Friday, November 27, 2015

The Faces Of Hunger (Take Five): A Tale Of Two Dinners

<A Slightly Different Take On Thanksgiving...>

As the above image suggests, not everybody waves their arms in the air and salutes when Turkey Day comes calling. Those who know their history understand the darker reality that's often masked, sidestepped or whitewashed by all those benign depictions of that first Euro-Native American there's no need to rehash it here.

Suffice to say, the red man soon came down with some serious regrets after the white man crossed his path, as the Gang Of Four summed it up -- so famously, and so eloquently -- on the key graphic that highlights their classic first album, Entertainment (1979): "The Indian smiles, he thinks that the cowboy is his friend. The cowboy smiles, he is glad that the Indian is fooled. Now he can exploit him."

No less distressing, of course, is the orgy of materialism that's become tied up in America's mass gobbling of the turkey...including Black Friday, the by-now obligatory commercialistic blowout that we've (briefly) chronicled on this blog. Squawker and I get a constant, nagging reminder when my brother-in-law calls to brag about whatever he's just purchased with his (presumably) overtaxed, overextended pieces of plastic....he's the only chap I know who actually buys new monitors for his fleet of computers. But I digress.
Thanksgiving can feel equally hollow when your cupboard is nearly empty. That's how Squawker and myself wound up at one of our little town's trendier "happening" churches on Tuesday night. lining up for its second-ever free Thanksgiving know the drill by now: all comers welcome...everybody's entitled to one fairly hearty plate of turkey (with all the trimmings) need to get up, necessarily, because an army of volunteers is ready to serve you...and, by the way, you may want to check out those services some time (just sayin').

Last year's gathering, as the minister noted during his opening comments, drew around 100 people; tonight's affair, on the other hand, verged closer to 300, which required the church to add a heated tent on the left-hand side to accommodate all the extra traffic. Thankfully, Squawker and myself arrived early enough to avoid that particular option. We ended up at the main table near the entrance, sitting practically elbow-to-elbow with our fellow diners in an extreme case of Sensory Overload Theater (as Squawker suggested).

Needless to say, intimacy is hard to come by in such a massive setting, though the minister and his assistant (I presume) did their best to inject the personal touch...but it didn't really work. How could it? At one point, the minister said, "Turn around to the person who's sitting next to you, and say, 'I'm thankful for you.'" The gestured dutifully completed, all concerned turned around to resume chatting with the people they already knew, or those who'd turned up with them...including Squawker and myself, hand on heart.

The phenomenon repeated itself when two women began playing and singing on electric piano and acoustic guitar, respectively. Now, I enjoy live music and events as much as the next person...but not every occasion needs to be truned into a quasi-concert, because such intrusions (real or perceived) tend to make the punters cranky. The women tried their best, but the crowd kept on talking to itself unabated.

We decided not to stick around for the dessert.

On Thanksgiving Day, we drove 10-15 miles in the opposite direction, ready to partake in yet another "come one, come all" community dinner that we needed to stretch what little remained of our food budget. As I've reported here already, things have gotten tighter and tougher since the local welfare authorities whacked our food allowance from the upper $200 range to the princely sum of $16 per month. Put another way, we've had our creativity tested like never before as the end of the month approaches.

This time, however, we found ourselves in the middle of the country...far from the stiff upper lip stodginess, the stolid rigidity, the stultifying snobbishness and stubborn allegiance to old social codes that has left Squawker and myself seeking (if I may quote the Cramps) "some new kind of kick." This particular dinner marked the first of its kind for this local restaurant and winery...we'd only learned about it a week and a half ago on Facebook.

Unlike Tuesday's megachurch-style affair, however, the vibe here felt a whole lot more relaxed. Instead of waiting (and waiting, and waiting a bit longer still) for the same plate that everybody else got, the venue had set out a buffet....where you got in line, and could take what you wanted, as much as you wanted. All comers were welcome, but had to call ahead and RSVP, so the venue would know how many people it planned on serving. Makes sense, doesn't it?

About halfway through the proceedings, one of our mates...whom we'd met at the local disability book club group...turned up, to our surprise, and delight, which jump-started a suitably entertaining conversation about the experiences we'd shared since we last met. At various points, a little girl (one of the owners' or staff's daughters, I reckon) asked if we needed anything, or came to take whatever plates we'd just finished. The whole thing had a down home vibe that both Squawker and I have sorely missed...and, to be honest, rarely experience in our own hometown.

I got up to contemplate the possibility of seconds, but...for safety's sake...decided to pop the question first: "Can we go up again? Is that okay?"

The manager looked at me as though I were kidding: "Of course! It's Thanksgiving, man! If you can't do it here...." He flashed one of those shucks, why are you even asking? sorts of smiles. "When can you do it?"

"Agreed," I said. "Great to hear, thanks!"

Both Squawker and I are used to more controlled settings and situations...where the ringmasters pick and choose what you can bring home. and you don't get a vote in the matter (unless you're obviously allergic to something or other). I'm glad that didn't happen here.

To top it all off...due to a lower than anticipated turnout...the management sent us home with takeout boxes...with white meat, stuffing, rolls, corn, and chocolate cheesecake....which helped answer today's question: "What's for lunch? We're not sure how to fill in those blanks yet."

But, honestly, it felt good to experience this kind of a gathering. People actually talked to us, and treated us like human beings...instead of robotic automatons fit solely for the purpose of scrambling up the social ladder.

In short, this occasion definitely combined "thanks" and "giving," with all the positivity that implies. Now, if Squawker and I get to experience that vibe in our hometown, and not just on a one-shot basis...we'll definitely be happier campers. Time will tell. I'll keep you posted. --The Reckoner

Saturday, November 21, 2015

The Faces Of Hunger (Take Four): This Time We Didn't Wait In Line...


If you ever make it to Britain, you may hear somebody pooh-pooh or dismiss an idea by exclaiming, "F#ck this for a game of soldiers!" (More polite souls may opt for: "Sod this for a game of soldiers!") In a nation adept at coining colorful phrases, this one probably ranks near the top...but what does it mean, exactly?

I'll let our friends at the Urban Dictionary provide the honor of an explanation:

<Historically soldiers were notorious for becoming engaged in silly and most times (e.g. the game of the "bisquit") non-sense games to kill the time, practice that over time gave them a poorly credible connotation and stereotype. Hence this old fashioned colloquialism (the original version was Sod this for a game of soldiers) compares the foolishness of a certain action/thing with that of "a game of soldiers".>

That phrase practically rolled off my lips this week, when the Squawker and I decided to pay our Friendly Neighborhood Mobile Food Truck a visit. As usual, I was waiting for somebody-or-other for my latest scrap of contract editorial light of that issue...we decided it might be wise to augment our latest dwindling nutritional stockpile.

The truck happens to be the project of a local Lutheran church that also provides a free monthly community dinner to all comers. You just basically sign your name, address and household size, and that's're good to go. It's a pretty straightforward affair, unlike other gatherings of this type that we have attended. I've interviewed the woman who runs these programs, and she seems passionate about what she does. The staff and volunteers are also generally kind and responsive.

So, on this particular Thursday afternoon, I'm not sure what happened...because when Squawker and I pulled near the parking lot, we saw a line that snaked all the way from the church's HQ (which occupies a separate building across the street from the chapel itself), to the edge of the road, and further down the sidewalk.

We did a quick headcount -- there must have been 100-plus people standing there at 1:30 p.m., waiting for the doors to finally yawn open, so they could sign up, and receive a paper ticket to claim their place in line for the truck. it goes without saying that you want to show up as early as possible, since the people with the lowest numbers (generally, from 0-50) get the best stuff first. If you've got a higher get what's left, but the result isn't pretty.

The Squawker and I glanced at each other uneasily.

Thursday's temperature allegedly stood at around 30 degrees...but the windchill felt much, much colder. And there was a good chilly breeze knocking about, as well.

"I'm not sure if I can stand here this long..."

I surveyed the line more intently. "Are you thinking what I'm thinking?" I wondered. Just how long have these folks been standing out here, anyway? Looks like it's been awhile...

"Yeah, maybe we should go home," Squawker agreed. "Our number will probably be somewhere in the lower 100s...and the good stuff'll be gone by the time they finally get to us."

"You'd think, though, that they wouldn't force people to stand outside for so long, on such a rotten weather day..." I sighed. This is getting complicated, I told myself. I've got conference calls to transcribe in a couple hours...but if we stay here that long, we'll both turn to icicles.

However, when you lack resources, such ritualized waiting games are par for the course. You can hear the unspoken dialogue bouncing around in your head, and the blanks you fill don't feel terribly comforting: Why are you standing here doing this? Because we can make you, that's why...even if we say "ask you," which sounds so much better on the record. 
The unspoken punchline isn't far from your mind, either: why do you stand here, freezing with your hands crammed in your pockets? Because you must. Otherwise, you don't get the help. Take what we give you, simple as that. 

"Yeah, it's bullshit...what do you wanna do?" Squaker asked.

And that's when the magic phrase spilled out of my lips: 

A Game...Of Soldiers!"

<cut 'n' paste for future reference...>

And then, under my breath, I said: "Tell you what...let's spend twenty of thirty bucks on food to get through the weekend. I've got better things to do today, and so do you."

On that note, we left. 

But I'll see what happened, because -- unlike a lot of other churches that Squawker and I have patronized -- you don't get the usual snotty vibe that makes you feel like something that crawled off a bent coat rack ("Oh, you poor thing, it's you again? Let's show our community how wonderful we are for helping you to macaroni 'n' cheese and never-ending cans of tuna...ah, no need to thank us, dear. Pshaw, pshaw, it was nothing, really.")

If I get a straight answer, I'll let you know. I hesitate to pass judgment on people whom I know fairly well -- maybe it comes down to some overly officious volunteer who hadn't seen the weather forecast (ergo, keep the door locked until somebody says otherwise).

But there's an easy way to remedy the situation...if you're not ready to take people's info, that's fine. However, at least find another entrance door that you can open in the building, and give people a chance to get warm (however briefly). That's called Common Sense 101, which can go out the wnidow these occasions.

Then again, it could be least I had $30-odd to drop on food this weekend. We'll see what Monday brings. --The Reckoner