After returning from Thanksgiving, I went to the soup kitchen to serve at a Sunday brunch shift. I noticed an older guest with a very cheerful face making all kinds of expressions and gestures. He caught my eye, and, without speaking a word or in any way seeming to flirt, he smiled, raised and lowered his eyebrows, looked meaningfully at me, made the zip-my-lips motion. I reciprocated as best I could.
One of our guests has fabulous rock star hair and he commented to me, “Your hair is like mine,” and he told me his hair care regime, which includes something I never thought of doing. I joked, “If my hair looks better the next time you see me, it will be thanks to you,” whereupon he said kindly, “Well, it doesn’t really matter. What’s important is to be a good person.” Here I realized that he was extremely tactfully trying to tell me something that any number of stylists have told me very firmly and without any tact at all: stop combing your hair into a big ball of frizz!
I chatted with an extremely gracious guest a couple of times, a woman with a pleasant face and manner. She commented on how good the pasta was. Usually I walk home from there, but the bus was coming just as I passed the stop, so I got on it and this same woman got on, following another passenger, whom she was cursing at, enraged. She accused the woman of having tried to kiss her neck, and said, “Don’t nod your white face at me, bitch!” The other woman was much younger, perhaps 20, and she remained silent. The soup kitchen guest continued to curse and rage until the next corner, where she got off.
The bus driver, a man, evidently said something about her needing to take her medication, because she got right back on the bus and said, “You don’t tell me to take my medication, bitch! Making a remark to me like that—that’s illegal! I’m going to call and file an incident report, bitch.” Then she got off the bus again and sloshed a whole cup of milk or something all over the windshield and vanished from sight.
It seemed perfectly clear to me that all this anger is her defense against the perils of being a homeless or very low income woman, and it didn’t seem frightening to me—I mean, I sound more or less like that myself when I have to talk to AT&T—but I imagined that the young woman probably felt frightened. The bus driver stood up and asked if we thought he should take some official action or just let it go. “Let it go” was my vote, and he drove on. I remarked to another passenger that I had just seen the angry woman somewhere else and she was as nice as you could want someone to be.
I guess one thing I take from that experience is an appreciation for how our guests—and volunteers—are on their very best behavior when they come to the soup kitchen, which is a giant compliment. I like going to the soup kitchen, in part, because it’s easy to be my very best self there: calm, cheerful, absolutely present, which is nourishing to me, if to no one else.