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...


Blogger Kerri said...

Can't wait to read more....

1:04 PM  
Blogger Reserved Stipulation said...

I enjoyed that. Hope to hear more stories from you! :)

8:31 AM  
Blogger n said...

Thanks for the comments! I'm hoping to add content twice a week, but we'll see how it goes

8:17 PM  
Blogger SkippyMom said...

Awesome writing and very unique blog...keep it up [I read backwards from the beginning!]


3:36 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sad and judgmental. Those people are sick. Alcoholism is,an illness. People like you and Laney are poor in spirit and selfish people who need to never work with poor people. Bastards!

3:27 PM  

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