When I was little we often ate at a Japanese restaurant downtown. I liked it because we could take off our shoes and sit on the floor to eat. I much preferred this to dining at a standard table which always seemed uncomfortably high even after I outgrew sitting on telephone books with legs dangling in mid-air like limp noodles.
I admired the servers at the Japanese restaurant who looked like beautiful Geisha girls with piles of smooth hair cleverly knotted into a loose arrangement stemming from the elusive grip of a singular chopstick.
I looked forward to the miniature bowls arriving in quick succession of one another in an effort to keep my hunger at bay – a sliver of yellow egg, pickled cucumber, miso soup and ginger salad. The parade of bite-sized delectables preceding the entrée kept me satiated as well as distracted from indulging in the obvious temptation of chopstick sword-fighting with my brother and sister. Alas, the meal ended with a slice of orange so sweet and satisfying it never occurred to me to ask for a proper dessert.
Besides, my siblings and I were always in a hurry to watch the spotted koi swim in the foyer’s bubbly pond while we sucked greedily on the complimentary peppermints found at the register.
As if sitting on the floor in a restaurant with its own pond wasn’t exotic enough, the streets of downtown held their own allure. With businesses closed for the work day, the city seemed to have turned in for the night. It was strange to think it had a bedtime earlier than mine. The only life I saw was from the street people who wandered about like dazed sleepwalkers.
Maybe it was because my mom always made me dress as a gypsy or hobo for Halloween when she didn’t have a more creative costume for me, but these vagabonds intrigued me. Occasionally, when it was cold outside men wearing layers of mismatched dirty clothes sat in cardboard boxes in front of the vacant building across the street from the restaurant. I couldn’t help wonder what they did to keep entertained, or how all their belongings fit in the box, or even where they went to the bathroom.
Sometimes my mom would take our leftovers to them, and I would stare curiously at these box-dwellers. It was hard as a child to understand that a cardboard box could be someone’s home or that one would eat a stranger’s leftover food. Decades later, I don’t know if I really understand it any better, or if I just don’t question the peculiarity of things as much.
While volunteering downtown at Saint Francis Soup Kitchen – only a few blocks from that now-closed favorite restaurant, I had the opportunity to serve the hungry and homeless of our city.
When I arrived it was an hour before we were scheduled to begin serving, but outside, men, women and children had already gathered in the cold morning air. I felt awkward walking through the crowd of people to go inside, like I was somehow more important than they were having unquestioned access to the warm innards of the building.
That couldn’t have been further from the truth for me or the other volunteers who run the soup kitchen. While logistically it would be easier to serve the hungry masses with a buffet, waiting on them like diners in a restaurant gives each person a chance to feel the dignity that hunger or homelessness has stripped from them. So besides the countless volunteers in the kitchen preparing the meal, there were others who filled water glasses, served full plates of food, offered hot coffee or trays of desserts.
I was chosen to be a food server and was very pleased with that assignment. I figured the only thing better than it was being the dessert girl. The volunteer who was picked for that had a cute southern twang that just made you want to indulge in pie. So I had to admit, she was probably the best person for the job.
Besides, the server had the added task of pulling out the chair for each guest so I liked the extra interaction I got from that. It allowed me to pause, to look each person in the face and to share a welcoming smile like they were dinner guests in my home. Getting to do that was a lot sweeter to me than passing out pie.
After each table was seated, the Monsignor who was my parish priest as a child, joined hands with me and the other volunteers and led us in the Lord’s Prayer. Table after table, we prayed with our dinner guests before they ate, reminding me that spiritual nourishment is as important as its physical counterpart.
Women were served first. I have to admit while they seemed gentle, they looked rough. Many were gaunt and most had deep lines across their face like road maps to sorrowful dead-end destinations. I felt particularly awkward around them since the only thing I had different than them were better circumstances. Yet, here at the soup kitchen and in life, these circumstances are everything – the difference between having a place to live, food to eat, someone to love and cherish you.
The men were mostly nice and polite – they were different ages and races. Some seemed to know one another. Others seemed like they either wanted to be anonymous, or had gotten used to being so. There were a few who seemed mentally ill.
Several sets of children came in with parents or grandparents. The oldest of which looked to be about 6 years old – the youngest, an infant. Of course, it was hard to see children at a soup kitchen, but most of them seemed oblivious to their circumstances. They seemed happy. The volunteer who runs the soup kitchen, along with her husband, gave me small bags of candy to give to the kids, and I got to watch their faces light with joy in anticipation of such a rare treat.
I noticed after serving one of the men that he had a stroller next to him, his back was squarely against whoever was in it and his attention was focused solely on his adjacent friend. I reached over to see if I could get a glimpse inside the stroller and saw a tiny little girl with blonde hair latched in her seat. I saw that she was reaching toward the table – toward his plate of food.
He seemed oblivious to her, but I thought perhaps she wasn’t old enough to eat solids yet – or maybe he was so hungry he couldn’t help but feed himself first. She reached again with both arms toward the food. I asked him if I could feed her so he could enjoy his meal. He said sure and I shifted the stroller to face me. This angelic little girl captivated me, and I felt so lucky to be the one who would feed her. But first, I had to do something about the layers of crust dried under her still runny nose that dripped past her mouth on to her tiny chin.
After I carefully cleaned her sweet face with a napkin, she ate spoonful after spoonful of chicken and gravy, rice and carrots. She was such a good eater, no airplane games, no coaxing, and no spitting like a camel. She really was an angel! I was annoyed that her father wasn’t more interested in her. Shouldn’t he be as happy as I am that she is eating her carrots?
I interrupted his conversation to ask him her age. He told me she would be a year old on December 27. It was only a week or two from her first birthday – that milestone that for my children meant big parties, family and revelry. I got teary thinking of how she would spend it, and was wondering if I was blinking back tears as fast as she was eating. We would only take a break to occasionally wipe her face, and that darn runny nose.
Then, rather abruptly, her dad and his friend decided they were going. I was dumbfounded. She was in the middle of eating. As a mama, this riled me. I don’t believe in waking a sleeping baby, and I certainly don’t believe in cutting short this child’s meal when she was obviously still hungry. But he and his friend were already standing up and gathering their things. I had to pick my jaw up off of the floor, and stand in its place. I convinced him to take her plate of food with him so she could finish it wherever they were off to. A moment later she was gone.
I felt rather helpless and avoided eye contact with the other volunteers because I was scared I was going to start crying. I had to remind myself that I wasn’t there to judge, or to tell people how to live their lives – I was there to serve and sometimes the hardest part of that is keeping your mouth shut. So I went back to pulling out chairs and serving hot meals. For three hours we served. The hungry kept coming. There were so many.
It was close to Christmas and a gospel group was belting out Christmas music, reminding us of the power of hope. One man sat in the corner crying, listening to the music. I don’t know his story. I don’t know any of the stories of the hundreds of people we fed that day. I don’t know what will become of that little girl or the other children I met. I just know that every Saturday volunteers show up to serve the hungry a hot meal with dignity and respect, the same way Jesus would if He were alive — without question or judgment.
No, I don’t know any more about the homeless than I did when I was a kid, when they were simply part of the spectacle of dining out, but now having served them I finally understand why those Japanese waitresses seemed so beautiful to me. Treating others with dignity and respect – even when it requires obedient silence is as glorious and graceful as a Geisha whose art exists for the sole purpose of serving others.