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Wednesday, August 12, 2009

The End of Winter

Ironic to be posting this in the middle of summer... originally written on 3/29/09.

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It’s the end of the winter. For some people that means the snow will finally melt into rivulets (or flood zones) of running water and the gritty gravel will clot into mud pies, soaking sneakers pounding out a heartbeat in a neighbourhood park. For others, it means that the place that was kept open all winter long, 24/7 will close and lock its doors in the evening and Saturdays at noon. No warm place to go other than the Rainbow Mall or a local laundromat until 10:00 p.m. The winter has brought these people in and had them form another version of their anti-social stratosphere in a building complete with toilets, shower stalls, tables and chairs. They are not happy campers.

The volunteers in the soup kitchen are not generally people who fear their customers. When voices begin to rise, the fry cook might look up from her eggs. Somebody refilling ketchup bottles might pause, look out in the dining room and shrug. Sometimes the voices being raised are propelled by auditory hallucinations; so the person is, in effect, arguing with himself. What begins as kidding by two clients who know one another well enough to kid can escalate in a matter of one joke to two jokes to a shouting match. Everyone is walking a tight wire.

There’s a hookah pipe in between two tables, balanced against the wall. There’s an almost empty pint of vodka hidden partially by an aqua, round-bottomed plastic chair. Someone left a swallow or two, probably not intentionally. It’s unusual for drugs or alcohol to make it into the dining room. You’ll find sharps in the bathroom and crack pipes in the stairwell. I’ve overheard a woman say, “I need five bucks for a cab -- make it fast.” We’re not at the local A&P or the library. It’s a soup kitchen. It’s not a solution, sometimes it’s just a warmer place to be.

Debbie says I have mercy. Mercy is my spiritual gift. I want to deny her and cynically say, “Mercy for whom? I was one of them.” Supposing there is an “us” and “them.” There is. Kim leans in and says, “Sometimes I can’t read the report book. It just hurts to know.”

An entry from a couple days back: “Found a group of 8 to 12 year old boys out in the front, counting pills.”

A volunteer quietly offers, “8 to 12 year old boys know right from wrong.” There is hope in wanting a child to have a conscience not ripped to shreds before puberty. Some would accuse her of judgement, but if you were always judging you wouldn’t last a month in the kitchen. She’s lasted years. She’s watched the plates of food come back with two whole pieces of toast, untouched. She’s strained the liquid from a concoction of cereal, milk, molasses, ketchup and pepper into the slop bucket and scraped peanut butter from the underside of the same bowl. Water washes it all away and crank addicts love Count Chockula in the morning, so what else is new.

We stand there in awkward silence, smiling with raised eyebrows. Hmmm. Do we have any meat today? If you want to donate to a soup kitchen – for God’s sake, don’t give them soup. Give them meat. One of the first lessons I learned in “we cook what we have” was pastrami mixed in with scrambled eggs. Pastrami? Hold the sauerkraut, please! When we don’t have meat, we serve baked beans.

I get to serve the food today because Moe and Kim are cooking and Kathryn’s home not feeling well. “Do you want beans and eggs?” “Toast?” “Oh, you want wheat toast, not white.” “You want burnt toast – four slices.” “No ends of the bread.” “No, we don’t have bacon, just beans.” “Wait a minute, Mildred – you don’t eat meat anyway!”

Mildred grins at me and says, “I have sausage once a month at Williams’s restaurant. They have good sausage.”

Claude comes up to the counter. His left eye is swollen shut. “Got any breakfast for after a beating?” he quips. Kim questions over my shoulder, still flipping eggs, “Hey, what happened? Did that just happen?” “Nah,” he says, “it was three days ago. Two guys jumped me in back of a store. They beat on me some and I really wanted to fight back, but I didn’t. I curled up like this…” He curls into himself, ducks his head, scrunches his shoulders. Shrugs. “I did manslaughter already, had to do the time for that and I’m not doing it again. I’m just not.” He smiled. I looked at his hands and the knuckles were bent, wrongly. Kind of like a person with arthritis. I knew it wasn’t arthritis. “I didn’t fight back; I didn’t want to do the time again. But it itched, man, it itched.”

That was huge for him. It was like the million watt light bulb going off in my brain seeing that if the politicians wanted to know if jail time rehabilitated criminals – it sure stopped them from defending themselves. Yeah buddy, that’s brilliant. I measured out a spoonful of baked beans and gave him two eggs instead of just one.

I wanted to say something to him. I wanted to pat him on the back and say, “Wow, man… I heard you. I really heard you. That was huge.” I watched him eat and nod to the people who nodded to him. He repeated his story to those who asked, clenching and unclenching those twisted knuckles as he talked.

Did you ever know that it was your moment to say something profound and meaningful to another human being and you watched it pass by like the 78th out of 125 plates? From one hand to another, I passed the plate for two slices of toast and Claude disappeared outside the door into the cold.

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