Thursday, April 11, 2013

The Faces Of Hunger (Take Three): The Mobile Food Pantry Line

The end of the month lay a good 10 days ahead. Our proverbial cupboard yawned empty yet again, however, as I regrettably informed The Squawker: "Shall do we it, then?"

"Afraid so," The Squawker sighed.  "We're out of everything, and we won't have anymore money coming in till Monday."

I slid on my warmup jacket and glanced once more inside the refrigerator, whose remaining contents -- a half-empty bottle of mayonnaise here, a barely-full bag of carrots there -- made its yawning emptiness all the more apparent.  "Right, you've got a point...let's go, then, eh?"

Today marked the mobile food pantry's inaugural visit. The project was the brainchild of our local Lutheran church, whose management regime had already been hosting free dinners on Saturdays (see "The Faces Of Hunger [Scenes From A Church Dinner]" for further details).

For The Squawker and I, this noble experiment seemed like a significant upgrade on that particular idea, but we didn't entertain any great expectations.  At last count, the community dinners were drawing 100-150 people, but nothing could have prepared us for the scene that we encountered, once we pulled up.

The line stretched as far the eye cared to roam, for roughly six blocks -- starting at the alley, past the local museum and further ahead into the church parking lot. We'd anticipated a fair crowd, so we made a point of getting there by 3:30 p.m., a full hour before the event itself.

From the looks of things, we'd underestimated the demand. I pulled into a distant corner, and reached to grab our trusty plastic storage tub off the back seat.

I'd have to carry the flag -- or, in this case, the tub -- since the Squawker's breathing difficulties make lengthy walks, or more than a couple minutes of standing still, a problematic proposition.

"How many people do you think are here?" the Squawker asked.

I turned around again, to have a look.  " the top of my head, I'd say, between 200 and 300.  It's been awhile since I've counted a crowd," I yawned.  "Wish me luck, then..."

I'd hardly taken my place in line, when a couple of older black women noticed the storage tub.  They asked if the house rules specified bringing your own container, because nobody had told them, apparently.

I looked around. Almost everybody seemed to be clutching something, whether it was a plastic grocery bag, cardboard box or shoulder bag.

"You know what? I've got cardboard boxes," I told the women.  "I always use carry a few, when I'm shipping records..."  The anxiety vanished from their faces.  "You can use some of mine."

A thirtyish black man standing next to me perked up.  "You ship records?  I love vinyl, man, I'm an old school guy, myself..."  He also stood empty-handed.

"Nothing wrong with that," I smiled.  "You can have a couple boxes, too."

I went back to the van, as the women followed behind me, and opened the hatchback.  I handed them a couple folded cardboard boxes apiece, and gave a couple more to my fellow vinyl enthusiast, who'd saved my place in line.

"Thanks, man."

"Don't mention it," I said, squinting into the sun.

Young moms with toddlers lined up with middle-aged, middle-class refugees like myself...young men no longer on the make...grandmothers who sported a lifetime of varicose veins on their legs...and older gents in their fifties and sixties, who'd spent their lives toiling away...until the system discarded them, without a blink, or a second thought.

The sight seemed oddly breathtaking. In another life, another time, we could have been stands-ins from a grainy Norman Rockwell painting, united by a common purpose...which, on those occasion, happened to be feeding ourselves. The faces of hunger were back in town.

I signed the paperwork, on behalf of The Squawker and myself, and set the storage tub on the ground. In the middle of the lot stood the mammoth white Spartan Foods van, with its innards opened up on both sides, from which the volunteers unloaded cardboard containers and bags, setting them down on the tables in front of us.

The line inched forward, and within 10 minutes, I collected a hefty bag of potatoes. I hesitated, at first (The Squawker's allergic, but maybe I can make potato pancakes -- yeah, that's it, like Dad used to make), but I threw them into the tub, anyway.

Gradually, the line snaked around the Spartan Food truck cab.  I scooped a couple of club soda bottles into the tub, plus a couple of Diet Pepsi and Sierra Mist 2-liter bottles (God, I hate Sierra Mist, it's not something I'd buy in the store.  Still, beggars can't be...y'know...).

Soon, we made our way to the other side, where a flurry of chicken and ham packages disappeared in front of me.

The difficulties sharpened into focus. They'd run out of meat, knocking a hole in our plans to bridge the gap for the weekend, until our next short-term burst of cash arrived.   Slowly, inevitably, the line began to wind down.

In quick succession, I collected a loaf of sourdough bread (cool, nice to score a Squawker perennial for the kitchen), a cardboard box of yogurt (God, I hate this stuff, I don't care if you two-bit f#ckers in Eastern Europe feast on this stuff, still, beggars can't be...y'know), and..last, but not least...a box of leftover birthday cake (Not sure what we'll do with this, but still...beggars can't be...y'know...).

Other than a fistful of small bananas, I didn't see a fruit -- or vegetable -- in sight.

I pushed the tub across the ground with my foot, ever so slowly, until I made it back to the van.  The Squawker watched closely as I opened the side door, and heaved the whole lot inside.  "Did you get any meat?"

"Afraid not, dear Squawker...they ran out before they got to me."

"Ah, man...we'll come a little earlier next time."

"I suppose."

As we pulled out of the parking lot, I wondered what someone with food allergies might do in this situation...or someone diabetic, like the Squawker, for instance...or, for that matter, anyone requiring a diet that didn't depend on heavily processed food.

I pushed all those thoughts of my mind, in short order.  After all, we hadn't gotten any we'd have to figure something out for the weekend.

The next day, I called a friend, and had him to wire a loan, so we could get through the weekend.  We ended up giving him the yogurt on his next social visit. I've paid him back about a quarter of the loan, so far.

We gave the potatoes away to a different friend.  The birthday cake turned out to be stale, and -- since it was taking up a good deal of the upper shelf -- little more than a space waster, so it went in the bin.  This is what happens when the faces of hunger come to town.  --The Reckoner

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