One day at the soup kitchen, D. told me about someone he knows who has a wart on his nose and took the initiative to have little legs and wings tattooed around it. Now, according to D., people say, “Hold still!” and hit this fellow in the face, attempting to squash the bug. I suspect the latter clause was apocryphal, but I’d like to think there is someone walking around town with a wart-bug on his nose. Maybe they say, “Hold still!” and try to flick the creature off his face.
On the fourth Sunday in October, at a four-hour brunch shift. I filled eight big trays with sliced bread and then handed out numbers at the gate with a volunteer who is an attorney and a very serious swimmer. She swims to and from Alcatraz. The two large trees across the street were gorgeous in the early morning sun against the clear blue sky. A young woman in a BMW pulled up and parked out front. I wondered if she was nervous parking there with so many homeless people about, but after she got out of the car, she walked in the gate: a volunteer coming to serve rice, beans and salad.
We were at the gate from 8 until 9:30 or so, and then I sat down at a table in the dining room and ate. A fellow told me he had been granted an “Obamaphone” and just had to find two dollars so he can take a bus to a nearby city to fetch it. (I did not give him two dollars. I don’t give money to anyone while at the soup kitchen because I don’t want to be the ATM machine there. It’s also my intention not to give anyone money right near the soup kitchen, either, but I often do.)
I spotted a young woman in the food line I had talked to there before. She is covered with tattoos and has beautiful dark green eyes and a touchingly sweet manner. She has some sort of very charming accent, I can’t figure out from where. The first time we spoke, she told me her shoes are made of hemp. She appears to be entirely in possession of her mental faculties, and she is immediately likable. It makes me wonder how she comes to be at the soup kitchen—a relationship breakup or a suddenly lost job?
I noticed her wiping away a tear as she waited to get food, and I went over to see what was wrong: A Muni driver had ignored her, pulling away before she could board the bus. I could see how that one little thing could be the last straw in a period where something major has gone wrong and you don’t know if it will go right again. “Am I invisible?”, she asked. For what it’s worth, I told her Muni drivers do that to everyone, and I asked if I could give her a little pat on the shoulder. That’s one thing I’ve learned in my class: to ask before touching people. Also, institutions such as hospitals or jails may have very specific rules about physical contact that a volunteer chaplain needs to know.
The young woman nodded and I touched her shoulder briefly and invited her to come sit at our table. Sometimes people chat as they eat, particularly if they know the people they’re near. Less often, people talk to those they don’t already know, and most often, they don’t talk to anyone, but just eat silently from plates heaped with as much food as they can hold. So our table was silent after the brief conversation about the Obamaphone. After a while, the young woman looked up and said, “This is really good,” meaning the food. When I got up to return to my duties, I told her, “I’m sorry about Muni. I’m glad you’re here, and I hope your afternoon will be good.” That’s all I can do: help the soup kitchen function and try to make sure people don’t feel alone and unseen.
Another day, an agitated guest was telling whoever would listen about the bacterial infection he can’t get any doctor to take seriously. He indicated a small wound on his face, red but not actively bleeding, and said, “Look what’s coming out of it!” Before I could remember an urgent engagement elsewhere, he unwadded a couple of the tissues clutched in his hand and showed me nothing worse (fortunately) than faint smears of blood. He explained what I was seeing: “Little white things are coming out of it: plastic pellets. I’m full of them!” Then he pointed at another guest. “That woman has the same thing. I hope she isn’t also completely full of plastic pellets, like me.” I assumed he was talking about minute pieces of skin or flesh.
Thus, when he later announced the connection between gay men and Ebola, I said, “You’re probably right. That sounds like good advice,” and he walked away happy. Another volunteer said, “No, that’s not right. I’m a lesbian,” but she hadn’t heard the discussion about plastic pellets. I knew I wasn’t going to argue him out of any of his delusions, so why upset him? Also, I wasn’t personally highly offended (though if the orator is sane, we should speak up about racism, sexism and homophobia, etc., whether we are members of the group being insulted or not). Now, if he’d said my father causes Ebola, I might have said, “Hello? My father does not cause Ebola!”