Tuesday, August 16, 2011

The Truth About Volunteering

day 88
The Pause That Refreshes

First things first. Dad had emergency surgery today after a suture ruptured last night. Like my ornery but occasionally amusing sports guy TONY KORNHEISER, I am bringing you for a few days while I try to help Dad get better--"The Best of .." my columns and writings published in honorable publications elsewhere. ;-)

Wanda Eve

Soup's On
We are all hungry, but for what?

By Wanda E. Fleming
Sunday, October 26, 2008 

"Spies always make the worst soup," Darryl mutters. "You're obviously a spy."

Until now, I've been the shelter's helium balloon. I've floated above it all, a yellow smiley face stamped on a Mylar disc. Now I stand accused of espionage and, worse, lousy soup-making. I drift to the floor.

No other volunteer experience has prepared me for this one, not the Earth Day cleanups or candy striping at the children's hospital or the food bank distribution of cornflakes and diapers. All three ventures unfolded the same way: the assisted bubbling over with thanks. This one's different.

I turn from the stove, where I've been ladling bowls of carrots, pasta and broth. It's days before Thanksgiving. Soon, an avalanche of donations will swallow the kitchen. Canned vegetables will stack every inch of floor. Dozens of perishable pies oozing fruit from their slightly damaged boxes will crowd counters. We'll scurry to decide what to do with frozen turkeys dumped on our doorstep minutes before dinner. But for now, I pass off watery soup and day-old baguettes as lunch.

I start to explain to Darryl that a crate of fresh carrots arrived last night. That's why they're firm not soft, but he is unconvinced. "Look, Miss, they ain't firm; they're hard. Typical CIA."

I don't intend to react, but I do. I chuckle. Then a smirk seeps across my face. I, the "spy" of the badly cooked carrots, am thinking, "Look, buddy, you're the hungry one; be grateful."

My accuser is not just homeless, he's a veteran, which evokes indulgence for his moods and paranoia. Sometimes, he's lucid bordering on bookish. Other times, he's cranky and incoherent. Like most of the 20 men who line up for lunch, Darryl appears older than he is. Lines hug his mouth as though decades ago he laughed at everything, even bad jokes, but now he's paused to regret.

He stares at us, the five Saturday servers -- the volunteers. It's as though he has our number, and any minute now he'll say, "I know why I'm here, but why are you?"

He empties his bowl of the uneaten carrot chunks, then heads to the bathroom, a room that always smells of slapdash cleaning and the pine tree deodorizers hung in gypsy cabs. When Darryl rushes out, he nods without words, his trademark goodbye. The bar of soap has disappeared, as have the paper towels, the brown industrial kind.

Fran, the elderly head volunteer, hustles to the bathroom after each man departs and sprays disinfectant to a mushroom cloud. Her voice wafts out with the fumes.

"See. That's why I never buy the good stuff," she shouts. "They always steal it!"

Fran barks at the men, whom we call "guests." As she sets the table and folds their napkins, she tells them where to sit. "Lose the profanity! Take just one roll!"

Still, Fran is the only one willing to walk the blocks to our local bakery and to haggle for day-old loaves. She loads them up in her rattling cart. Friday nights she makes bread pudding, at least two pans, often three.

The other volunteers shake their heads at Fran. They whisper behind her back. "She really hates Darryl," one of them blurts. "Why does she bother coming if is she hates them all so much?"

Soup from one of my favorite blogs!
Catie's Corner. Recipe here.
No one asks why anyone else comes. Service lures with the heady scent of sacrifice -- sacrifice allegedly free of motive. For this reason, I don't say I'm an insomniac, grappling with a faith I no longer fully believe in and seeking an antidote to both ailments. No one points to the college student who serves food as restitution for a drunken driving incident, or the teacher who whispers to me as we chop wilted celery, "You think I'll ever find a nice guy here? . . . Oh, God, I'm getting so old." Though some set the tables and ladle the soup, we are all hungry.

When the men leave, we wash their plates. We sit on the floor drinking leftover coffee. A few eat the government-issued cheese that smells of plastic couch covers. Just as we lower the kitchen lights, banging erupts from the front door. The knocks come hard and fast, with barely a moment to slip back the locks.

It's Darryl.

"I forgot my knapsack," he mumbles
He snatches the bag from the vestibule and turns away. Paper towels peek from the pocket of his cloth coat.

"Hey, Darryl," I say. "See you on Thanksgiving, man."

"Yeah, I guess. You making that cake?"


"Your chocolate cake, you making it?"

"Yeah, sure -- maybe," I say.

"Good, it's better than those carrots."

I ease the door back. He doesn't bubble over; I don't float. For that, I am grateful. I suspect he is, too.


Elizabeth said...

Love it. Hope your Dad's surgery was successful.

Wanda Fleming of River Girls Soap said...

Thanks Elizabeth he was much better today after having to go into an emergency second surgery for suture rupture.