Monday, September 22, 2014

I Ain’t Gonna Tell Nobody

I started reading How Can I Help?, the first of four chaplaincy books to arrive at Modern Times, and at first I didn’t care for it. It seemed hippie-ish and overly general and self-evident, but not far into it, I came upon something that really struck me: “Implicit in any model of who we think we are is a message to everyone about who they are. … The more you think of yourself as a ‘therapist,’ the more pressure there is on someone to be a ‘patient.’ … You’re buying into, even juicing up, precisely what people who are suffering want to be rid of: limitation, dependency, helplessness, separateness.”

The book is liberally studded with anecdotes and personal reflections. A few pages later was one woman’s story about a homeless woman she came to love so much that she eventually considered inviting the woman to live with her. She wrote about doing everything she could in her capacity as social services worker, but it wasn’t enough, and the woman finally said, “You know, dear, there’s nothing you can do for me anymore.” One evening, they sat together in silence in a rainy park as night fell, and the social services woman never saw her friend again. I could all too easily imagine that being me and B., and I cried and cried reading it.

My shift at the soup kitchen has a peculiarity, as I may have mentioned, which is that besides fetching second bowls of soup for those with mobility problems, we fetch second bowls of soup for everyone. Some volunteer just started doing this, and it stuck, and now every server/busser for this shift does the same thing. Most guests are pleased and grateful, a handful say, “I’ll get it,” and one or two, you can tell, are offended, which is probably because they feel they are being treated as if they aren’t capable of standing in line for another bowl of soup or of taking their empty bowl to the bussing station. Of course that is not our intention. It’s because we want our guests to know that they are not only welcome, they are special and they are loved.

I now know who the people are who always say, “I can do it,” and I don’t approach them, but I bump into this over and over with D., who walks with a cane. I most particularly want to do something for him, because I really, really like him, but he most particularly doesn’t want people doing things for him. It must translate to him as, “I see you’re a cripple and that you can’t do this.” I should have gotten that before, but now, reading this book, it has sunk in completely, and I’m going to try not to offer to fetch D. anything anymore.

The soup kitchen serves Sunday brunch, with regular volunteers for the first through fourth Sundays of each month. When a month has a fifth Sunday, they post a sign-up sheet for the 7-11 a.m. shift. I’m thinking about becoming a fourth Sunday volunteer, so I thought I’d do the fifth Sunday in August and see how it went before committing. I met several new people, all very nice, and spent maybe an hour unwrapping sliced bread and putting it onto big trays. Then I asked the crew chief if I could go hang out in the yard with the guests, and she agreed enthusiastically. I saw several regulars, though not D. or B.

The crowd was extremely light, and we were able to start serving a bit early. When the volunteer started calling numbers—“Up to 10, up to 20,” and so forth—a large man seated in a wheelchair and wearing a puffy fake fur vest, yelled, “Oh, hell no! It’s not supposed to start for 22 minutes.” Nonetheless, he wheeled over toward the door and the volunteer told him, “She’ll help you get lunch,” meaning me, and I accompanied the man inside. We were serving pasta with tomato sauce, salad, and fruit, and the man brayed, “Pasta only, lady! Pasta only, lady!” There were several women behind the counter, evidently used to this fellow and even fond of him; they smiled at him. One asked, “Would you like salad?” and he yelled even louder, “Pasta only, lady!”

I asked where he’d like to sit, and he said, “Outside, by the gate. You can wheel me.” With some effort, I got us over the bump in the doorway and outside, where the man began yelling, “I ain’t gonna tell nobody! I ain’t gonna tell nobody!”, which translated to, “It’s my hope you’ll take the initiative to get out of the way when you see I’m approaching.”

I joked, “We’ll see if we can pick up some speed,” and he said severely, “Don’t pick up no speed!” When we got near the gate, he stepped out of the wheelchair and walked smartly to his spot.


Later that day, Tom and I went to Dolores Park for a performance of the S. F. Mime Troupe. Charlie from Howie’s had said he might be there, and indeed he did come along and join us. It was hot and sunny, but the show was good.

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