I made 56 grilled cheese sandwiches the other day at Food and Shelter For Friends (FSFF). This is where I’ve decided to fulfill the bulk of my community service hours; it’s an easy ten-minute bike ride from home and there are two meals served every weekday plus lunch on Saturdays. This means I could knock all 80 hours out within a few weeks, but I dread going there.
Hell, I thought it’d be fun. Before my first day at FSFF, I experienced the same feeling I always experience before doing something new: relentless faith that the endeavor is going to change my life, and thus the world. Admittedly, I’ve always wanted to spend a day or two at a soup kitchen simply for the people watching. And yes, it is damn good for that—second only to the state fair and followed by the beach.
So, my first day, I showed up ten minutes early, eager to serve the less fortunate. However, the building was still locked and no employees had shown up yet. Dozens of friends had already congregated outside.
I stood on the periphery of the crowd and tried to observe without seeming too conspicuous. One of many college nicknames came to mind, “Starin’ Erin,” which immediately made me feel self-conscious. As I looked around, though, I noticed that most of my new Friends were also spaced out, lost in thought. I fit right in.
I watched a 30-year old man scuffle among the other Friends like a disgruntled schoolboy. Scuffles even looked like a kid; he had somehow retained a playful twinkle in his eyes. Each time he smiled, though, Scuffles revealed a couple of crumbly, brown teeth, masking his youth. He lit a cigarette and passed it to a woman beside him who was texting madly. She took a long drag without looking up from her phone and passed it back to Scuffles.
A fucking cell phone? And furthermore, who would want to share a cigarette with a strange man who has crumbly, brown teeth?
But Scuffles wasn’t a stranger to her; no, these people are all Friends. They see one another and dine together everyday and share details of their sordid lives with other Friends.
Suddenly, I heard, “N-N-NO! I DO NOT WEAR PANTIES!”
It was poor Scuffles; he was being persecuted for his underpants.
“I WEAR BOXERS!” he cried, and lit another cigarette.
Jesus. I wondered what kinds of drugs (legal and illegal) were in his body and glanced at my phone: 7:58am. I was about to take off when the head chef pulled up. Many of the Friends mobbed his car, shouting things like, “You’re late!” and “Where were you?” and “I need coffee!”
I stood there dumbfounded, hoping someone would unlock the door and get these people caffeine so they’d mellow out. As the crowd filed into the dining room, I looked to see if I knew anyone. Wouldn’t be surprised.
The kitchen door was open so I sauntered in and greeted Chef, who was already heating leftover eggs in one pan and a bacon-sausage medley in another. FSFF is located in a humble, utilitarian structure. Inside, an enormous calendar keeps track of the organizations’ various programs, like toiletry and shower services; a big-screen TV gives the Friends a taste of normalcy between job hunts and drug binges. Everything–the walls, the floors, the tables–is white, and the colorlessness of the space is enhanced by the infernal glow of fluorescent lights overhead.
Everyone in the kitchen had a job: John washed the dishes; Diane made coffee; Anna unwrapped some donated baked goods and placed them on a tray. Trying my best to stay out of everyone’s way, I washed my hands and put on an apron with a little mouse carrying a rolling pin on it.
“You do the servin’, hon. Assembly line style!” hollered Diane as she shoved latex gloves and a spatula into my hands. I was glad to have Diane as a Friend. She knew what she was doing.
Breakfast didn’t start for another 15 minutes and many of the Friends had already lined up, eagerly awaiting their first meal of the day. I surveyed the scene.
There was one guy who looked like a skinny version of Keith Richards; his arms bore several tattoos that suggested unfulfilled dreams of wealth and stardom. He smiled at me and I smiled back.
Another woman with a teal visor, periwinkle claws and zebra print leggings applied layer after layer of coral lipstick, which seeped into the little wrinkles around her mouth. Her eyes kept darting around the room, probably to see if anyone besides Starin’ Erin was watching. Peg Bundy on meth.
Scuffles was nowhere to be found. Probably squeezing in one last cig before breakfast. Then a stout Native American woman, decked out in OU Sooners gear entered the room with her daughter, who looked about four. The little girl’s hair was neatly fixed in a French braid, and she was still in her jammies. They walked up to the serving counter and asked, “What’s for breakfast today?”
“Well, we’ve got sausage, bacon, eggs, pancakes, gravy, toast, and donated pastries from Starbucks,” I replied.
“She’s a little hungry,” said the mother gesturing toward the girl. “D’ya think you could…” and trailed off, nodding at the pastry tray.
“Sure.” I knew what she wanted; I grabbed a muffin and handed it over.
“Thank you so much,” the young mother said. She and her daughter found a place in line. At that moment I realized that this is why FSFF exists at all–to provide helpless citizens with the bare essentials when no one else can.
“Make sure you wear those gloves!” Diane yelled over the clamor of hungry Friends. “There’s a woman here who’ll freak out if she sees you touching the food with your bare hands!”
Seriously? I’d washed my hands twice already and had been in the kitchen for only an hour. The cooks weren’t even wearing gloves.
What difference does it make? My hands are cleaner than the mouths of most of the people in this room… I slipped on my gloves and into Lunch Lady mode.
“Bacon or sausage?” I asked with a smile.
But before I could dole out the first patty, Diane stepped in, “Don’t give ‘em too much the first time around, we need to make sure there’s plenty for everyone to have at least one serving! And there’s always a few stragglers!”
Diane was a true volunteer, not a petty criminal like myself. She knew all of the Friends’ names and most of their stories. As she stood next to me serving pancakes, gravy and toast, I got to hear about everyone’s personal crisis.
“That’s Bert,” she said quietly, cocking her head toward an Asian man who couldn’t have been more than 5’2”. Bert wore an oversized silk black shirt with flames on it and an orange trucker’s cap that showed off enormous ears. “He used to make 100 thousand a year as an engineer, but lost everything after he started drinking.” Now Bert eats here twice a day, everyday, and mostly hangs out, marinating in his “misfortune.”
An older white woman wearing a muumuu with a macaroni necklace and a red baseball cap that said I Love Daddy approached the counter, “I need two plates today–one for me and one for my man. Are the sausages spicy? Jim can’t have any spicy foods because he has an ulcer. And what about that gravy?”
I handed Diane two plates, each with a helping of eggs the size of a golf ball. One had bacon crumbles and the other did not. I let Diane take care of the rest.
“Next, please? Bacon or sausage?”
We were almost out of food and there were at least 15 people left to serve. A few Friends had already inquired about seconds.
“I got more eggs a comin’! Will someone start heating up the Beanie Weenees?”
Something to turn to when little else is available, Beanie Weenees are indeed a sacrament of the working (or not working) poor. The supply is endless and their shelf life, everlasting. Body and blood.
Scuffles entered at the last minute and I gave him a generous portion of everything that was left. I wanted to smile at him but he wouldn’t even look at me in the eye.
It was 10:03am and we had served about 60 Friends. The five-gallon coffee urn was empty again—for the third time.
Someone yelled, “Hey! I need creamer!”
After finishing their meal, most of the Friends filed outside, presumably for a cigarette; and the others plopped down in front of the television to kill some time before lunch, which starts at 11. We volunteers still had a lot to do.
“Alrighty!” shouted Chef. “There’s some leftover ham slices and pork patties, a shitload of cheese that’s about to expire, lots of bread, some green beans, salad, and a partridge in a pear tree. Let’s go, people!”
“Can I make grilled cheeses?” I asked Chef. “I’ve cooked in a few restaurants and I think the Friends here might like a vegetarian option.”
“Well, sure, sweetheart.” I love it when people call me sweetheart.
I washed my hands again and started poking around in the fridge. I grabbed a hunk of butter and six blocks of organic Colby-jack cheese.
“The bread’s in the pantry!” Chef hollered. “We’ve also got some tomatoes. I sure like me some tomato slices on my grilled cheese.” Precious.
The bread was also organic and locally made. What a treat! I thought, overjoyed at the prospect of making a somewhat healthy alternative to the usual, super-processed fare. The Friends will be thrilled!
So, I laid out all my ingredients and heated up a large, cast iron dish with raised sides atop four burners, since there was no griddle. In went globs of butter, and the first slices of bread; on went the cheese. I quickly buttered the top slices and paired them with the bottom ones, then grabbed a spatula.
Well, fuck. The pan hadn’t heated evenly so the sandwiches didn’t cook evenly. I felt flustered, and instead of relaxing, sped up. I burned my hand and without delay Chef tossed me the aloe vera gel. After a few moments of silently cursing myself, I ignored the big white blister on my middle finger and forged onward.
Eight sandwiches, then 16, then 24, then 32… I put them in the warmer. Lunch was only 20 minutes away and the Friends were already lining up.
“Listen up, everyone! Yesterday, we had about 120 here for lunch and only two other workers here besides me. Let’s do this!” Chef was ecstatic; he loved this job. It was almost contagious. Almost.
Just then, an older yet able-bodied black man approached the counter. He wore a beat up three-piece suit and spoke with a thick Southern accent.
“Uh, ‘scuse me? I just rolled into town and I didn’t know y’all served breakfast, and I’m just positively starvin’. Could I have some o’ them eggs?” He was talking to me.
“We’re out of eggs, sir, and lunch starts in 18 minutes. Would you like some bread and jam to tide you over?”
“Aw, shucks. That’d be nice.”
I carefully arranged a variety of breads on a plate with a pat of butter and grabbed a jar of strawberry jam from the fridge. He shook his head then looked at me quizzically, hesitated and spoke, “Do y’all have any apple butter?”
Apple Butter! Fuck no we don’t have apple butter!
“Not today, Friend.”
I handed him a plastic knife and returned to my grilled cheese sandwiches.
“Thank you, sweetheart,” Apple Butter said with a wink and a grin.
The organic grilled cheese sandwiches did not elicit the excitement I’d expected. More than half of the hundred or so people served opted for brittle, two-day old ham. They had meat on their minds, which Chef told me is quite common. From an evolutionary perspective, this makes perfect sense.
Like most of the Friends, I didn’t have a grilled cheese sandwich either, but for different reasons. I was thinking about partaking in my own sacred ritual: the daily wheatgrass shot. At 12:15 I bid FSFF farewell, promising Chef I’d return again soon, and rode to The Earth.