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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.

1 Comments:

Blogger Emmanuel Zimelis (pen-name) said...

When I was a graduate student at a UC (in Statistics), a former student showed up and sat in on a class or two I was in. I went to lunch with him, and enjoyed chatting with him. He seemed to think he could get a job as a lecturer there. The last time I spoke with him, he was handcuffed by the police, for, as I later found out, threatening some people in the department. Nice guy to talk to, even when handcuffed.

He died a few years later - his adviser wrote an obituary for the department newsletter explaining what had happened to him. Bill story sounds similar.

3:54 PM  

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