Monday, January 22, 2007

The Forgotten Class

As a volunteer for One Brick, I had the privilege to serve the homeless at Glide Memorial today. Glide soup kitchen is in the heart of San Francisco's notorious Tenderloin District, and as I had the chance to experience today, is the heart of the Tenderloin.

The volunteers rotated responsibilities. I collected tickets in the disabled room, where people with wheelchairs, walkers and canes have easiest access. Many were amputees, and several others brought their children in strollers. Each person received two tickets, which allowed them two trays of food. I watched as a woman stuffed the food in a baby bottle. She handed me her ticket while another volunteer handed her a second tray of food. I took the ticket while a security guard in a yellow jacket stared at me. He had given us strict instructions. A ticket gets a tray. A person gets two tickets.

When I was in the clear, I placed the ticket under the woman's tray. "His ticket," I said, nodding my head toward her son's stroller like MacGyver making a time machine out of a styrofoam cup and a pepper packet. So what if it they were sneaking a piece of bread, some wilted lettuce and soggy zucchini. Humans shouldn't be desperate for food that looked like it had been through a garbage disposal.

If you've seen The Pursuit of Happyness, you know exactly where I was today. The long lines weren't Hollywood special effects, and the face of American hunger is indelable. When I first started volunteering, I wanted to have the coveted job at the end of the soup line. That person gets to say good morning or hello to every person and hand them a tray. I was three people from the end, and I could see the line that wrapped endlessly around the building. On every side, people's eyes were filled with survival. Their focus was on getting a tray and then devouring and hiding their food before using a second ticket. Anyone in physical proximity could feel their emptiness.

The suffering was so insatiable, at the second hour, I no longer wanted to be in the prized greeter position. I didn't want to be on the other end of that kind of gratitude. My heArtwork project, most of it having been anonymous, has sheltered me from its impact. As a volunteer, I get to be uncomfortably confronted with the type of human hurt I feel that my own best efforts and compassion cannot heal.

I had been told that one thousand people come through the Glide line every day. I spell it because although those citizens are a forgotten class, they aren't a number. One thousand hardly seems to meet the six heArts I gave out today.

But I was mistaken. The organizer told me that Glide feeds one thousand people THREE times a day. I spent most of my time next to a sixteen year old boy, who was doing community service. I knew he could see everything I had, through the filter of his own experience. As the steady stream of seemingly hopeless faces passed, I personally felt grateful for health insurance, my sister, a warm home, a good doctor, caring friends and two healthy parents.

The boy beside me looked up and nervously adjusted his plastic gloves. "Hey," he said, lifting his chin in a jerk and narrowing his eyes. "This is hard work, huh?"

I blinked hard and looked down. At that moment, we were just acknowleding each person, occasionally telling them we were sorry that we didn't have forks.

"Yes," I said. "It is."


biggearhead said...

Thanks for sharing. Makes me feel grateful for only lacking dental insurance - even if it's cost me several grand in the past two years. Perspective.

jaynel said...

Seriously. I never so badly wished I could have the ultimate simultaneous superpowers of doctor, dentist, therapist, owner of a clothing store (with free clothes all day/every day, including shoes!), carpenter, millionaire and a hairstylist.

I could clothe and feed everyone, listen to their problems and make them not be their houses and fix their hair.

But then, I'd have to be Jesus. Or-- if I gave everyone a car--Oprah.