Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Feeding My Soul, and Others, at the Meatloaf Kitchen

Sometimes I need a refresher course in humanity. I see the ragged people walking around Saratoga Springs with their canes, sitting forever in the nook tables at the library. I categorize them in the mental file called: People whose eyes I avoid. There’s an overweight man dressed in layers with a shopping cart who spends a lot of time on a bench on Division Street. I make a wide berth. I think: Get a job.
We have a tendency to file into simple categories people who are different, whose lives we don’t understand. Each time my mind leapfrogs to those thoughts I become a little less human. On Saturday I regained a bit of humanity, revisiting a soup kitchen on the Lower East Side of Manhattan for the first time in twenty years.
I caught a bus down from Albany to New York City for a few days and showed up around 9:30 a.m. for the morning shift at the University Community Soup Kitchen, which serves up equal portions of hot food and dignity to those in need of both, in a restaurant-style setting.
I broke down some personal class barriers I’d erected in the interim I’d been away, reopening a place inside that has been under lockdown during my suburban life in upstate New York.
I poured coffee for dozens of down-and-out folks. They said thank you again and again. I chatted in basic Spanish with a nice Cuban man. I tried to talk people into less sugar in their coffee. “Four teaspoons,” several said. “Five,” one said. We laughed about it, though the word “diabetes” flashed through my brain. I handed out peanut butter and jelly slathered across slabs of bakery bread. They eagerly took them and said thank you again. We had no deep discussions, just simple friendly interactions.
I spent an hour spreading frosting and slicing cakes donated by area bakeries. I collaborated with young volunteers who were optimistic, hard-working, and eager to help. I felt if this was the future of the world, then perhaps, after all, we’re in OK shape.
The Meatloaf Kitchen, as it’s known affectionately by locals, has a special place in New York City. Guests come by the hundreds every Saturday, shuffling up in worn shoes, sleep-deprived and destitute. By foot, bicycle, and subway, from as far away as the Bronx, they make their way to the Lower East Side, and check their indignities at the door.
Sure the meatloaf’s to die for, and the coffee’s hot and fresh. You can’t beat the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches – or the price: nothing. But these ragged folks also come for something else. Respect. A smile from the waitress. Friendly words from fresh-faced volunteers.
This past Saturday, volunteering after twenty years away, I took some nourishment there myself.
photo (55)A friend of mine who manages the place, Steve, who used to be my editor at The Associated Press when I worked there in the 1990s, had encouraged me to revisit and help out. Something inside me was ready. It was time to re-lower the barriers, I knew. To rediscover that the people I often step around are in fact human beings.
It was a needed homecoming. For a period of ten years in my life, in the 1980s and early 1990s, I served meatloaf on Saturdays to down-and-out folks here. At the time the University Community Soup Kitchen was run in the basement of a church several few blocks from its current location. After serving hundreds of people and cleaning up the place, a bunch of us would head out tired but exuberant and eat out at a nearby Italian restaurant, Frutti de Mare, or Kiev, the Ukranian joint. Then we’d play pool and drink cold beers. We’d often see the people we served wandering the streets, and exchange a friendly glance or a few words with them.
The kitchen was started in 1982 by two university professors at a time of explosive homelessness on New York City streets. They had a unique idea—to provide not just a hot meal but an oasis from cold streets. A place where the destitute could replenish their bodies and dignity. A restaurant without a cashier, where the volunteers would eat the same food they served to guests.
“We try to duplicate a restaurant situation with one exception—no cashier,” Steve said, addressing a group of two dozen volunteers Saturday, during a break in the morning shift. “If you’re walking in today and someone says the meatloaf isn’t cooked enough, we’ll take it back. We only serve food in a manner we’d want to be served in.”
Acceptance works both ways. Steve related to me a story. He was riding home early one morning on the No. 1 train, on the Upper West Side, far from the soup kitchen.  “It was about 1 a.m. and I was tired and I’d had a few drinks so I was kind of nodding off, when I saw a group of shady looking men get on the train.  I was worried at first, and started to think whether I should get out at the next stop.  But, in a couple of seconds I recognized them as members of a Doo-Wop group who were regular soup kitchen customers, and who even sang for us at our annual volunteer appreciation party a couple of years earlier.”
They were preparing to sing when they noticed Steve. The leader stood up and announced to everyone in the car,  “Hi everybody, we’re going to sing for you in a minute, but first I want to introduce Steve, here, who runs the Meatloaf Kitchen downtown, where you can get a great hot meal every Saturday.  We’d just like to say thanks to Steve and all the volunteers at the kitchen and sing this song for them.”
They launched into an old favorite from the 60s.  It left Steve both embarrassed and happy. “I saw that we really do make a difference in people’s lives, and they remember us for it.”
As for the other subway passengers, well, they just looked down of course, and tried not to be noticed, just like any other time.  “I didn’t care.  It made my night,” Steve said.
In addition to working at the soup kitchen, David Kalish is the author of the novel, The Opposite of Everythingwhich will be published in March and is available for purchase now on KindleHis author events this spring are in Saratoga, Brooklyn, and Long Island. 

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