady asked me very politely if there was anyway I could get her another serving of fruit cocktail, that it just really tasted good that day. I had to check.

Back in the kitchen, a discussion ensued if it were okay to give her another bowl of fruit cocktail because the sign clearly said, one serving to ensure everyone who came would get served. I understood, but my heart was breaking. I've never thought one bowl of canned fruit cocktail would taste good, let alone seconds. Finally we decided to quietly give her another bowl as we reiterated to ourselves that there were no seconds on the main dishes. I guess that's why the security guard was there. To ensure there was no over serving of the fruit cocktail.

As I mingled around the tables another man was covered in mud, as if a passing car had splashed him. He apologized for getting our folding chair dirty but thanked me for the food. A young couple came in. They were clean, but bundled up. Their young fresh faces stood out because honestly, the pungent aroma of homelessness filled the air.

I didn't linger at any table long enough to really eavesdrop, but I caught bits and pieces of their conversations. Many of the folks knew each other by name. I overheard an elderly lady telling her friend that even though she was done eating, she was going to enjoy sitting a little longer, because she knew she'd not be guaranteed a place to sit the rest of the day. That was when I lost it.

I quickly walked back to the kitchen, my eyes welled with tears, trying to regain my composure. Something about the biggest luxury of a person's day being having a folding metal chair to sit on just hit me hard. Wiping my eyes, I headed back to the tables. A gentleman asked me if we served lunch daily. I answered that I didn't think so but would find out. I apologized and said, "This is my first day on the job." I learned that the kitchen I was at just served Sunday lunch but that a church down the road served everyday. I shared the information with him and he thanked me.

While some of the diners couldn't meet my eyes, others seemed to want to visit. I tried to respect everyone who sat in the space. As they left, I cheerfully told them to enjoy the rest of the day even though I felt ridiculous. I had no idea where they were heading after their hour at the soup kitchen, but I was pretty certain it wasn't going to be like the rest of my day. Some of them clutched a car key and I assume that was their home. Others knew they may not have a place to sit the rest of the day, and still another man just sang and stared off into space the entire time he was in at his table.

The hour drew to a close and we served 53 diners. We had plated 57 plates of food and the servings got progressively more generous as the hour drew close to being over. We had to throw out four plates of food and even that broke my heart, thinking of my friend so grateful for her clandestine extra serving of fruit cocktail. I wished I could have wrapped those plates of food and maybe a folding chair as a care package. We never left a dinner at Grandma's without a care package. I wanted to treat our diners as guests not part of an assembly line.

We had two big bags of trash to carry to the dumpster after our guests left the kitchen. Styrofoam, paper, plastic and maybe some remnants of hope. I just don't know how people manage to keep it. I don't know what their stories were or why they were eating at a free soup kitchen on this cold January day. I don't know where they went after they left or how the got there. I don't know anything other than what five hours of my life revealed.

I headed back home in my car. When I was about 2 miles down the road, I saw the same young couple I had served an hour earlier walking on the berm, trudging through the snow. I slowed down not to get them muddy like the other patron and wondered how much further they had to go. But my shift had ended and I didn't want to embarrass them. I wrestled for another half mile that maybe I ought to turn around and give them a ride wherever they were headed. I think I was afraid that the answer would be anywhere we can find a chair or maybe some more fruit cocktail.

I'm not sure. I didn't stop.
But for the rest of the day, I paused.

****

If you have clean clothing, a full tummy, and a place to sit and rest, give thanks. I met at least 53 folks who don't.

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