I've started keeping up with more and more local blogs lately, including DIARY OF A MAD DC CABBIE, who ends every post with the words "Please don't forget the homeless." Many of us have been conditioned not to forget, but to ignore the homeless on the streets (myself included), and we all have different policies about giving money or food to strangers, or even engaging in conversation with those who might ask for change. My parents always told me not to talk to strangers, and my first step mother had the following advice for an 8-year-old me while visiting New York City; "Keep a pack of cigarettes in your purse (a small dinner plate size panda purse) so that if someone tries to steal it, they'll find cigarettes and be happy with that- and they'll give your purse back." Riiiiiiiiiight...
Anywho, I've dispensed my fair share of change, offered leftover meals and sandwiches from buy-one-get-one-free deals, made pies for a teen-mothers' shelter one Thanksgiving, and donated clothes and housewares to charity stores (Goodwill, Salvation Army, and the like); but I've wanted to volunteer somewhere for a while now. Do something more hands-on, make more of an impact, just... something more active. The company I work for has an entire department based on supporting volunteerism and community development/involvement, and one of the opportunities available to us is a standing monthly arrangement for 5 local employees to volunteer at Miriam's Kitchen, where they serve breakfast every weekday to the area's homeless, and today was the first day this year that I've been available to participate. I was stoked, despite the 6am call time.
I woke up at 5am. That alone is some kind of miracle. I wasn't really sure what to expect, besides knowing that they use fresh, local, and often organic ingredients to provide some real quality meals, which I later found myself salivating over. I figured I'd be chopping vegetables or fruit, somewhere back of the house just plugging away for a few hours. Though I knew the area well enough to know that my directions were wrong, I was still a few minutes late- of course relegating me to the last-filled position choice of 'counter' or 'number caller'. WOO! Way to make a difference! The other girl who arrived when I did claimed to have a loud voice (lies!) and I was given a counter and placed on door duty. My job was to click the counter up when someone came in, and down when they left. I am saving the world, one click at a time here folks.
Up until 6:30am a security guard had been handing out numbers to the people waiting in line outside, but when the doors opened this became my duty as well- to hand out numbers to newcomers as they arrived. I clicked and handed, clicked and handed, saying "Good morning," exchanging plesantries, and responding to questions as they were asked. Saying thank you when I received compliments, and just being generally courteous. I remember someone telling me that all anyone really wants is someone to talk to and be respectful, so I did that, just trying to relay that I was happy to be there, wanted to be helpful, and trying to make people feel welcome. The response was good, even though I was in fact a little nervous at times, and I didn't try to be OVERLY cheery or engage anyone who kept to themselves.
Here's where I mention that one of the security guards was totally hot. Cause he was, yo. But did he talk to me even once? NO. Dude, whatev.
So after being such a wonderful hostess, I was moved over to dishes. Wheeeee! I was at a station where they'd set up trash cans and the racks for the industrial dishwasher, so people would walk up as they finished and dump bowls, coffee cups, glasses, and trays, then stack them in the appropriate rack. Everytime someone dropped somethin off I'd thank them- if they couldn't reach or were on one end of the line I'd offer to take it for them, and I made sure to start calling everyone 'sir', which took more than a few people back- but they really seemed to appreciate it too. I got a lot of smiles. One guy would come by and offer various comments like "don't work too hard, girl!" He asked about my wishbone necklace and I told him it was a good luck charm, "well everyone needs a little luck right?" He smiled and said "God bless you," super nice. A small dose of reality was delivered by an older gentlemen who came around to my side of the dish line and told me that I should be careful, "because there's a lot of AIDS around here, so I want you to take care of yourself." Honestly- I thought he was giving me a safe sex lesson- but then others kept telling me to wash my hands, so I think THAT'S what he meant. Hah ha.
As the morning went on I found myself engaging customers in conversation- and I'm not even that outgoing in my OWN social life! Another volunteer was wearing a Patriots jersey and catching hell for it- so I said to one of her teasers, "I'd have to be stupid to wear MY team's jersey in this town!" thus inviting him to ask who that was- which evolved into a guessing game until he finally guessed the Cowboys. He wasn't too hard on me, and joked he was gonna make an announcement despite my pleading for him to keep it on the "down low" (yes, i said down low). He reached around his neck and pulled a Chargers lanyard from below his shirt collar, thus showing his allegiance, explaining that he'd been born and raised in San Diego. He then rolled up his sleeves exposing 2 tattoos, one of which was PHENOMENAL- in the shape of California with sweet calligraphy saying 'San Diego' with mountains and ocean- it was nice. I complimented his ink and he told me a little about working at FedEx and how he hates the Redskins too- all while I was busing dishes and thanking other people for coming, promising to relay compliments on the food to the chefs- "I didn't cook it so I can't take credit- but I'll be sure to let the kitchen know!" They'd had cereal, juice, coffee, and tea first thing in the morning, followed by a hot breakfast with a choice of any or all of the following: mini Belgian waffles with blackberry sauce, pancakes with syrup, veggie chili with rice, sauteed mushrooms, and orange slices. And those waffles with black berry syrup looked and smelled goooooooooood.
Once the dishes started tapering off most of the diners had left, though a small group gathered in the back for a poetry group. Another group gathered in a corner to paint and do art. All throughout breakfast, there were case managers on hand to offer housing and job information as well as clothing to anyone who asked, and a representative from Veterans Affairs made his way though the room looking for vets to make sure they were getting their benefits. This wasn't just a soup kitchen, but more of a little community that offered a hot breakfast and all kinds of support to its patrons. There were quite a few regulars who knew each other, as well as some of the volunteers. It was a jovial atmosphere once everyone shook off their early morning sluggishness. I love that there are people who do this every weekday, at Miriam's Kitchen as well as other locations throught the city. A new crop of volunteers to interact with everyday for the patrons, a good atmosphere that offers a lot of services, and what looked and smelled like really good food (and judging from how little went into the trash cans, was really good food). Hopefully I helped make a few people's morning a little nicer, and I had a good time helping and interacting with part of the largest populations of the city.