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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.

23 Comments:

Anonymous katie said...

FINALLY an update!!! :)

10:45 PM  
Blogger jennifer said...

I have only just started to read your blog,and have found it very endearing. Blog on...

6:53 AM  
Anonymous Geoff said...

Are you ever going to tell Ruth and Sally about the lying grandma?

10:36 AM  
Anonymous katie said...

i was wondering the same thing as jeff?

9:08 PM  
Blogger Steve said...

Glad you're writing again. I hate the feeling you get when you find out that someone you've been helping has been scamming you.

2:52 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Welcome back!

6:00 AM  
Anonymous Tejal said...

I just discovered your blog and I love your stories! Do write more frequently!

12:01 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

you should of called that old woman out your taking away food from people who deserve it if you dont

10:31 AM  
Blogger Henny Penny said...

I worked in an area of social services in CU during school and got so hardened by being lied to and people trying to get extra at every turn. At first I was really sympathetic, but after a year I was very much hardened to their problems. Kind of sad.

6:18 PM  
Blogger Sous Gal said...

"Luckily we always have enough leftovers from crews of other days, so no one ever has to go hungry."


If you were put in the position of denying others food because Grandma was "scamming" you, that'd be one thing. BTW that rarely is the case. You know this. I'm pointing it out for others.

There is a lot of information missing about Grandma here. Where does she live? A rooming house? A mansion? Under a bridge? What is her source of income. A pension? Investment dividends?

She eats your food - and oh yes you feel that it IS your food - half as often as anyone else. Does she ever eat any other time? Are your soup kitchen meals her only source of food? Maybe so.

It's important and responsible to value the food, as you do. Is it just as important to value the people in need?

I'm hoping it's just your age and naivete that you bring with you in your charitable work. That edge of "people who deserve it get fed" and that your view of the work isn't a result of training from the people running the place.

Yours isn't a unique approach or viewpoint in working with the poor. For that alone I hope you keep writing of your experiences. They provide great fodder for educating the general public about the misendeavours of people providing charitable services that aren't, really, so charitable.

12:34 PM  
Blogger Sous Gal said...

One other quick thought. Does your soup kitchen not offer any type of advocacy work for people in need? A soup kitchen is a great place to strike up conversations and relationships that lend themselves to offering more than a meal to help a person change their circumstances, if only in a small way.

Lieing and cheating and stealing, not that we know this is what Grandma was doing, but another commenter made mention of, are survival skills. When you have nothing and no one you do what you can.

Treat a person in need with respect and confidence and kindness and you'll be surprised about the difference you can make in their lives beyond a meal.

12:41 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Love the blog...there is one too many interesting persons outthere!..

3:48 PM  
Blogger n said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

11:59 PM  
Anonymous katie said...

haha sous gal got PWNED!!!

4:34 PM  
Blogger Sous Gal said...

Who was disrespected by her getting more food? You because she lied to you? The fact that she lied to the volunteers? You broke the rules because her story tugged on your heart strings. You know that other people in need saw this. The indignation in your post smacks of hypocrisy. You broke the rules you expect the “customers’ to abide by.

Grandma found a way to get an extra meal. There is more than enough food to go around so just what was gained?

I understand your position of “she scammed us”. It’s a common response to people doing charitable work who expect people in need to be grateful. Don’t question our decisions or program. Just accept what we offer and say thank you.

The people in your soup kitchen have nothing. And yet, you treat them as less than intelligent people. She found a way to get more food and you decide that she, the woman with very little, is a scammer.

What’s an extra meal compared to a real scam that has monetary value on a scale that could actually propel someone out of poverty. A true con artist would find a way to get some real cash. Not an extra lunch.

As for the advocacy work, providing a bed isn’t advocacy work.

My comments aren't meant to be argumentative. They are meant to engage some discussion and contemplation of the nature of charitable work and what that can entail. Your blog, sharing your experiences, offers such a wonderful venue for those discussions. At least that is my hope.

2:07 PM  
Blogger Sous Gal said...

An example of what could be advocacy work, using just this situation with Grandma.

Rather than become incensed that she pulled one over on you, what about sitting down with her in a quiet corner.

Something along the lines of "Grandma? I'm (give your name). There might be something more we can help you with. Do you mind if we talk a little? Completely confidentially of course."

Once you gain her trust and reassure her that nothing bad or punitive will happen to her, continue with finding more about her situation. Is she receiving the benefits that she is entitled to? Is she actually caring for relatives or children? Does she have a medical condition? Is she on the type of benefits that will pay for her medicines?

These are just suggestions, not knowing her or her situation. The point is that you and the other volunteers are in a position to have that conversation with her. To find out if there is something more that can be done to help her out.

If there is nothing more that can be done, this is at least an opportunity to tell her kindly (if you know for a fact that she isn't supporting others) that she will have to restrict herself to just her meals, no more "to go". If there are others who need to be fed, they can come with her or on their own.

Helping when you can, setting boundaries when you can't, and engaging that person in the decision making process is a pretty good way of preventing what's called "compassion fatigue".

2:18 PM  
Anonymous nycgal said...

I gotta agree with sous gal. I help run a soup kitchen in New York, and when I started there 13 years ago, we had a substantial number of elderly women who came to us. These women who raised their families in the neighborhood have been dying out, and we recently lost the most cantakorous of the group, and though she had caused me years of grief, I'm sad.
My personal belief is that as dignified as we try to make our soup kitchen, coming there to eat is not easy, and the only means test we need is the willingness to come to our door. We have a number of people who try a number of ways to get us to circumvent our rules, and while I, as a leader in the organization, have to be hard-hearted and deny those requests, I never begrudge anyone for trying. We have had people blatantly try to "steal" food. I prevent this from happening in order to preserve fairness and therefore peace, but I would never think of people as "scammers". They are hungry and they are trying to get more food. I can summon no righteous anger about that.

And my every effort to keep our elderly women from taking more than their share is about protecting them from anger from other guests, not because I begrudge them taking extra food. I don't begrudge anybody wanting to take extra food.

Seriously, thinking of your desperate guests as scammers is pretty disturbing.

9:18 PM  
Blogger Amanda said...

I've been a lurker for a while, but had to chime in on these last few comments. I was homeless for about three years. I routinely took advantage of the kindness and compassion of others and there were many like me. At some point I took a long hard look in the mirror and realized what I had become and made an effort to change my ways. It was a very long struggle but I made it. I now run a small soup kitchen outside of Dallas and have been there for the last 11 years.

Scammers are a way of life. There is a marked difference between people who truly need extra food and people who think they are ENTITLED to it and will do anything to get it. The latter are scammers and the grandmother in this story sounds like a textbook case.

NYCgal, I agree with you that anybody who truly needs extra food should not be begrudged an attempt to obtain it. But from N's comments he/she makes it clear that they provide a lunch and a takeway meal every day. The grandmother could have taken a sack meal like everyone else and come back the next day for more. You may think that thinking of the guests as scammers is disturbing- I think it is a harsh reality.

Sousgal, I don't know what type of liberal utopia fantasyland you live in. Having seen things from both sides of the shelter, N's attitude is exactly as it should be.

N, whoever you are, keep up the good work. I think it's commendable that you volunteer on top of being a full time graduate student. Please keep writing! All of us down here at our kitchen look forward to your posts!

8:24 PM  
Blogger Sous Gal said...

My liberal utopia would be more than twenty five years of working with people in need, including running shelters and drop ins for homeless people, in large and small cities.

Trying to get more from a position of almost total powerlessness does not, in mine and so many others' minds, a scammer make.

Perhaps it's just the choice of the word used to describe the activity and behaviour of the guests violating rules and policies that feels so offensive to some of us.

For myself I know that a large part of feeling offended is that I spent a goodly portion of my early years homeless. I feel a kinship with the people I try to work with. When they are referred to as "scammers" the reference is taken somewhat personally. It's the same as using any deragatory term sweepingly applied to any group of people.

I am far too aware of the thinking and experiences that contribute to the mindset of calling someone a "scammer". In my management work running shelters and drop ins the executive directors routinely hired me for my compassion and different methods of working with people in need. I felt they were progressive and changing existing and entrenched positions of those in this field was no easy task.

Even while enforcing rules and policies the guests can be treated with respect and dignity. It's all in the approach. Referring to someone as a scammer negates any respect or dignity and that will be evident.

I and nycgal offer alternatives and I hope some thought and consideration will be given since we, too, are on the frontlines.

11:20 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

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12:03 PM  
Anonymous nycgal said...

amanda - feeling "entitled" to food does not mean that a person doesn't actually need food. And for that matter, lying to get extra food doesn't necessarily signal that someone feels "entitled". In fact, it indicates to me that that person does not feel entitled. Based on n's story, I have to say that grandma doesn't seem like a person who thinks she's "entitled"; she seems like someone who wants more food because she's hungry. He caught her eating the food shortly after the meal service, not hoarding it in her closet.

As I said several times in my post, I say no to people all the time. I enforce the rules in the face of people calling me "unchristian", "b%^$" and worse. We have a number of elderly women who don't speak english who try to brush past other people to the head of the line, and I have perfected my hand gestures for "you have to go to the back of the line". When that fails, I have been known to say to such women, "You don't realize - I'm really mean. I won't serve you lunch if you don't get in line." I am not a softy to be taken advantage of.

But, for the most part, I don't look at people who are aggressively trying to get extra food as scammers. They're just people trying to get by.

5:22 PM  
Anonymous Rhiannon said...

did u find out if the grandma is really lying?

7:35 PM  
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1:27 PM  

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