Tuesday, July 31, 2007

The Customers: The Grandma

In the heat of the kitchen it is easily 95 degrees. The A/C gave out a couple of days ago, and the guy who is nice enough to play handyman at the kitchen has gone down to Miami for two weeks. I take a glance up at the plate count, as sweat dribbles down my back, and notice we've done 85 plates. It's only noon, and this is easily a record. Warm weather tends to bring out our customers in droves. Fortunately, the crowd has started to die down. There are a few sitting at the table and no one in line.

One of the current customers is someone I call "the grandma". The grandma is not a regular per se, as she comes in only about half the Sundays, but she's there often enough for us to know who she is. She's overweight, in her early 50s, with mostly gray hair worn in a bun and she carries an ever present gap-toothed smile. A lot of the customers we get are rough, but the grandma has a quiet dignity to her. When she eats, she never rests her elbows on the table (a rarity amongst out clients), always has her napkin on her lap (an even bigger rarity), and chews with her mouth closed (sadly, the largest rarity).

As far back as I can remember, we've packed the grandma a to-go order, and she is the only one who enjoys this privilege. Early on, I asked Ruth about this and she informed me the grandma has 4 small grandkids at home. Apparently her daughter was a meth addict and got sent to prison when the fire in her mobile home alerted the police to her activities. The kids' fathers have long been out of the picture, so rather than see her grandkids get sent to different foster homes, grandma decided to raise them herself. Her retirement income and government assistance don't quite combine to make ends meet, so she supplements meals with leftovers we pack at the kitchen. Knowing this I always make sure not to short-change her on the food I pack. I try not to play favorites but when it comes down to food going to two adults or four kids, I'm siding with the kids each time. Luckily we always have enough leftovers from crews of other days, so no one ever has to go hungry.

The grandma finishes her meal and calls me over. Even though the other guests are at the other end of the table, the grandma whispers to me, asking for leftovers for her grandkids. I nod and head back to pack them up. We do this routine each week she comes in- the beckoning, the whispering, and my nodding. For some reason it always gives me a little comfort...

I dish the food on to plastic plates and wrap them up with aluminum foil, before adding some Oreos (kids need treats!) and placing the whole package in a plastic bag. I head into the dining room and discreetly hand her the bag. We don't need anyone complaining of special treatment. Bill notices this time, and shoots me a look, but I stare him down. He averts my gaze and turns his attention back to his meal. I smile to myself, as the grandma walks out with a wave...

I finally finish cleaning up and look at the clock. It's nearly 2 PM. I've never stayed that long to clean, but my mopping was derailed by a long conversation with Gus about the Chicago Bears. (Ever since he met their starting quarterback, who presented Gus with a national volunteer award a couple of years ago, he loves to talk everyone's ear off on how the QB gets a bum rap from the press and how he is really a nice guy, etc.) I lock the door behind me, and head to my car to drive home. As I'm people watching, waiting for the light to turn from red to green, a familiar face catches my eye. I see the grandma, sitting on a bench near the local hospital, EATING THE MEAL I PACKED FOR HER GRANDKIDS. At first I'm not sure it is her. I make a left turn and take one of the hospital back roads so I can spy from a closer distance without getting caught. It's definitely her. I see the unmistakable blue color of the small Oreos pack. That's enough for me to drive home in a funk.

Once I'm home it starts to make a little more sense. If she has four small grandchildren at home, who is watching them while she eats at the kitchen? Wouldn't it make more sense for her just to get a to-go meal for her AND the kids? I guess she could have someone looking after them...but at this point I'm just looking to poke holes in her story...

The next week comes and all of the volunteers are in a foul mood. This happens sometimes when we don't get any drop-in volunteers for a while. We all like each other, but sometimes being confined in a small space with others is too much, and it is just one of those days. Ruth yells at me, I yell at Sally, and Gus yells at everyone. We struggle through service, and my mood isn't helped when I get accidentally burned while removing a tray from the oven. At this point I want to call it a day and just go home, but I know I can't. As I am cursing my fate, I see the grandma walk in. Ruth notices her first and starts to smile. She brings grandma a plate of food, and even gives her a little half hug after she sets the plate down. Ruth comes back into the kitchen, extolling her as "such a nice woman." Sally concurs and they talk about what a saint she must be to look after her grandkids when she should be enjoying her quiet life. Hearing them, I must have rolled my eyes or snorted or something, as Ruth fixes me with a death stare.

"You have ANYTHING to say??"

Ruth is practically fuming. I know instantly I can win this argument and take the wind out of her sails by telling her what I saw last week. I think deeply about it for a minute, meet Ruth's gaze and tell her-

"No...sorry, I was thinking about something else."

Ruth knows better than to buy my explanation, but she lets it go and goes back to talking with Sally.

I probably should have told Ruth and Sally what I saw. I hate scammers and I'm pretty sure the grandma is a Grade A scammer. But this isn't about her, it's about us. Volunteering in a place like the soup kitchen can be exciting and fun, but often times it is downright depressing. Sometimes you need a little hope, a little victory to keep from getting burned out, and to keep you coming back to help out. The grandma is that victory for Ruth. I think about what I know about Ruth- her husband died a long time ago, and she was left to raise three young sons on her own. Maybe she identifies with the grandma, or maybe she just sees an old woman trying to do good. Irregardless, it's not my place to tell the truth of the matter. At least not today...

When she's finished eating, the grandma once again beckons me over to her, and repeats her usual whisper. I nod and head back into the kitchen to pack her some leftovers.

Sunday, June 10, 2007


I just turned on the local news to find the anchors discussing a local shooting. Apparently some homeless guy opened fire on three police officers. They showed the mug shot and I immediately recognized the guy as a soup kitchen customer. I never spoke with him, and he never did anything that really stuck out. He was quiet, one of the many that pass through our doors with seldom a word.

You can read the story here...

Friday, May 25, 2007

"But I'm on a Diet"

It's 12:25. There is no one in line, only Bill and a new woman sitting at the table. I make a mental note of the tasks I have to do, and figure I can get out of the kitchen by 1:15. I can get back home by 1:30. A few chores around the house, and I'll have the rest of my day free after 3. Maybe I'll drive to the nearest state park and go for a hike... a voice interrupts my internal monologue.

"We have a problem." It's Daisy. She's a first year college student, and has been volunteering regularly for 7 years.

"What's up?" I ask.

"The woman has a special request." Daisy rolls her eyes and points to the plate in her hands. "She says she's on a diet and wants all meat and no veggies and no pasta."

"Are you serious?"

" can talk to her if you want. "

I grab the plate, head out of the kitchen, and into the dining room. The customer is an obese woman, clenching a butter knife in her left hand and a fork in her right, with fists upturned. Her face has an expectant look, and falls visibly when she sees I am holding the same plate she sent back.

"Is there a problem miss?" I ask, only slightly hoping my annoyance doesn't show through the thin veneer of pleasantness I am projecting.

"Uh-huh...I jus' want some groun' beef and nothin' else!" she responds rudely.

"Ma'am this beef is already mixed in with pasta and veggies in a casserole. We don't have any by itself."

"But I'm on a diet!!! I'm doing Atkins cuz my cholesterol is high!" she whines.

I don't know too much about the Atkins diet, other than its insistence on protein and fat and no carbs. But, I'm pretty sure Atkins isn't beneficial to cholesterol level, especially one that I'm guessing is hovering at 300.

"I'm sorry ma'am, there's really nothing else..."

In reality, we do have a few pieces of leftover chicken in the fridge. But I'm in a pissy mood, I don't believe her, and it really isn't fair that she should get better food than the rest.

"You axing me to pick out the ground beef and jus' eat that??" She now has an incredulous look on her face.

I'm thinking about how to answer, when Bill motions me over. In a voice that is loud enough for everyone, in even the kitchen to hear, he says-

"She ate the tuna noodle casserole yesterday. I saw her."

I look back over at the woman. Clearly she has heard what Bill said. But she's in no mood to accept defeat.

"Yeah I did. But I wasn't on Atkins then!"

Now it's my turn to stare incredulously.

"You just started Atkins today?"

"Naw, naw. I gotsta balance it out. I do Atkins on Sunday, Tuesday, and Thursday, and jus' eat everything else on the other days."

The reason for her lack of success on the diet becomes stunningly clear...

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

The Customers: Anna

I went on vacation last week to the Bay Area for a friend's wedding. While there, I had a chance to reconnect with some old friends from undergrad, and I got to telling them about the blog. One of them asked me a little more about my relationship with the soup kitchen customers. I tried to find a good analogy to define it, but couldn't think of one at that moment. Later on the plane ride back, I figured it out. My relationship with the customers is like that of a prison guard to his inmates. I'll never be friends with any of the customers, but if they behave themselves, we can have an interaction that almost borders on friendship. I've gotten to know most of the regulars as close as I can, but there are a few that I will never really understand. One of them is Anna.

Anna looks to be in her late fifties. She has a dimunitive stature which is further embellished by scoliosis. Anna is Chinese and from the few words she says, I gather that she was not born in the US. Whenever she ventures into the kitchen, she has a disheveled look about her. Anna is one of our customers that I see around town often. It's really hard to miss her- she wears the same fading blue winter coat (no matter what temperature it is), and pushes around a worn shopping cart that contains, to the best of my knowledge, all of her possessions.

One more thing: Anna is schizophrenic. And I don't mean that as an adjective to describe her behavior, she has actually been diagnosed as a schizophrenic. Unfortunately, she rarely takes her medication...which can make for some interesting incidents.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, the dining room only holds 10 people. The rest stand in line or sit down in a waiting area that has a few chairs and couches. The waiting area can be a pretty combustible zone. A lot of the customers are big and physical, and a small argument over sports or bus tokens can explode into a fist fight pretty readily. (We try to do what we can to police this, but with a limited number of volunteers, some stuff inevitably slips past our eyes.) Add a few women into this already volatile situation and you have the potential for even more problems.

One of the worst transgressors is a regular I'll call Leroy. I should mention that when someone really acts out, they get banned from periods ranging from a few days to a couple of months. Leroy has been banned several times from the soup kitchen for starting fights or harassing women. It only takes most of the customers one time to realize they DO NOT want to be banned. Leroy is just...let's say a little more stubborn than most.

One morning Leroy was walking around the waiting area, complaining that the line wasn't moving fast enough and announcing his hunger to the whole world. Apparently, he made the mistake of rummaging through one of Anna's handbags, hoping she wouldn't notice him taking a candy bar. Unfortunately for Leroy, Anna did notice. The 10 inches and 150 pounds Leroy had on Anna was of no consequence. I wasn't present for the initial attack, but from speaking with the people who did see it, Anna just FLIPPED OUT. She started out by biting Leroy hard on the wrist. Hard enough to break through the skin and draw blood. She then started screaming at him in a mixture of English and (presumably) Mandarin, and dug her fingernails into his arm. It was at this point that Leroy made what was, no doubt, one of the smarter decisions of his life- he ran...out of the waiting area and through the dining room, into the office to talk to Gus. It went something like this...

Leroy: [Expletive]!! Give me a [expletive] bandaid! Owwww....[expletive]! I need a [expletive] bandaid Gus! [Expletive]!!!!!!

Gus: Calm down. What happened?

Leroy: I'm [expletive] bleeding!! You see this [expletive]!?!?! She bit me! Crazy bitch bit me! Awww [expletive]!!! This hurts like a mother [expletive]!!

Gus: Who did this??

Leroy: That [expletive] [racial slur] bitch! [Expletive]!!!

Gus: Anna?

Leroy: [Expletive]! [Expletive]! [Expletive]! Where that [expletive] bandaid at?

Upon hearing the commotion, Ruth and I rushed into the waiting area to see if Anna was acting out. And there she was, calmly sitting in a chair as if nothing had happened. And maybe in her mind, nothing actually did.

The other guests filled us in on what happened. Since Anna was provoked, we don't ban her. She behaves the rest of the day without any further incident. Leroy, upon hearing that Anna won't be banned, grabs a sack lunch and leaves. (I've never seen him go within 5 feet of her since...)

Later as we clean up, Ruth and I get to talking about Anna.

"I feel bad for her. You know she has a Ph.D?" Ruth says.

"Yeah...wait! What? Are you serious?" I think Ruth is messing with me. She has before...

"Yes I'm serious, she has a Ph.D. She was one of the first women to get a Ph.D in her field here." she says.

"You gotta be kidding. What field is that?" I ask.

She tells me. I chuckle and forget about it, still not quite believing Ruth. A few weeks later, I have to run an errand in the building in which Anna's supposed former department is housed. I think about what Ruth said. Curious, I go to the library in the building and talk to the librarian. She points me in the right direction. Knowing Anna's full name and estimating her period of study from a guesstimate of her age, I start flipping through the departmental archives. I go through a few years and find nothing. I'm close to giving up, but then decide to skim through a few more years. I soon find what I'm looking for...

The bulletin is from the early seventies. It announces Anna's doctorate. She's not exactly one of the first women to get her Ph.D from this university, but she's most assuredly one of the first international women. I skim further and Anna's face jumps out at me. She's younger, not so hunched over, and has her hair in a ponytail, but the face is unmistakably hers. She carries the same blank stare as she does now. It seems to be the face of a woman who takes in the world, but doesn't quite comprehend what she sees.

Her age was in the late twenties then, which makes her in the early sixties now. I look for more details and the article offers none. I now search frantically to find out what happened after that. I find nothing. I take a stab with a Nexis-Lexis search, and still nothing. I ask around at the soup kitchen, and no one knows anymore about her past.

I start to forget about it, but every once in a while that picture pops up in my head. I just can't get over the fact that her eyes, that gaze was the same then as it is now. Is it possible that she was sick then but it just wasn't diagnosed? When did her symptoms start overwhelming her? Was she living a normal life with a job, and then somehow her disease got worse? More and more questions start flooding my mind...Does she have a family in the US? Does her family in Asia know about what happened to her? Maybe she was sending them letters, telling them about her wonderful life in the US and one day the letters just stopped? Maybe they think she's dead...I wonder if they've ever tried to find her?

I want to ask Anna all these questions and more. I tell Gus about this, and he informs me that others have tried without any luck. It's hard enough to get a straight answer out of her on simple questions (do you want soup?), but on her life it's impossible.

I guess that's one of the things I've learned working at the kitchen- there are some things in life you just can't change and have to accept, as unfair as it seems. Anna seems happy enough. She may not be in perfect mental health, but as long as the kitchen is around, she'll never go hungry. Instead of feeling sad about Anna, I choose to feel happy. Well, maybe not happy, but I just think of Leroy, screaming and writhing in pain as Anna just sits peacefully unaware...and I smile.

Monday, May 07, 2007

Dining Foibles

The customers at the soup kitchen have a few eccentricities with their eating habits that make serving them a surreal experience. To understand, you need a little background. Each week we'll cook up a main entree, two sides, (usually a vegetable and a starch), and soup. When someone comes into the kitchen to eat, a plate and optional bowl of soup is brought out to them. In addition to this food, there is always a lettuce-based salad along with some soon-to-be-expired deli salads (potato, cole slaw, bean, etc), and a basket of bread. We also put out small bowls of peanut butter, jelly, butter/margarine, and a few squirt bottles of hot sauce. It took a few weeks to get accustomed to the various "needs" at the table and I've compiled a list of the more interesting ones.
  • Ungodly amounts of dressing on the salad: As a kid I used to love Italian dressing. I'd easily go through a bottle every week or so, and then drink the leftover dressing at the bottom of the salad bowl. I thought I was a total dressing whore...until I started working at the kitchen. Our guests LOVE salad dressing. And by love, I mean they need the salad to be dripping wet before they'll eat. To give you an idea, a few weeks ago I was making a replacement salad. I poured two regular sized Dole bags into a bowl and emptied exactly half a bottle of ranch dressing. After mixing, I took it out to them. It came back 2 minutes later with a request that I add even more. With the excess water from the lettuce, it looked like someone had added salad to a a large bowl of strained clam chowder, and this still wasn't enough! Of course I obliged their request, but only because I was using the reduced fat ranch. I feel like a mom sometimes... I have to strike a fine balance between having them eat their veggies, but at the same time not take in too much fat. Reduced fat dressing is a nice compromise. Of course I tell everyone I use the full fat dressing. Sometimes you just need to lie.
  • Lots of hot sauce: I love spicy food. I'm the idiot that always orders Thai or Chinese food to the full 4 chili peppers (and usually regrets it the next day). That said, there is a time and place for spicy food. You want to add some hot sauce to your meatloaf? Sounds good to me. Spice up that tuna casserole? I'm with you. Hot sauce on chocolate cake, pie, brownies, and oatmeal cookies (yes this happens)?!??! You lost me...At first I thought this was a test of manhood. Some customers trying to one-up others and prove their intestinal strength. Slowly it dawned on me THAT THEY LIKE IT. I struggle with this...I slightly comprehend hot sauce on chocolate desserts (Ever try a hot chocolate w/ powdered chili? It tastes surprisingly good.) But why would you ever want to douse an oatmeal cookie or a peach pie in Tabasco? The two squirt bottles usually need to be changed twice in the 90 minute serving period. We ran out of it one time, about 20 minutes into serving. It was not a pretty sight. Gus had to run out to the local store to get more to placate the customers.
  • Saltines: We put them on the table to go with the soup. Personally, I think that's all they should go with. They have almost no taste, require you to drink lots of water to compensate for the dryness they cause, and I always associate them with feeling sick. (Saltines and ginger ale was a common treatment for an upset stomach for me.) Our guests enjoy eating them with the main entree. I've observed guests placing saltines between layers of lasagna, making an inverted meatloaf sandwich (meatloaf as bread and saltines as the "meat"), eating saltines with margarine and hot sauce. I haven't quite put my finger on this, but I've noticed the guests that do this do so in the early stages of service. Since we don't give out seconds so early, this could be a strategy to maximize caloric intake. Then again, there is always ample bread on the table, so maybe not. I'll just say it's a mystery to me, and if anyone has an ideas, let me know in the comments...
  • Perfectly calibrated juice: For beverages we serve water, milk (as long as we have it), and "juice". Juice is a misnomer because it's really Country Time Lemonade. (Since all the guests call it juice, I'll stick with that nomenclature.) Our patrons need the juice to be ultra sweet, but not ultra, ultra sweet. In making a pitcher of the stuff, I'm supposed to add 8 capfuls of powder. Our customers require between 14 and 15 capfuls. When I say between 14 and 15, I really mean it. I've added a little more and a little less, but unless it falls explicitly in that range they always send it back with complaints of it being too sweet or not sweet enough. I find it tremendously strange that they could have such finely honed taste buds to be able to discern the impact of a few grams of powder, but they can. To add even more to this, the few weeks when we have generic lemonade powder, they can tell it "ain't the good stuff."

Friday, May 04, 2007

The Milk People

The kitchen is an independently run organization. We don't receive any sort of government assistance and it actually works out better that way. Without government help, we don't need to follow annoying government regulations and we aren't accountable to anyone except our Board of Directors. Plus, we can be liberal about things like handing out medicine...which falls in sort of a gray area otherwise.

As a result, we pretty much subsist on the generosity of others. There is no shortage of donations from local organizations and individuals. The kitchen has been around a while, so people in the area know they can always drop off extras for us to use. And really we can make do of anything.

A few examples...Every few weeks, we get leftover donuts from one of the local churches following their service. We leave them outside in our waiting area, and they go a long way toward quelling the appetites of the customers until lunch is ready. Last spring a local butcher gave us 400 lbs. of pork loin, which lasted nearly 6 months. A couple months ago, a couple brought in a few hundred chicken wings, leftovers from their Super Bowl Party. The list is virtually endless, but there are two in particular that I want to highlight. I call them the milk people.

The milk people are a father and his 8 year old daughter. Every Sunday around 9 AM they bring us 2 gallons of milk. Both of them always have friendly smiles on their faces as they walk to the dining room to put the milk away in the fridge. Even though the girl struggles with the weight of the containers, she always insists on carrying both of them herself. After putting the milk away, they thank us and head out.

I mention the milk people for two reasons. The first is that even though the kitchen has a budget and receives ample donations, milk is the one commodity we do always need. Given a choice of pop, juice, lemonade, and milk, 90% of the customers will go for the milk. If you think about it...sugary drinks are cheap, affordable, and can be stored anywhere. You can buy a two liter of a generic carbonated beverage for under a dollar, take a swig, cap it, and it'll be good for a few weeks. Milk is more expensive and obviously doesn't keep so well. So the donation the milk people give us makes a lot of the customers happy.

The second reason I wanted to bring up the milk people is this...volunteering in a place like the kitchen, you can't help but feel jaded. You constantly see people whose lives are going nowhere, a lot of them in dire situations with no promise of future hope. Everyday you have to deal with scammers and liars, looking to exploit you and score anything extra. Even some of the drop-in college students are when they promise to come back the following week, not even bothering to hide the "get me the hell out of here" expressions on their faces. (I know these people well, since I used to be one.) I'd like to think this general cynicism about people is limited to time spent at the kitchen, but in truth it carries over. I know I've become more suspicious and wary of people and situations in my daily life, and I don't like it.

The point is amongst all the shadiness and deceit and sadness, the fact that there exists something so pure and innocent as a little girl wanting to carry two heavy gallons of milk to give to people less fortunate...well, that just gets to me. What a tremendous father that girl has to be showing his daughter the importance of helping others at such a young age. I carry a mental snapshot of that girl and her father. Anytime I need a pick me up or a reminder that there is some good in the world, I think of them and can't help but smile. Thanks, Milk People.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

The Customers: Big Grandpa in the Wheelchair

I'd estimate that 10% of the people who eat at the soup kitchen are in some way disabled. There are a handful of amputees, and people who use wheelchairs. I was in the kitchen, ladling out soup (we actually do always serve soup with lunch) when I heard a commotion in the dining room. I look up to see a big, older black guy sitting in an automated wheelchair, trying to maneuver past the entranceway.

"Oh, it's big grandpa in the wheelchair!", Ruth said excitedly.

"Who?", I asked.

"Big grandpa in the wheelchair. It's what Joey calls him, so we all call him that now."

I understand immediately. Joey has a habit of coming up with endearing nicknames that stick.

"He is the nicest man! Hurry up and get him a plate!", Ruth tells me.

I go and serve him, and he is indeed very nice. He makes sure to thank me for the plate and say please when asking for hot sauce. Manners are sometimes in short supply amongst the customers. On this particular day, the most acknowledgment I got when serving was a few assorted grunts. Not that I expect anything, but a simple "thanks" goes a long way, and I usually remember the nice customers when it's time to hand out extra sack lunches.

I go back to the kitchen, waiting for people to finish up so I can serve more food, and just sort of stare at Big Grandpa. I'm guessing he's in his early fifties. While lively banter goes on at the table, Big Grandpa prefers to concentrate on his meat loaf. He has both legs, and wears a black windbreaker over an Army style t-shirt. I wonder what his story is.

Time and experience have taught me that most of the people that frequent the soup kitchen are there due to circumstances resulting from their own poor choices in life. Still, the part of me that is not completely jaded wonders if there aren't at least a few there because of bad luck. It's always the nice ones that I wonder about.

And so I start to paint a picture of Big Grandpa's life in my head. Ex-GI. Comes back from the war and works as a manual laborer, doing construction. He enjoys his life, but never finds anyone to settle down with. For fun he drinks and eats until one day years of unhealthy eating and drinking take their toll on his body in the form of diabetes. With poor circulation caused by the disease, he's forced into a wheelchair and can't really work. Disability payments aren't enough to get by, so he eats at the soup kitchen...

"Hey sunshine! You gonna sit on your ass all day or dish up more meat loaf?"

I'm jolted out of my daydream by the sound of Gus yelling at me. I go back to work. Time passes and the rush eventually slows down. Later as I'm sweeping up in the kitchen, Lewis (another of the regular customers) comes back to talk to me.

"Say, can I get another sack lunch..." he asks.

"I already gave you two, Lewis."

"It ain't for me...It's for Babymaker."

"Who?" I ask, eyebrows raised.

"Babymaker!", he exclaims, a little annoyed. He points. "That the wheelchair."

I follow the line of his finger straight to Big Grandpa.

"Why do you call him that?", I ask, unsure if I want to really know the answer.

"Because he like to make babies. He got 18 kids running around!"

I hand Lewis the sack lunch and sit down. Another illusion shattered...