The little wiener dog hopped merrily up the church steps and lay down at my feet. Its long leash trailing down the stairs, the dachshund looked up at me with pleading eyes and a Mona Lisa half-smile. I might have bent over to rub its belly had not a volunteer worker from the Catholic Ladies’ Relief stepped out of the church vestibule at that very moment to thrust a clipboard into my hand.
I had to sign for the food boxes I was about to receive, listing my address and the number of people in my family. My eyes fell upon the line above, and I noticed that the last visitor had indicated his address as “Homeless.”
That’s when he came around the corner to retrieve his dog. Grabbing the leash, he called his canine partner by name, although I couldn’t understand the disembodied syllables. He was likely not much older than I, although he hadn’t a tooth in his mouth save a straggler or two. The story of how the remainder had escaped was burrowed in the deep lines and creases of his grizzled face. Shirtless as well as homeless, I could tell he had had a hard life. He looped the leash around one of the handlebars of his bicycle and pedaled off. As he disappeared back around the corner, I noticed his two food boxes, fifty pounds of aluminum cans, stacked in a wire basket attached to the back of the bike.
That was Monday, four days ago, but I think of the gentleman and his dog as I wait in yet another early morning food distribution line. I’m just a mile or two from the freeway and the shopping centers, but the wide swath of green athletic field on the other side of the chain link fence makes me feel as if I’m out in the country. Across the street is a low-income apartment complex, likely infested with vermin, while up the road is a similarly afflicted SRO motel where Pastor Mom visited a parishioner yesterday. The woman needed a ride to her previous place of residence to retrieve her clothes. She had lived there prior to her recent stint in the state mental hospital. Tomorrow we will go see her again, bringing along Kotex, headache pills and a box of clothes culled from the closets and bureaus of my wife and my mother-in-law. On the way, we will stop at the Burger King drive-through to bring her some food from the dollar menu.
But for now it’s Friday and all of us waiting in line on this grassy strip between the parking lot and the fence outside the American Legion hall are grateful to be able to obtain some free food, maybe even meat and fruit, before the start of the weekend. We are the beneficiaries of yet another U.S. Department of Agriculture distribution of foodstuffs to the poorest among us.
Pain and suffering is all around us, if only we would choose to see. It is there in the faces, just beyond the wan smiles and the mumbled “good morning”s. There are women and men, twentysomethings and senior citizens, some neatly dressed in sporty attire, others in filthy t-shirts and ratty old cutoffs. Some have been here dozens of times before; others, like myself, are first-timers. All of our stories are different, and all of them are the same. Gravity has dropped us to the bottom of the heap and tamped us down firmly. Illness, unemployment and family troubles are written in bold somewhere on the pages of our lives. Some of us are on fixed incomes; some of us receive $23 in Food Stamps each month. Some of us are mired in bureaucratic red tape, the holy grail of a Social Security disability check forever just out of reach. Some of us are homeless now or were at one time; some of us hang on to the roofs over our heads by our fingernails. Some of us live month to month, or week to week, or meal to meal. We dodge bill collectors and eviction notices and soothe our children, telling them it will all turn out alright. We may don a mask of stony stoicism that allows us to do what we have to do to feed our families. Just ask, however, and we will tell you all about what we’re going through. We have nothing to hide.
After yesterday’s debacle at the county “brown bag” food distribution, I have learned a thing or two. This time, I come prepared. I show up early, at 7:30 am. Already, all the parking spaces are taken. I pull up onto the grass next to a dirty red pickup that is unlikely to pass a smog test. About fifteen people are already in line. One group, apparently friends, converse animatedly. I greet them, mentioning that the food bank sent me. “The end of the line is over there,” a man among the group gruffly informs me. “Then to the end of the line I shall go!” I reply as cheerily as I can at this ungodly hour of the morning.
My supplies consist of a folding chair and a Walmart bag containing a bottle of water and a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. I have no idea whether I’ll be here for half an hour or until the middle of the afternoon. As Barbara from the food bank reminded me yesterday, “the truck gets there when it gets there.” I take her warning to heart.
Retreating to the end of the line, I open my metal chair and sit down. In front of me, a man and woman chat amiably about the relative merits of Ford trucks. I wave hello, take out my phone and attempt to mind my own business. About fifteen minutes pass and my neighbors each produce cigarettes and proceed to smoke. I am grateful that they have the courtesy to blow the smoke away from me. Soon, the man leaves the line, excusing himself by saying that he must sit down.
Without her partner in conversation, the woman begins chatting with me in short spurts interspersed with long periods of silence. I am unable to determine her age; she could be forty-five or sixty-five. She apologizes for her dirty t-shirt. No need, I assure her. I learn that she has two sons in college in Reno and that she cannot seem to convince them to take part-time jobs for minimum wage to help defray their expenses. She says she can’t afford the petrol to get up there to see them much. After a while, she mentions that her husband, who used to be a ranch cook, has been disabled and out of work for some time and was just recently diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. I tell her that I was laid off from work nearly nine months ago and that I have applied for 130 jobs without success.
Nearly an hour after I join the conga line, the food truck arrives. “There’s usually two,” my new friend informs me. And sure enough, five minutes later, truck number two shows up. Tables are set up and the slow process of unloading the trucks commences. Box after box is handed down from the trucks while workers hurriedly make up food bags. About ten more people have queued up behind me.
At 9:00, the line begins to slowly creep ahead. The chatty woman in front of me unfolds a miniature grocery cart on wheels. I stand up, drag my chair two steps forward and sit down again. I repeat this process about a dozen times before I approach the steps to the side entrance of the American Legion hall and I fold up my chair and lean it against my leg. Meanwhile, I have confided to my friend that I anticipate difficulty in carrying whatever food I am given to my car since I already have a heavy chair and a bag with me. “Stick with me,” she says, assuring me that she can squeeze the food bags for both of us into her little cart.
I climb the two steps into the foyer, noting the rest rooms I pass on my way into the main hall. I reach a table staffed by three workers, where I engage in the usual routine: Print your name, sign, list your address and the number in your family. But I notice an extra question on the form this time: Is this your first time here this month? “This is my first time here ever!” I assure the clerk. “Don’t worry, I’ll take care of that,” she tells me, handing me a food ticket.
The line moves through the building to an exit door on the other side, then down two more steps to the food distribution tables. To my surprise, I am handed a frozen turkey. At the next table, I receive a paper bag filled with canned goods, then an 18 pack of eggs. Noticing a bin of bananas, I reach out to take a few and am rebuffed. Only the workers are allowed to touch the foodstuffs. Bags of produce have already been prepared (a few potatoes, a bell pepper, a large beefsteak tomato, some brown bananas); I may have one or choose a watermelon instead.
A watermelon! Imagine that! My wife loves watermelon and I am rather a fan thereof myself. As I ask for the melon, a worker quickly grabs back the produce bag that she had thrust into my friend’s rolling basket. At the last table, I hand in my ticket. True to her word, my friend has arranged all of our food into her cart, tucking the two packages of eggs into the sides (only two of the eighteen eggs in my package end up breaking) and balancing the two watermelons on top. At each table, she tells the worker “I’ll take hers, too.” Although I have referred to my wife several times, mentioning that she is at home with the flu today, my friend appears to be confused about my gender.
She asks me where I am parked and we begin the trek back across the parking lot. I notice that about fifty people are now in line for food. Arriving at my car, my friend helps me unload the bags into the rear hatch. I thank her over and over again. I relate that I am overwhelmed by her generosity. She tries to hug me, which devolves into us giving each other a couple of pats on the back, somewhat embarrassedly. My gratitude notwithstanding, I have always been horrible at navigating social situations.
When my wife was with me at the brown bag food distribution yesterday, she referred to the woman who allowed me to briefly sit in her wheelchair as my “girlfriend.” “It’s good to have girlfriends,” was Pastor Mom’s pithy response.
Like Blanche DuBois in Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire, I will always be grateful for the kindness of strangers.