Tuesday, July 31, 2007

The Customers: The Grandma

In the heat of the kitchen it is easily 95 degrees. The A/C gave out a couple of days ago, and the guy who is nice enough to play handyman at the kitchen has gone down to Miami for two weeks. I take a glance up at the plate count, as sweat dribbles down my back, and notice we've done 85 plates. It's only noon, and this is easily a record. Warm weather tends to bring out our customers in droves. Fortunately, the crowd has started to die down. There are a few sitting at the table and no one in line.

One of the current customers is someone I call "the grandma". The grandma is not a regular per se, as she comes in only about half the Sundays, but she's there often enough for us to know who she is. She's overweight, in her early 50s, with mostly gray hair worn in a bun and she carries an ever present gap-toothed smile. A lot of the customers we get are rough, but the grandma has a quiet dignity to her. When she eats, she never rests her elbows on the table (a rarity amongst out clients), always has her napkin on her lap (an even bigger rarity), and chews with her mouth closed (sadly, the largest rarity).

As far back as I can remember, we've packed the grandma a to-go order, and she is the only one who enjoys this privilege. Early on, I asked Ruth about this and she informed me the grandma has 4 small grandkids at home. Apparently her daughter was a meth addict and got sent to prison when the fire in her mobile home alerted the police to her activities. The kids' fathers have long been out of the picture, so rather than see her grandkids get sent to different foster homes, grandma decided to raise them herself. Her retirement income and government assistance don't quite combine to make ends meet, so she supplements meals with leftovers we pack at the kitchen. Knowing this I always make sure not to short-change her on the food I pack. I try not to play favorites but when it comes down to food going to two adults or four kids, I'm siding with the kids each time. Luckily we always have enough leftovers from crews of other days, so no one ever has to go hungry.

The grandma finishes her meal and calls me over. Even though the other guests are at the other end of the table, the grandma whispers to me, asking for leftovers for her grandkids. I nod and head back to pack them up. We do this routine each week she comes in- the beckoning, the whispering, and my nodding. For some reason it always gives me a little comfort...

I dish the food on to plastic plates and wrap them up with aluminum foil, before adding some Oreos (kids need treats!) and placing the whole package in a plastic bag. I head into the dining room and discreetly hand her the bag. We don't need anyone complaining of special treatment. Bill notices this time, and shoots me a look, but I stare him down. He averts my gaze and turns his attention back to his meal. I smile to myself, as the grandma walks out with a wave...

I finally finish cleaning up and look at the clock. It's nearly 2 PM. I've never stayed that long to clean, but my mopping was derailed by a long conversation with Gus about the Chicago Bears. (Ever since he met their starting quarterback, who presented Gus with a national volunteer award a couple of years ago, he loves to talk everyone's ear off on how the QB gets a bum rap from the press and how he is really a nice guy, etc.) I lock the door behind me, and head to my car to drive home. As I'm people watching, waiting for the light to turn from red to green, a familiar face catches my eye. I see the grandma, sitting on a bench near the local hospital, EATING THE MEAL I PACKED FOR HER GRANDKIDS. At first I'm not sure it is her. I make a left turn and take one of the hospital back roads so I can spy from a closer distance without getting caught. It's definitely her. I see the unmistakable blue color of the small Oreos pack. That's enough for me to drive home in a funk.

Once I'm home it starts to make a little more sense. If she has four small grandchildren at home, who is watching them while she eats at the kitchen? Wouldn't it make more sense for her just to get a to-go meal for her AND the kids? I guess she could have someone looking after them...but at this point I'm just looking to poke holes in her story...

The next week comes and all of the volunteers are in a foul mood. This happens sometimes when we don't get any drop-in volunteers for a while. We all like each other, but sometimes being confined in a small space with others is too much, and it is just one of those days. Ruth yells at me, I yell at Sally, and Gus yells at everyone. We struggle through service, and my mood isn't helped when I get accidentally burned while removing a tray from the oven. At this point I want to call it a day and just go home, but I know I can't. As I am cursing my fate, I see the grandma walk in. Ruth notices her first and starts to smile. She brings grandma a plate of food, and even gives her a little half hug after she sets the plate down. Ruth comes back into the kitchen, extolling her as "such a nice woman." Sally concurs and they talk about what a saint she must be to look after her grandkids when she should be enjoying her quiet life. Hearing them, I must have rolled my eyes or snorted or something, as Ruth fixes me with a death stare.

"You have ANYTHING to say??"

Ruth is practically fuming. I know instantly I can win this argument and take the wind out of her sails by telling her what I saw last week. I think deeply about it for a minute, meet Ruth's gaze and tell her-

"No...sorry, I was thinking about something else."

Ruth knows better than to buy my explanation, but she lets it go and goes back to talking with Sally.

I probably should have told Ruth and Sally what I saw. I hate scammers and I'm pretty sure the grandma is a Grade A scammer. But this isn't about her, it's about us. Volunteering in a place like the soup kitchen can be exciting and fun, but often times it is downright depressing. Sometimes you need a little hope, a little victory to keep from getting burned out, and to keep you coming back to help out. The grandma is that victory for Ruth. I think about what I know about Ruth- her husband died a long time ago, and she was left to raise three young sons on her own. Maybe she identifies with the grandma, or maybe she just sees an old woman trying to do good. Irregardless, it's not my place to tell the truth of the matter. At least not today...

When she's finished eating, the grandma once again beckons me over to her, and repeats her usual whisper. I nod and head back into the kitchen to pack her some leftovers.