“Katie’s out there,” I overheard someone tell Lee.
He stood like a bouncer at the end of the line where the trays were handed through the window. He nodded dispassionately as people picked up their dinners, one by one. Sometimes he recognized someone who’d been in line before.
“No seconds,” Lee told them. This was only the first shift. There had to be enough for everyone.
Katie had been escorted out the week before. Unruly behavior is what we overheard. She was back again, had been spotted in the parking lot, stomping and rubbing her hands together in the cold, waiting for the doors to open.
“She’s the one in the black hoodie.”
“We’ll see how she does,” he said.
This was not our first time serving dinner on these cafeteria-style trays. Each of us had a food item to place in its own section: corn here, a handful of salad in this one, a scoop of rice and some stroganoff thing in the biggest compartment, careful not to dribble over all the rest. Pass it down. Hand it over.
Colin isn’t crazy about the task, though it’s only once a month. It’s not far from home, something we can all do – quality family time, and all. And it’s somewhere we’re actually needed; among dozens of small groups filling regular shifts. In and out. Thank you. No thank you.
But Colin is wary. Someone might give him a look, or walk by talking to himself, or ask for a second cookie.
Or someone, like Katie with her black hoodie (not too much older than our kids), might get herself removed from the dining room for unruly behavior.
I like greeting people people as they pass, just a hey, or how’s it going? A chance to be a non-sucky part of someone’s day, if nothing else. As if maybe it matters when someone makes eye contact and smiles, when otherwise you’re invisible.
As they pass, some buck the stereotypes, some own them: the well-groomed man with a collared shirt and a breast pocket pen like my dad used to carry; the scruffy, shuffling, old guy; the young man with gages in his years and flat-billed cap; the woman with tired eyes and hoop earrings.
Katie with her black hoodie.
Some say hello back. Some say thank you. Some say “no rice.” One guy starts talking about how the Holy Spirit lives in him, and fills him up, and keeps him from being hungry. Most of what he says is unintelligible because of the kitchen fan and the radio.
But I nod like I can hear.
Lee tells us: some have jobs, some don’t. Some are in a program, with a bunk down the hall, or an apartment upstairs, staying clean, towing the line. Some won’t stay. The rules bind, the walls close in. There’s a tree under the bridge down the street, decked out for the holiday, poking up from piled luggage and sleeping bags and a barrel that smolders. Some sleep there.
I can’t tell who is who just by looking. Dinner is open to everyone. No seconds.
Later I’m at the grocery store. My lack of organization makes an almost daily visit necessary to dole out ten, twenty, fifty bucks at a time. It’s the season where customers are invited to pull a tag off a stack, adding a dollar or five or ten to their bill for people in need.
I demur to the dollar tag most days. It’ll add up, surely. I’m here nearly every day.
Really, nearly every damn day.
That I’m here is a luxury. My resources not stretched too thin. I can restock those bananas I let rot. I can let the boys tag along knowing they’ll talk their way into a bag of chips or a can of pop.
So my dollars, even just one at a time, must add up, I reason. And when the cashier forgets to ask, I ask her to add the tag for a buck.
“Thanks for bringing that up,” she says. Oh shoo, I’m embarrassed. It’s a dollar, but we’re here every damn day. They must add up.
“No,” she says, “it’s the people who get angry I ask.”
Angry. With her. For asking.
Asking for a dollar.
For hungry people.
“I’m not in a position to support those people,” they tell her, and other things so callous it takes my breath away.
“If they can’t afford children, they should stop having sex.”
So I grab another tab. Add another dollar.
For the one who, when asked for help, couldn’t just say no, not right now, and leave it at that.
For the one who looks down her nose at the woman using the EBT card for Cap’n Crunch.
For the Facebook post that wonders how the mom using food stamps can afford an iPhone.
For Katie, not much older than my own children. Katie, who did make it through the line that night, after all, with the tray full of food we’d tried not to slop, with the donated cookie placed carefully by my shy son.
For Katie who said thank you, and then sat down without looking up.
Photo by David Dennis