Wednesday, November 03, 2010

A Humbling Halloween

I spend Halloween afternoon at Glide Memorial Church, meal service. I’m with a group of 20 other volunteers from One Brick. We liberate and pop open the soft tiny bags that contain our instant uniform: 1 prison grade hairnet, 1 pair oversized garbage bag gloves, 1 see thru lunch lady apron. Our nametags, "Hello, My Name is..." scream awkwardly underneath the plastic aprons as we tie the transparent arms over our clothes.

“The end of the month is the hardest for folks when money is tight. It’s the last day of the month. They’re trying to do what they can to stretch what they have. Hard times, you know. You gotta do, what you gotta do.” A man named James tells us.

He’s short, built like a heavyweight boxer, tats on both forearms, black t-shirt, black pants, black cap, brown eyes. He could take us all down. He portrays the image of a tough guy from el barrio, but his tone and manner of speaking betrays him. I later learn that James is among the core Glide volunteer staff – men and women, who have benefited from Glide’s community services. They volunteer too, their way of giving back.

“So, I’ll take you to the back. We’ll get about a thousand people at lunch today. Help out where it’s needed and have a good time guys.”

James takes us to the main eating area. There are so many volunteers that our bodies instantly create a traffic jam as we head towards the silver counter and trash bins for the empty trays and cups. The sound of the dining hall grows louder as the lunch service begins. I can’t hear what James says anymore. One of the volunteers in the front closest to James relays his message.

She says, “if there is an empty water pitcher, fill it. Take away the tray. Clean the tables and make people feel comfortable.” She’s a young woman from the East Bay, short hair and thick cool glasses. Her efficient words show that she’s volunteered before.

The message gets passed back quickly, an imaginary phone placed, ear to ear until everyone knows what to do and our line disperses into an army of bees flying in all directions.

People are now starting to pour onto the banquet tables and green chairs.

I feel slightly nervous and out of place.

My eyes fall first on the senior citizens, mostly Asian women and men. This is the hardest for me to take in. They’re the age of my parents. I look away and take a deep breath. I think about the Glide Ensemble singers, their uplifting voices as I walked in earlier this morning. Their colorful orange robes and hand clapping words, the airy vibration of joy that pins me grounded, “Cele...a..bration,”

A man stuffs the entire contents of his blue tray, a baked chicken thigh, mashed potatoes, broccoli and bread into a plastic baggie. In less than a minute, he stands up and walks away.

I snap into action and take his tray from him and smile.

“Thank you. Take care.” I don’t know what to say but he smiles back and says, “Thank you, honey. Alright.”

With such a simple exchange, my heart quietly sings.

There are folks who are clearly homeless. But most are just struggling to make ends meet. There are the wanders some with hiking bags, roller luggage, backpacks. Some are teenagers, runaways perhaps. There are the occasional eccentrics in tattered suits and ties, an African American man with a scarf; he looks like Langston Hughes, I offer to fill his cup with more water. There’s another man, Tom Hanks in Philadelphia with smudged mascara. A man in a beehive wig and red lipstick, a purple teddy bear hangs from his purse. Every now and again, I’ll see women. One sits alone with large Jacky O sunglasses, gray turtleneck. She speaks to herself as she eats. She doesn’t want anyone to touch her tray when she’s done. She insists on clearing it herself. A sense of pride.

A man eats standing up. He doesn’t want anyone near him.

Quickly a crowd of people form, shuffling for a place to sit. I start to help navigate those to empty spots. A Latino man, he’s searching, I put my hand lightly on his shoulder to guide him. He snaps his shoulder away from my hand, fiercely, showing  “back off, don’t touch me”.

He’s territorial. I’m surprised but give him his space. 

A year ago, I would have taken many things personally. But I don’t now. I know people are struggling to survive. As best I can, I push away discouragement. 

There’s no time to react and I see a finished tray and grab it to put it away. The dining hall is so crowded with people that sometimes all we can do as volunteers is to take each other’s trays and relay them back to the end of the room where they are stacked and carted away to another part of the kitchen for washing.

A man drops a key, his ID and hat.

“Excuse me! Sir! You dropped your things. Sir!”

I lean down grab desperately for his key with my plastic gloves. He talks back in Spanish. I can’t understand the words but he repeats them. Finally, I take off my glove, grab the key and put it into his hand. He repeats his words again. But I shake my head and smile. Finally, I hear “Gracias.”

Nicky, a Glide volunteer comes from behind me and whispers, “Honey, be careful of him. He’s a pervert. He tried to touch me last week. He’s no good. Be careful.”

“Ok, thanks.” I’m grateful for her caring.

The baked chicken gets devoured quickly, then the potatoes. People are leaving behind their broccoli and small green pears the size of my small fist. I start to save the pears from the trash bins. I put them into an over sized salad bowl that quickly over flows. Before I know it, all the volunteers start to save the pears too.

“All you need to do is make a crumble with all the pears.” I tell one of the volunteers closest to me. He’s got a red cap and blue eyes. He looks like Chucky, a weathered version.

“What’s that?” He grins.

I’m surprised by his response.

“It’s like a pie. If we made crumble, the pears would be gone in a second.”

“Oh, ok, sounds good.” Says Chucky. He takes my empty tray and takes the blue cup.

There’s a bucket of washcloths. The water is dirty, but I grab a washcloth anyway. My washcloth becomes my companion, when in doubt, wipe the table.

Chucky comes to me and starts grinning. He pulls my arm closer to his. I don’t understand his words. “Man you have no idea what just went down. Man, no idea.” He pulls me closer.  His breath is stale and fetid. I turn my face away; his words are erratic and nonsensical. I’m confused but I manage to break away from him and grab an empty water pitcher at a near by table.

“Don’t worry. He’s a good guy. I think he just likes you.” Nicky says comforting me.

“So do you have any kids sweetheart?” She asks.

Nicky stands a little shorter than me with a cherub face.

“2 dogs and a husband. You?”

“1 kid. 14 ½. “

“No way! You look too young.” I tell her.

“How old do you think I am?... Guess.”

“I dunno. 23.” I charm her.


I realize that we’re both about the same age. She removes her cap and shows me a couple of white hairs amidst her short wavy mane that’s jet black. She puts her cap back on and pours water for new folks that have just sat down. She has a sense of tenderness and an easy laugh that lights up others around her.

I relieve her of a tray she’s carrying and from that moment on, I watch out for her and help her whenever I can. I lift many trays from her and relay them back.

“Hurry up, you have to move faster than that if you’re going to be my wife.” One of the volunteer says. His skin is sun-kissed, a native cowboy with shoulder length hair.

“My husband never complains.” I say back jokingly.

“Oh, I’m sure he doesn’t. You better hurry up, cupcake.”

On his nametag, the words Joe Smith are written in elementary cursive. I wonder if it’s his real name. As he speaks, his lips reveal missing teeth.

People keep pouring in. The trays start to look all the same to me, new, finished. I can’t tell the difference anymore. I start to feel overwhelmed.

I stand next to Joe for a quick breather.

“Come on smile. It’s Halloween.” I notice he’s a little down.

“Sorry, I’ve had a tough week and I need to clean my gun tonight. Trick or treat for sure.”

The words are strange but I’m off to pick up another tray before they make any sense.

A flying tray misses my face.

I hear Joe shout at the person behind me.

“Hey, you need to watch where you’re going!!!”

I wonder about Joe and his current state. I wonder if he does have a gun or if its a sign of street bravado, a way of talking, expressing "hey, don't mess with me".  But his actions show nothing but a sense of deep caring. I watch him wipe the tables. He works diligently. 

I notice now that the salad bowl can not take in any more saved pears.  A volunteer gives me a larger container and I start to transfer the pears. They still have their fresh odor. There’s a perfect one with the leaves still on the stem.

Sometimes my eyes randomly fall on some one else’s, sometimes the look is returned with defensiveness that tests, sometimes it’s intense and vaguely provocative, but often it’s indifferent and glazed. I become more careful and keep my eyes downcast.  I start to understand why the core volunteers have caps on; it works as a shield.

For the first time, the light shines in and brightens the basement.

People are cheering. The kitchen is closed. 3 hours fly by so quickly and before I know it; I follow all the One Brick volunteers like cattle to the lockers to retrieve our belongings. I run back and tell Nicky that it was a pleasure to know her and that I hope to see her again. I don’t find Joe.

“So did you have fun?” James asks. “Thanks for all your help guys.” I shake his hands.

The experience is a mix of emotions that I don’t know how quite to process as I walk back to my car.

Courage is the first thing that comes to mind. I realize how much courage it takes to line up and have a meal at Glide. How much courage it takes to have hope, to move on even when things around you look grim. I realize how tenderness, protection and kindness can be found in unexpected places. It’s all around us. When you feel it and pass it on, it comforts you and others around you. It lifts you and keeps you focused on getting the work done.

We fed 900 people that afternoon.

Glide is the only organization in the west coast that feeds people 3 meals a day, 365 days a year. It’s a special place.

Several of the core Glide volunteers invite me to join them afterwards to eat. They tell me, “you can’t really experience it until you eat the food.” I feel really bad that I’ve left them without sharing a meal together. Hopefully next time. But what they’ve given me is far more profound.

I begin to realize what it means to truly see someone not for who they are but who they hope to be.

By Mai Brehaut
Glide Church (taken by ethosmagazine)


Lan N. Bui said...

Beautiful descritive words. You really take me to the crowd as you describe the event so vividly, it's amazing. I can see your glowy, compassionnate face among the crowd. Every experience in life is precious, you are fabulous.

White Shell Girl said...

Thanks mommie :) The apple doesn't fall to far from the tree.


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