Friday, April 27, 2007

The Customers: Bill

The soup kitchen serves lunch 7 days a week. On Sundays, we open the doors at 11 and stop serving at 12:30. Depending on the weather and the time of the month, we average between 50 and 90 covers. (Good weather = more people, bad weather = fewer people, early in the month = fewer people, end of the month = more people) The dining room table only seats ten at a time, so the first hour of service is pretty hectic with people coming and going at uneven times. Customers start tailing off around 12, and we rarely get anyone after 12:15...except for Bill.

Bill is half asian and half white, and looks to be in his late thirties. He is balding and manages to cover it up by growing his hair long and combing it over. He wears glasses that are at least two sizes too large for his face, always has a small amount of stubble, and generally casts a lean figure, arriving on Sundays on his well worn bike. Bill has an uncanny ability to arrive just as we are making plans to pack up the leftovers and put them in the fridge. It's as if he has a sixth sense for the EXACT moment that we are getting ready to clean up. He did this to me four times in a row, and after that I've just given up and don't pack anything up until I see him at the table.

He also manages to annoy just about all of the volunteers except for a select few, to which I belong. I can see how Bill easily gets on the nerves of the regular volunteers. He asks an endless stream of questions, mostly about food preparation. As an example, when we had meat loaf a while ago he pestered Laurie (who is a grade school teacher, and has thus developed a strong tolerance to annoying questions) almost to the point of violence.

"How long did you cook the meatloaf? Did you put ketchup in it? Are these green peppers canned or fresh? Did you use a chef's knife to chop them? Who chopped them? Where were they harvested?"

(Note: These are his exact questions...I was in the kitchen when he rapid-fired them at Laurie, and tried to write them down as fast as I could. Judging from the amount of ink on the paper, these were only about a third of the questions he volleyed at her but my poor handwriting won't let me decipher the rest of the chicken scratch...)

Adding to his constant need for answers, is that Bill is a horrendously slow eater and always asks for seconds. Our general rule is that we don't give out seconds until the end of the service period. It is always a precarious balance of whether we have made enough food, so asking customers to come back at the end if they want more is the only move we can make to ensure no one goes hungry. But since Bill comes at the end (or later) we can't really make an excuse, and I feel bad saying no to him. Even though his personality turns people off, he always has good manners and I can't help but think that his questioning is just a result of him not really knowing any better or having the necessary social graces. (Either that or he is doing intentionally, enjoying he frustrated looks on the other volunteers' faces.)

After a while I was getting to be on decent speaking terms with Bill. Or at least he knew my name and I knew his, and he would never ask me the same things that he asked Ruth or Laurie. We settled into a routine where I'd have a hot plate of food waiting for him as soon as he came in and start sweeping the floor as he ate. Despite his slim build (5 ft 6, 140 or so lbs), Bill was a voracious eater and would concentrate on his food as I cleaned. By the time I was done, he'd ask for another plate and after I'd get it for him, I would go sweep out in the waiting area. He usually finished the second plate as I was finished sweeping, and would leave with a quick goodbye. At most we'd exchange a few pleasantries and just a bit of small talk. I was fine with it.

At the point if someone were to ask me my impressions of Bill, I would have gathered that he was a fully functioning individual who just happened to be a little slow. I'd seen him bike around campus every so often and concocted this vision that his mental impairment meant that he couldn't hold down a job... so he lived with his retired, elderly mom, who just wanted him out of the house during the daytime so she could enjoy a few hours to herself. Like a lot of fantasies, it got to the point where I accepted it as just a small departure from the actual truth of his situation.

One day as I was cleaning, Bill decided to break our routine and ask me about myself. From talking with the other workers, he knew I was a graduate student of some sort.

"What are you studying?", he asked.

"Engineering" I answer.

"What type?"

I told him.

He nodded, a glimmer of recognition in his eyes, and said- "That's a good department. I saw they fell out of the top 10 last year, but they're back in this year."

What the hell...How does he know this?

"Um yeah..that's right"

I resume cleaning, and start to wonder if I've misjudged him. I need to find out his story. The next week as we're cleaning, I start to ask Bill about his life. He tells me he's originally from California, but doesn't respond with much else. Over the next few months I try to pick my spots and find out anything more, but Bill is not willing to reveal more. I give up and put it out of my mind...

A few months later, I miss a Sunday to go to a friend's wedding. An e-mail from Ruth is waiting for me when I get back, explaining that Bill really acted up in my absence. As I get ready to e-mail back, a new message appears, from someone who volunteers on one of the other days. The first part of the e-mail advises on how to handle Bill, but it's the second part that is really interesting. I'm including parts of it below (with Xs to substitute for identifying details).

"Bill was an Honors Math student at XXX College... He came to our university to get a PhD in statistics about ten years ago and even had a National Science Foundation fellowship or something comparable...From what I heard he was a very successful TA and was progressing in research when he suffered some sort of mental breakdown that he is in complete denial about. A relative in California sends him money each month, and he manages to survive on that."

Wow...reading that e-mail was like watching an episode of Lost. I got an answer or two (his knowledge of graduate rankings now made sense), but was left with a lot more unanswered questions. What exactly happened? Did his family try and help him? How much longer can he survive like this?

Sadly, I haven't been able to find out much more. Bill remains a bit of an enigma, and represents only one of the many interesting customers that eat at the kitchen.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

The Regulars: Gus, Part 2

You all were introduced to Gus in my previous story. That story told one side of Gus. This one will tell another.

To give a little more background, Gus suffers from a wide assortment of ailments. In the years I have been volunteering, he has been hospitalized on six separate occasions. He has suffered a heart attack, needed a new pacemaker, gotten two heart valves replaced, and undergone two or three angioplasties. The guy has cheated death more times than Rasputin. In addition, Gus has chronic back pain, stomach and intestinal issues, and bad knees. All these problems understandably make Gus cranky. He's an old man and has certainly earned his right to be crabby, but sometimes he tries to do too much and play the martyr. Each week, we usually do a pickup of food from one of the local grocery stores. Gus usually handles this. Soon after I started volunteering, Gus was in a particularly foul mood (he had an angioplasty a few days prior) so I volunteered to do the pickup. Gus wasn't having any of it.

"No thanks...I can do it myself."

"Are you sure? I'm almost done prepping lunch.", I said.

"Let him do it Gus...You need to take a break and take a rest. You shouldn't be moving around too much", Ruth chimed in. Ruth is another one of the regulars, also a nurse, and has known Gus the longest. She's usually the voice of reason for him. Not on this day...

"I said I'm gonna do it!", he yelled. "Just make sure when I get back you help me unload the boxes. I'll call out to the window."


Half an hour later, Gus still hadn't materialized and it was lunchtime. We were so intent on getting the food out, that we must have missed Gus' return. I remember dishing up a plate of lasagna as the door slammed and Gus came into the kitchen, his face as red as I've ever seen it.

"What's the matter with you people? Didn't you hear me yelling outside?"

"Sorry Gus, we didn't hear you."

"Missed it!", he exclaimed incredulously. "I was screaming my lungs out!"

"Well, we'll help you unload the stuff now," I said, motioning to Ruth and Laurie.

"Forget it!" Gus dismissed us with a quick wave of the hand and turned to head back outside.

"Should I follow him?", I asked.

"Just give him a minute to cool down," Laurie responded. "Then go out there and see if he needs help"

Sounded like a good idea. I went back to dishing out plates, and was in the kitchen serving them when I heard a car honk.


It kept going.


I went to the window in the dining room and saw Gus sitting in his car, just pounding on the car horn.


I ran back into the kitchen. "Should we do something?", I asked.

"No, just let him be. He's just throwing a tantrum. He'll tire himself out.", said Laurie.

At that moment, the similarities between infants and the elderly had never been stronger in my mind. I went back to the dining room. Most of the customers had noticed the sound by now, and were gathered by the window to watch Gus.

"That muthafucker crazy", Jake commented, with a shake of the head. Jake is one of our 'crazy' customers. At various times he has claimed to be a stockbroker, secret service agent, master chef, and undercover South African spy. The irony of a mentally addled homeless guy calling Gus crazy was certainly not lost on me.

I went back into the kitchen, and the honking continued. We waited...after five minutes it finally stopped and Gus walked back in. His face was back to his normal color and he wore a huge smile on his face.

"Are you ok?", I asked him.

He grinned. "Sure, why wouldn't I be? Hey, you want to help me unload the groceries?"

"Sure...", I responded hesitantly, surprised at Gus' new calm demeanor.

We walked out and got the groceries. Gus was on his best behavior the rest of the day. We never spoke of that incident again...

Monday, April 23, 2007

The Regulars: Gus, Part 1

There is a core group of regulars that volunteer at the kitchen on the same day as me. They all come from different walks of life and their stories are as engrossing as the usual goings on at the kitchen. I'll see if I can get to all of them, but for now we'll start with Gus.

Gus is in his seventies. He stands about 5 ft 3, with salt and pepper hair and a slight paunch. Years of heavy lifting and manual labor have taken a toll on his back, and so when he stands he appears slightly hunched over.

Gus has led an interesting life. He is a Korean war veteran, and like most of the workers is very liberal. He volunteers seven days a week at the kitchen, because he really doesn't have anything else to do. He lost his wife more than 20 years ago and even though one of his sons lives in town, Gus is pretty much ignored by him. Gus' son is a rather famous plastic surgeon and even though the guy easily makes a couple hundred grand a year, Gus lives in a rundown house in a bad neighborhood. On a family trip down to Florida to which Gus was invited, his son made him chip in for gasoline and pay for his own hotel room. All this, while Gus is living off of social
security and a small military pension.

In contrast, Gus is very giving. Despite the fact that he doesn't have much, Gus rarely refuses a request for a dollar or a bus token, even when he knows the requester is probably scamming him. From some of the other volunteers, I've learned that Gus was actually homeless for a while...and I think he feels the honest need to be generous to those less fortunate.

Gus is easily a saint, albeit a sometimes crotchety saint who provides loads of intentional and unintentional comedy. There are two stories that I think illustrate Gus' personality well. I'll cover one today, and save the other for the next post...

Because we live in a college town, there is usually a storm of undergrads looking to do community service. Normally we give them menial, mundane tasks to do: chopping vegetables, organizing the pantry, cleaning out the freezers. But if they seem nice and not just there for a resume-booster, we'll let them do fun stuff, like serve or interact with the customers.

One particular morning I was helping Ruth and Sally cook the meal, when four rather attractive sorority girls walked in. (I would normally say four co-eds, but since the girls were all wearing clothing that prominently displaying their Greek letters, it only feels right to refer to them as that...) We were debating what tasks we needed them to do, when Gus walked in. He took a quick look at the girls, and then flashed what I thought was a shit-eating grin.

"Follow me girls. I'll show you what to do", he called out as he led them to the office. Ruth and Sally rolled their eyes and we all chuckled.

Now remember...Gus lived alone and aside from his time at the soup kitchen his life was devoid of any sort of social interaction. Of course he was going to take this chance to monopolize their time.

As we worked in the kitchen, we could hear Gus explain the workings of the kitchen, its history, etc. After twenty minutes of rambling, I peeped my head out to see if the girls were bored. To their credit, if they were uninterested they certainly didn't show it. I saw four heads nodding and smiling as Gus droned on, a smile never wavering from his own face. Maybe the girls saw someone that reminded them of their own grandfathers or maybe they were just being nice to an old man...or perhaps they were legitimately keen on what he had to say. Whatever the reason, they kept at rapt attention as Gus went on for another 10 minutes, before finally telling them what to do. (Incidentally, Gus' diminutive stature gave him the perfect eye level to stare directly into the girls' cleavage. And yes, there was an abundance of cleavage...)

We finished cooking the meal and started serving to the customers, and I noticed Gus had an extra spring in his step. He was walking around, exchanging banter with the customers, cracking jokes...he was truly in his element. As the rush began to slow down, I took a break and went into the office, sitting down on the couch next to Gus.

Gus was tired, as he had been working for nearly five hours, and was taking a much deserved break. I caught Gus smiling at one of the girls who was handing out sack lunches. The smile was one of pride, the kind I'd imagine a grandfather wears when seeing his granddaughter graduate. I immediately felt a pang of guilt for thinking of Gus as a dirty old man. I got up to go back to work and almost reached the door when Gus turned to me and winked.

"Watch this...", he whispered, flashing another grin and winking right before he threw his empty tumbler of coffee to the ground, and kicked it to the center of the room.

"Hey honey!", he said to the sack lunch girl.

"Yes, Gus?"

"I dropped my coffee mug. Would you mind picking it for me...I'm too tired to get up."

"Sure!", she beamed at him. Sure enough, she walked over to the tumbler. As she bent down at the waist to pick it up, Gus got an enormous grin on his face. He flashed me a thumbs-up with both hands, as I walked back into the kitchen area, trying my best to hold back my laughter.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

My First Day

"Any chance I can get two sack lunches? My son is sick at home", he asked me. In his late 40s with disheveled hair, a worn flannel shirt, and jeans that were more holes than denim, he stood in front of me.

"No problem sir... I hope he feels better.", I responded as I handed him two paper bags, each with a bologna sandwich, bag of chips, and Twix candy bar. As he stepped away to head out of the house, I heard a disapproving grunt behind me, followed by a hoarse voice.

"You shouldnta gave him two. Now the rest'll be clamoring."
"He said his son was sick."
"He probably don't even have a son."
"But he asked for two...", I responded meekly. "And I thought we were supposed to err on the side of caution..."
"You'll learn soon enough.", the voice behind me croaked.

That was my first day volunteering at the soup kitchen.

I was never much for volunteering. I wasn't necessarily against helping others, but I always wanted something out of the deal. (Ironic, I know.) Up until that first day at the soup kitchen, most of my "volunteer" activities were just things I needed to get into college, look good on a resume, or get into some academic honor society. I worked with underprivileged kids, raked leaves and mowed lawns for the elderly, rang bells for the Salvation Army, and did a few other things that have been long forgotten. There were also a couple of tutoring jobs where I failed to submit a timesheet or two...those I put down as volunteering, without an iota of guilt.

Fast forward a few years.

Comfortable ensconced in graduate school, I was looking for more. Conducting research was not the fulfilling endeavor I had imagined. Going out to bars and drinking five nights a week had started to lose its appeal. Watching countless hours of Comedy Central and MTV had begun to erode my brain. There had to be something more...

That's where Joey came in. He was one of my roommates, a friend, and co-worker in the same research group. He was seemingly always in a happy, jokey mood. Joey had made allusions to volunteering on Sunday mornings at a soup kitchen, so one Sunday I decided to tag along...

Since it was my first day, I was assigned to the office. The way it worked was this: people would come in and eat lunch at the small dining room table. After eating, they'd come to the adjoining office where I'd give them a sack lunch and any requested toiletries, if we had any.

Laney was one of "the regulars", who always manned the office. Easily in her sixties, she had a voice gruff with what must have been fifty years of smoking. Her visible cross around her neck and t-shirt (which labeled Jesus as her co-pilot) seemed to contradict the permanent sour expression on her face.

At first, I sat back and let Laney torment the customers. If they asked for more than one sack lunch, she'd yell at them. If they wanted aspirin, she'd lie and say they ran out. I thought she was a fire-breathing masochist, a bitter old woman who enjoyed torturing these unfortunate people. (I later realized that Laney's gruff exterior masked a good heart, and her bark was solely there to weed out the scammers and people would abuse the soup kitchen's generosity. But that realization came later...) I offered to take over, and she grudgingly yielded.

As I took over, there was immediately a glut of customers with sick relatives at home. We had a surplus of sack lunches, and as I had already given one person two lunches, I couldn't set a bad precedent. So I obliged every request for lunches, and even dispersed the toiletries and medicine. Despite it being the height of summer, there were a lot of people who needed cough syrup. I never questioned the request, it just added more credibility to those who asked for more food for sick relatives. Must be a bug going around, I thought. Each time I handed out a bottle, I would hear another disapproving grunt from Laney, but she never said anything else...

When the customers began to trickle out, we started cleaning up. I started sweeping up the dining area and out of the corner of my eye saw Laney talking with a couple of the other regulars, Ruth and Jack, pointing at me for an instant, before she left. After the cleaning was finished, Ruth asked to have a word.

"Did you hand out all the cough syrup?", she asked.
"Most of it...I guess there were a lot of sick people at home."
"You should probably be more discriminating in the future..."
"Why's that?"
"Take a look outside when you leave.", she said with a smile.

I left and saw two of the guys sitting on the porch, sipping from their cough syrup bottles. When they saw me, they raised their bottles in a mock toast and it dawned on me...people drink cough syrup to get high. Oops...