I wanted to work at a food bank because I’ve had to use them.
It’s strange for someone who spends as much as time as I do, online, writing poetry, but: I don’t like abstractions in real life. I don’t think it’s productive to talk about “people”, there is just this person, or that person, and they have names. I don’t like to talk about “hunger” as some kind of principle: I am more interested in the fact that Verna and her two sons, J.J. and Raj, who live over across the way, can’t afford to buy food because Jay, Sr. left them with nothing in the bank and a mountain of debt due to a heroin habit.
When I see her at lunchtime, and she realizes we have fresh vegetables today, I can tell that is a welcome relief, since J.J. is such a good athlete, and she wants to get him to a sports program where he can develop it. She hasn’t given up on any aspect of being a mother, and doesn’t seem likely to ever do so: there is no richer mom across town with access to doctors and dietitians and exercise equipment who thinks about it more. She’s always looking for that edge, that little bit of difference to lift her kids away from the life that consumed their father.
Raj, the younger boy, is a favorite of mine: I’ve never seen a child so fond of… well, everything. Everybody, every kind of food, every day, seemingly. He is a favorite of everyone’s there, both the workers and the guests, and he asks his mom, every time, when she will let him go back and work in the kitchen.
“When you learn to wash your hands properly,” she said, laughing, last time I heard him ask.
“When you do, show me,” I whisper to him, as I’m passing through wheeling several boxes back to the kitchen.
One of the ladies in the kitchen, Sierra, seems to know everyone’s story already when they walk in. She is, with the exception of my mother, the least judgmental person I’ve ever met in my life. I’m envious of that ability – to love virtually everyone, almost all the time. She points out two lost looking men to me who I’d never seen before.
“That’s Ken Malhotra, and his brother, Lindsey. They’re really nice guys.”
I look at her, expecting to hear more, but she’s working on adding something to the chili.
“How do you know them?”
“They have been coming to my church, starting about six weeks ago. I told them about this place. Go out there and tell them I’m back here working but that they are welcome, and just to come on up here and get some food. It’s good today, I guarantee it.”
I head out to do just that, shaking their hands, introducing myself and welcoming them before delivering Sierra’s message.
“Do you have fresh vegetables every day?” Lindsey asks, looking over at the line.
“No, I wish we did,” I said. “So help yourself.”
My duty today is mostly bringing things in from the truck, so I head back to do it. I’m only there another forty minutes, and then it’s back to my other job. The company gives me two hours for lunch on days I volunteer.
I was a relatively young man when I visited the food bank back where I grew up. A very unhealthy young man with no income.
The place was in an old cinder block building that used to be one of my favorite barbecue restaurants, back when I took eating for granted. I was scared to go in — but I was scared to go anywhere in those days. A scrawny, sickly twenty-something who “would jump at his own shadow”, as they say back home. Still, hunger has a way of motivating a person, so I went in.
There were no tables there; people were issued food packages to take with them. I got in line, trying to imagine what the place used to look like, full of bustle and customers and waitresses. When I got the front of the line, there were three people behind the counter, issuing only the food people wanted. I wanted whatever there was to take.
I thanked each one of the three workers individually, because it was all I had to give back.
The phrase “to give something back” has become so commonly used, it’s easy to forget what it actually means. Often, we are given things in life when we are in no position to return the favor. Eventually, we may be, but the people who gave to us are no longer available, which is where the concept of “paying things forward” comes from. We pass the giving on to others who are not, right then, in any position to give back.
I took my boxed up food and I headed back to my apartment, which was just over the bridge. I realized in the car that I had tried to dress nicely to go, because I didn’t want people there thinking… I wasn’t quite sure what. “That I had no pride” was probably the closest thing to describing what I didn’t want them to think.
I doubt anyone could tell I was trying to look good, but that little bit of pride was all I had; and all we have, no matter how limited, is the only base we can build off of.
So I had pride: what I didn’t have, was food. But I did now, at least for that day.
The people working there, the three workers behind the window (I wished I’d asked their names!) were very kind and gentle with us. Even at that age, I was never so much angry at people who were unkind as grateful to people for being kind. It was like that in the hospital, too; some workers are busy and detached and kind of indifferent, but there was no point being angry with them. I was just grateful for the ones who would engage me as a person.
I got three meals out of what I took home with me.
It’s November, 2016 again, and I’m driving back to work, thinking about what it was like in those days.
There are many things we do in life that we never imagined ourselves doing, and many things we become that we never imagined ourselves being. Growing up, I had never pictured myself physically and mentally ill, poverty-stricken, or starving.
No, I had imagined myself scoring the winning basket in the NBA finals, or becoming a world-famous (!) astronomer, like Percival Lowell or Clyde Tombaugh.
(What do you mean you’ve never heard of them? They were world-famous… at least, in the world I lived in.)
There are parts of our destinies we do not get to choose, though. We’re aware of it when those things are bad, but less aware when good fortune is our lot.
I’ve tried, throughout all the years since, to stay aware.
Sierra hung a sign in our food bank kitchen that says:
“GOD HELPS THOSE WHO CANNOT HELP THEMSELVES”
I am not God; I am not anyone, really. But I know that empty feeling, I have known hunger. I wanted to work in a food bank because I’d needed to use one; but gradually, I wanted to work in a food bank because other people need to use them: Ken, Lindsey, J.J., Raj, Verna — and many other names, some of whom I don’t know yet.
(If you have the time, you might consider volunteering to help feed people in your area. And if you have need, never be ashamed to visit them.)
For Nano Poblano this year, I’m trying a prose post a day instead of my usual work in poetry. Thanks for reading. – S.B.