Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Love me sweet, never let me go...

When I enter the church hall for my second ever dinner shift at the Out of the Cold program in our neighborhood I am greeted by the sight of the Elvis impersonator who will be entertaining the guests tonight (last week I had referred to them as clients which is wrong apparently but the word "guests" doesn't sit well on my tongue either). True, he is not wearing the trademark white jumpsuit and dark sunglasses but he does have the tell tale dyed black hair, long sideburns and something in his physique that suggests the older Elvis.

There are fewer servers tonight. J, for one, has been sideswiped by some sort of mild virus and we decided it would be best for her to stay home. I am on my own tonight serving table 8. Many first and second timers are on their own. I sense that we are all a bit nervous.

G, the night's coordinator, urges us to be friendly, to talk to the "guests" and not hang back. This is harder for us than it sounds I think as we don't know what to expect - hostility? Friendliness? The perception that we are being condescending to the guests? I see some of the more experienced volunteers with big smiles plastered on their faces and it feels so false to me, so strange. I am striving for friendly seeming but not goofily happy to be there...because the circumstances are not happy for these people in general.

One of the first men in the hall when it opens, wearing a toque and a dark green sweatshirt, stalks up and down the length of the hall searching for a place to sit with an angry look on his face. I admit, the look makes me nervous. He seems like a pretty tough character with his troubles etched all over his tanned face and his clothes in slight disarray. I am mildly alarmed when he parks himself at my table. The rest of the guests at my table (including a thin Roger Ebert look-alike) seem quite tired and quiet which really sets this particular man apart.

But I find that there seems to be little to worry about. He turns out to be the friendliest and most courteous of the group. With each portion of food I hand him he says loudly and sincerely, "Why thank you darlin'!" with profuse enthusiasm.

The meal is very similar to the week before: vegetable soup with sausage, roasted chicken and potatoes with mixed vegetables and then brownie cake and ice cream for dessert. My friend in the toque asks for a number of bowls of soup. And juice. He seems ravenous. Then again, he is not a small guy. But he is polite in his requests.

When it comes to dessert, my friend cheerfully asks for TWO bowls of ice cream. I say, "How 'bout we start with one and see how it goes?" Okay, he cheerfully assents. As fate would have it I have an extra bowl of ice cream and he says, "Just slide it over here dear, I'll take it off your hands!" As I hand it to him he says, "I love you!" I said, "Yeah...that's what my kid says when she wants something..." "You got a smart kid!" he replies. She ain't the only one...

"Elvis" is singing Love Me Tender and Blue Christmas accompanying himself on an acoustic guitar behind me as I serve dinner but, somehow, I think this is the wrong note for the evening. When asked for requests a woman nearby calls out Viva Las Vegas. I keep thinking if you were sitting at this table would you want to be thinking about the lyrics of Blue Christmas? I would not. She wants something more upbeat and so do I. Because there is something about the combination of the music and the faces of the guests that pushes me to the verge of tears at times.

A younger man at the next table with dyed blond hair and new looking athletic clothes tries to catch my eye several times. When he does, he winks and points at me in a semi-flirty way. Don't you know that I am old enough to be your...older sister? I want to ask him and rush to clear the table.

After we clean the tables and move them away to put up the mattresses for the overnight guests, G, the coordinator, asks me to clear away the salt and pepper shakers and would I mind refilling them in the supply room? Not at all. It makes me feel that she trusts me to do a tiny bit extra.

The hall is darkened, the men are trying to sleep on the mattresses we have placed on the floor. They seem infinitely patient to me as it is still pretty chaotic in the kitchen and the departing servers are somewhat loudly getting ready to leave. Students are getting forms authorized for their community hour commitments. The coordinators are giving last instructions to the staff coming on board for the next shift. Volunteers are happily munching on the last bit of dessert that remains - very kindly provided by my friend D, the expert baker. This is no small feat as she has to commit to bringing 125 portions of dessert.

This part of the evening always reminds me of a scene in Orwell's Down and Out in Paris and London. While spending time in a "doss house" he observed how docile the men had become, how necessary this was for them to survive the system in order to receive aid and comfort.

Part of the reason that I find these evenings so fulfilling emotionally is that it forces me stop whining (temporarily) about my own life and situation. Look around, I keep saying to myself. You think you have problems? Just zip it and keep passing the food out...

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