I was having one of those days. One of those days you have as a self-employed person where you wonder if the business will ever pick up.
So I went into town, and there was my friend Maria on the outside patio of a popular restaurant. Maria was the person you saw at every charity event. She was that ubiquitous volunteer in my community who, even when disappointment and death visited her, she always threw herself into community work. She asked me to join her for lunch. While we were eating, I bombarded her with my latest worries about my career. “I am trying to earn! Am I not blessed? Am I attracting this bad luck?” Maria nodded her head and laughed at my goings-on.
In the middle of my pity party, a gal named Amanda came up and began ranting at us. Maria seemed to know her. Amanda was forty-plus, wearing a short skirt with high heel boots, her teeth were pointed, a couple of tattoos, with most of her hair dyed blonde. I say “most” because there was a patch on top of her head, dyed black. It made her look like she was wearing a bowl on top of her head as if she belonged to some strange cult.
Amanda was talking slow, trying to keep her words inside her skin, her medication factoring into her slowed-down response. She told us this long, meandering story about how she was walking around town when a van almost hits her, so she called the cops. “Icalledthecops” is said like it’s one word. She was so worked up; she sat on the sidewalk next to us on the outdoor patio. We invited her to join us, but she was not surrendering the cigarette stuck between hertwo teeth. She finished the complaint and blew a plume into the midday sun and walked on down the street.
Maria mentioned Amanda was someone she had met at the Morningstar Mission. “We serve lunch every Tuesday. You should come and help out.” “Yes, wouldn’t that be nice.” That was code for ‘Isn’t that nice?” I had no plans to join her. No, I was against serving the poor. Besides, I had to get home and worry some more about becoming poor.
The next morning, I woke up, depressed, and still no word on whether I was going to get that job. I could not spend another day checking my email.
So I went into Morning Star Mission, not because I wanted to do charity work but because I couldn’t stand one more minute inside my addled brain.
I arrived at the Mission with a good, strong coffee. If I was going to be of help, there was no point in not being suitably caffeinated. Maria gave me a “hello,” and quick introductions were made. A woman called Rita handed me a hairnet and an apron and said, “I know your mom from the Church.” I wasn’t sure if she was making small talk or warning me to behave myself. Maria piped up, “You can help me scrub these potatoes.” I began peeling curlicues of skin away from me into a bowl of water. Even when scraping potato skins, my perfectionism was riding my ass. What if I don’t scrub the potatoes, accurately? What if that woman from the church kicks me out for not cleaning the eyes of the vegetables? Well, screw her! I am doing my best. Better people have criticized me than her. If she can sympathize with the poor and not with the volunteers, I’ll leave. That’s what I will do. God, the woman hadn’t even said a word, and I was writing a complete backstory for her.
I started asking people about themselves. One man ran a restaurant and cooked here for free one day a week. Another woman was a world traveler, and then there was a guy who was one of those men who knows better than you. He looked at how we were cutting the potatoes and said, “His circular potatoes would cook faster.” I ignored him. It felt so good to be doing something more than thinking of myself. Fifteen minutes in, we are all laughing and talking about local politics. The food was cooking, making the kitchen feel like a sauna. Within minutes, droplets of water were pouring down my forehead.
“Callthecops” Amanda and her oddly shaped hair were in the dining room sweeping the floors, and laying out cutlery for the sixty-plus people that were about to descend upon the place for lunch. She took her job seriously. Maria told me that Amanda started doing community hours here after a stint at Quinte Detention centre. I wanted to ask what she was in for? Bad fashion? Or “callingthecops” one too many times.
Maria said, “She is being certified.” I don’t know what kind of certification you get for laying out cutlery, but she was doing an excellent job of it.
By 11:30 am, hungry people were at the door, knocking. We quickly put the food out in big warming trays. Some folks were quiet with their eyes down as you served them. Some smiled and did the “hi-how-are-doing-today?” Some were indignant, asking if these were real potatoes? “I don’t like that powdered shit,” they’d say. Others acted as if they would never see food again and scooped so much food on their plates, they could barely carry it to the table. Some took two plates for their friends that couldn’t make it to the luncheon because the church basement is not wheelchair accessible.
I was in charge of the vegetables. Frozen vegetables are the only color in the white meal. I scooped them onto the plates of those that were willing to take them. If you are on veg duty, you soon find out that vegetables can’t compete with turkey and potatoes. Or certainly, with cheese sauce.
After the group is served, Maria instructs me, “Grab some food for yourself and eat with people.” I had planned to have a low carb day, but I would look unfriendly if I didn’t eat.
I take a plate of turkey and sit down with some of the community members Tim and Gloria, and as we sit, they say, “You’d pay good money for lunch like this if you ordered it in a restaurant.”
They tell me, “We couldn’t afford to live out in the country anymore, not with the gas prices the way they are. Not with the SUV.”
“ You have an SUV?” I asked.
“ It was given to us. It’s a curse.” He said.
I nodded, thinking how could they afford the insurance alone.
Tim adds, “I don’t believe in handouts. I cut the grass for the church paying his way. God worked it out. God and Minister Dave.”
I finish my plate and begin delivering the mound of donuts to the tables. In my limited experience, there is never a shortage of donuts in the soup kitchen.
After everyone has had their fill, I collect dirty plates and deliver them to the kitchen. Maria says her back hurts. She’s been volunteering for decades, and so I should have said, “Oh, you sit down and let me clean up.” But the truth was, I don’t want to be there anymore. I’d hit a wall for helping people.
I took off my hairnet, and when I got to the parking lot, I realized the rain had stopped. The air was clean and grey. Tim’s SUV was parked sideways in the lot.
For some reason, I am glad it’s only a ’98.
That night, I stare at my vision board that affirms, “I easily attract 100,000 dollars.”
I woke up the next day, and I was still broke, but I didn’t feel as bad about myself. In fact, the amount in my bank account didn’t change at all; my eyesight did.
It was a subtle shift. I found that when I walked downtown, I began to see a whole group that I knew from the mission. Callthecops Amanda and I were greeting us every day. And these people must have been there before, but until I went to the mission, they had just been in the background. Now I couldn’t miss them, and I was glad. It was like when you learned a new word, and then you saw it in print everywhere.
The next few Tuesday mornings, I showed up to the Morning Star Mission and felt better after each time I left.
A few Tuesdays later, I went in to find there were too many volunteers, and they were going to send me home.
“Calledthecops” Amanda said, “You can go on home.”
I began to get anxious. I couldn’t go home. This was Tuesday. Tuesday was my day to help. So in a moment of panic, I asked if I could clean out the soup cupboard.
In the small walk-in cupboard, next to the big kitchen, were hundreds of cans of food that had expired. So I asked (okay, begged) the team leader if I could sort it out.
“Get Eileen to help you.”
She pointed to a tall, awkward woman, about 40, who looked like her body went through a growth spurt while she slept. Her sleeves hit way above her wrist, and her pants show the tops of her socks. She wore a white sweater that looked like she stole it from a child’s doll. I smiled at her, and Eileen smiled back at me, a big toothy grin.
The two of us squeezed into the cupboard and began the cull. As Eileen grabbed a big garbage bag to fill, I muttered on about how I couldn’t understand why people donated such out-dated food. Eileen bowed her head and watched as each soup can got dropped into the garbage bag.
I asked her what she’d been up to lately, and she said she just got out of Quinte Detention Centre.
“Oh, good for you. That’s nice.”
Nice? Damn it. Why don’t I just shut up?
Two questions came to mind. One: were Amanda and she in the joint together?
And two: could anyone hear me scream should Eileen get triggered by small claustrophobic spaces?
“So, working here is to help work down your community hours?”
We filled one bag after another. She would open the top of each of the green bag with her teeth.
I reached up to her mouth and helped her pull it apart and then she’d hold the bag, and with each can landing in the bag, she made bombing noises.
I began to laugh, and our eyes met. And softly, she said, “I’m hungry.”
“Me too. But I think lunch will be ready soon.”
“I mean, I need food. Could I take some of this?” She points to the cans we are throwing out. “I have nothing in the cupboard till Friday.”
“Oh. Oh well then. Let’s get you some things. Pick what you want.”
She looks down at the garbage bag she is holding,
“I will take the expired stuff.”
“You will not take the expired stuff,” I sounded cross. I was using my “mother voice.” The one I used when my kids used to want to go outside without their coats on.
“Let’s get you some safe food. Grab that box over there.”
I pointed to a pile of flattened boxes tossed in the corner, which she grabs, and as she taped up one of the boxes, I thought how simply she asked.
I am hungry. I need food.
A simple statement. And unapologetic request.
Like a Home Ec teacher, I looked for food that might offer a degree of sustenance. I dropped cans of Chili and split pea soup in the box for her, reasoning these would have some protein count.
But she pulled them out. The tomato soup is the only one she wants. I look for canned vegetables — better-canned vegetables than no greens at all. I put three cans of beans and peas in the box, and she trades them for an equal number of canned creamed corn.
When we have her box full, she asks, “Do you mind if I have some cake mixes, too?”
“My gosh, take whatever you like.” I am very generous with other people’s rations.
She takes two cake mixes and a container of pre-made icing.
“I want to make cupcakes for everyone as a surprise for the Thursday lunch.”
I begin to cry and have to turn away from her. I pretend I am searching for more cans to donate.
Suddenly I feel two arms around my waist.
The first thought I had was, this is where I die. Maybe her crime was murdering someone for having privilege!
“Thank you,” she says. “Thank you. Thank you for everything.”
“No, no. I didn’t do anything.”
I didn’t turn to face her.
Then I felt her lay her head on my back.
“I am so happy,” she burbled.
I stood there, frozen.
“Lunch is going to be served soon. We better get a move on.”
After a few seconds more, she loosened her grip and put her stash next to her coat.
“I don’t want the bastards out there to steal it.”
Which is a wise move because people take anything that isn’t nailed down.
After I got home, I found out I didn’t get the job I was up for.
But surprisingly it didn’t sting that much.
I thought about how lucky I was even to be presented with these opportunities.
I thought about Eileen and how she had taught me something that day. She taught me how to ask for help. And now I needed to talk to some people in my business and get some help.
And before I got into bed that night, I thought about how ridiculous this helping game is.
It’s like we are all playing our parts in a high school play.
At the soup kitchen, I played the role of the volunteer. And Eileen got cast in the part of the person I helped. The truth is she helped me far more than I helped her by teaching me how to ask for help.
Sometimes we are the helpers. Sometimes we are the ones who are helped. But by the end of our lives, we have played all the parts.
HEY ALL YOU SECRET SOCK SANTAS
Thank you all for your generosity! As of December 2nd I’ve received over 1500 dollars in cash donations to buy socks. Foot health is vital for people who are undersheltered. And shelters go through a LOT. And I believe I will be able to buy 300 pairs of socks, for Sistering, 519 Church Street Community Centre in Toronto and Morningstar Mission in Napanee. If you want to donate to this initiative please email me. OR donate in your own community. 20 dollars can buy 5 pairs of wool blend socks. ( Please do not buy cotton)