A step away from the soup kitchen

soup_kitchenYesterday I spent a couple of hours volunteering at Village Temple’s soup kitchen.  Although I’ve made volunteering to help the less fortunate a part of my life over the past 12 months, it was my first time at a soup kitchen. I was shocked to see some of the hungry looked just like you and me.

There was a well-dressed, 50ish white man with a computer bag. I know the bag contained a computer because he accidentally hit with me it and I know what a computer feels like. There was a somewhat stylish black woman with buck teeth and a bad wig in her late 20s or early 30s. A 40ish black man with an MP3 player. A kind of cute, clean-shaven 35ish white man with a beautiful cognac-colored suede jacket and recent haircut.

If I saw any of these people walking down the street, there’s no way I would have thought they lunched at a soup kitchen that day. Although they were in the minority in a room where some of the hungry carried all of their belongings with them in beat-up suitcases and large, blue Ikea bags, seeing people like me was a reality slap that we’re all just a step away from being one of them in these trying economic times.

As I gave the very grateful black woman several pieces of cornbread, I couldn’t help but smile when I overheard a man sitting across from her saying, “Girlfriend, you need to go to there. You can get a shearling coat and some nice shoes. They have the best clothes.” The less fortunate were networking on the top places to get used clothes just like the privileged would talk about a new boutique on Madison Avenue!

What an an eye-opening experience.

And I was in demand because I carried around trays of cornbread, the best thing the soup kitchen offered, according to one regular.

One older Jewish man knew the way to get more cornbread from me. “Are you a movie star?” he asked me. “You look like a movie star.” I must have dropped 15 pieces of cornbread into his wrinkled, brown paper bag over the next hour. He asked me if I was Jewish and when I told him no, he told me that Whoopi Goldberg is Jewish, to which another hungry female said that Whoopi was married to a white man who was Jewish and that she really wasn’t Jewish but Sammy Davis Jr., was. Then he told me that Barack Obama was a Muslim, which I refuted. On my next trip by he asked if I was Muslim.

I asked one mop-haired man where he was from because I couldn’t pick up his accent. “Slovenia,” he replied with a smile. I told him I know Slovenia and once was so close to its border on the Italian side that I received a text message on my mobile welcoming me to his country.  When he asked me for third and fourths on the cornbread, I said, “I bet you don’t have cornbread like this in Slovenia, do you?” He said his country’s was better and we laughed. When it came time to leave, I said, “Bye Mr. Slovenia.”

The man with the suede jacket only wanted a couple of pieces of cornbread and didn’t bother taking any to go like many of the others. Computer man wanted no cornbread at all.

I took a deep breath and sighed out loud as I looked around the room and watched people pack styrofoam cups of hot soup to go, stuffed cookies and cornbread in plastic and brown paper bags and finished the last of their warm coffee. The last to leave was a well-dressed white woman, around 50. She wore a pretty green hat and matching coat. Her makeup was properly applied. She refused to rush, even after a big, burly Latino told everyone a few times that they had to leave.  She ate meticulously, as if feasting at a fine restaurant.

It was a beautiful, sunny day for a stroll but I wondered where these people would sleep that night when the temperatures dipped to the 20s. I guessed some would go to shelters; others to homes where they were facing eviction and with empty refrigerators.

I felt sheepish raking the cornbread crumbs into the huge trash cans. It seemed so wasteful with so many hungry people here. But I told myself that everyone had cornbread and them some. These were just the crumbs. Still, it didn’t seem right.

I came home, took a chicken breast out of the freezer for the next day and thanked God that I was a server today instead of a recipient.


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