Friday, January 06, 2006

S'more Soup?

As mentioned in a previous entry, I got the idea of volunteering time at the Food Bank from Gary who is a manager there and until recently was one of my three roomates here at 28 Balding Ave. Gary moved out about two weeks ago after only being here a short while. His brother, who previously lived in Queens, just bought a house in nearby Stanfordville. It's a fixer-upper so Gary will be living with him for a while as they get the place in shape.

The Food Bank is located in the basement of an old High School on North Hamilton Street here in POK. The top floors of the building are used for daytime shelter and counseling as far as I know. I haven't visited upstairs yet but will do so soon.

I think there are three main reasons why volunteering at the Food Bank appeals to me. First, the obvious, it's a worthwhile operation to support. Second, for the social experience and to establish some roots in the area. Third, a combination of more personal reasons. It's just something that I'd like to do right now.

Here's some of the people who work/volunteer at the kitchen:

Buddy: Buddy is the "Grand High Exalted Mystic Manager" of the kitchen. He does a lot of the cooking, directs staff, and fields any major problems that come up. To borrow from the film "Apocalypse Now", the operation might be run by the Food Bank but it damn sure is Buddy's kitchen.

Gary: Gary is more of a hands-on manager. He cooks as well, works with the staff, and handles many of the million-and-one jobs that pop up.

John: Staff member in charge of the dishwashing room. John also helps with the supply room.

Tom: Staff member. Kind of a "free safety". Tom does just about everything except cook.

Sue, Debbie, and Rosemary: Three local women who volunteer at the kitchen. They do a lot of food preparation with meals that are to be delivered to people who are unable to make it to the kitchen. Debbie and Rosemary also hand out prepared dishes to clients on the serving line.

In addition to those above, there are about a dozen other people of all ages who work at the kitchen in a part-time capacity. Each receives Department of Social Services assistance for one reason or another and are thus obliged to give a certain amount of time each month to the kitchen.

Finally, there are volunteers who show up on a weekly, bi-weekly, or other basis who donate time for whatever individual reasons. Myself and Ken fall into this category. We're plugged into whatever hole there is for the day or we just help out whoever looks like they need it. Some volunteers show up only once or twice and then do not return. College and highschool students tend to do this. They seem to come for the experience and it's always a neat thing to see. You can tell they're taking the plunge into a world they might not know much about. When they come in their eyes are always big as saucers and they're unsure of it all, but they want to give it a go all the same.

I've been trying to put together some stories about my time at the kitchen so far but I'm finding that the kitchen doesn't lend itself to stories in the same way that the farm does. At least, none that I've been able to put together. I think the reason for this stems from the lack of deeper interaction on the part of all concerned (on both sides of the serving line). This is a place where borders are high, wide, thick, and maintained. Most people at the kitchen, again, on both sides of the serving line, are scared, scarred, suspicious, dirt poor, handicapped, ill, hooked, and/or struggling with life. Most all are appropriately cordial though some are just plain not nice people who you would not want to meet on the street.

But since no large group of people can be totally interactionless, there are moments that poke through. Moments of laughter and good feeling. Staff chat with each other in order to help the time pass, clients talk among themselves and one hears a lot of "war stories", and there is interaction between clients and staff that mostly remains on the "polite" level.

What I am finding is that the kitchen does provide instances of "mini observations" about the people who work there, the people who eat there, and about myself. I include myself in that last thought because having grown up in a safe, untroubled environment, and having lived my entire life in a different world than what exists at the kitchen, there's much that I find myself processing internally.

A bit from the kitchen (all client names have been changed):

* "The Onion Gang". Usually the teenage and 20-something year old males are given "onion detail". They can do it in a group and have a good yack while doing so. Everyone's faces are burning like wildfires but it's the bonding that seems to count.

* Debbie is probably somewhere in her 50s, extremely religious and is the first person I've ever met that occasionally speaks in tongues. I haven't asked what the language is. She's a very nice person who seems to have had a very tough life. Debbie talks to everyone and has a broad smile for all.

* "Buck" is a forty something year old client with dull-yellowish hair and a lot of hard living cragged into his face. He has a funny scam going. He sits at one of the tables and watches the staff coatroom for staff members coming and going. He knows that if you're a staff member who's been working for a while, if you go to grab your coat and leave the building, you're probably going outside for a cigarette break. This gives Buck the chance to grub one from you. He'll also tell you to watch out for people grubbing cigarettes because they're "everywhere"!

Buck also helps out bussing tables. Not that he's asked to. He's giving himself the chance to be useful. One gets the feeling that not many people ask Buck to be useful and it makes him happy.

* John (of the dishwashing room) tries all the time to be cynical and sarcastic with quick-flip answers and sour observations. But it just doesn't come off- he's too nice of a guy! He really is one of those people that we've all met that has the power of being instantly likeable. One wishes John felt better about things but the contradiction has it's funny side and I find myself smiling when we speak.

* "Maria" (again, not her real name) speaks very little English. Her first job in the morning is to prepare silverware and napkins for the coming day. I help out sometimes and I think she gets a kick out of my very limited knowledge of Spanish. We get along well with exaggerated facial expressions and funny hand gestures. We invariably wind up cracking-up about it all and having a good time.

* About twenty elementary school kids came in to sing Christmas carols a few days before Christmas. They lit up the room for about 20 minutes and were well-applauded.

* Children. There are rarely any children at the Food Bank. The Food Bank serves only one meal (lunch) a day from 11:00-1:00 and so, naturally, kids are in school.

More to follow soon.


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