A recent shift at the soup kitchen was particularly exciting. When it’s time to serve the meal, I like to stand near the volunteer who usually calls the numbers on the day I’m there. I chat with the guests or just try to project a welcoming air. Usually I wait until the volunteer gets to 120—he goes by tens and it goes pretty quickly—and then go inside to pick up a bussing rag and a plate to wipe crumbs onto. While I was standing around on this day, the volunteer called, “Bugwalk—come here.” I rushed over and he said, “If you feel comfortable, could you ask the guest with the python to go back outside the gate? Tell him we’ll bring his meal to him.”
This guest indeed had an immense snake draped around his neck and seemed initially a bit disgruntled when I asked him to step outside, but I assured him that he would get his meal. I asked what he wanted: Soup? Salad? Bread? What kind of bread and how many pieces? Water? Then I brought everything out to him, in two trips.
Also hanging around outside the gate was the very first guest I ever chatted with, B., who remains one of my favorites. He is visibly declining week by week, both physically and mentally. A few months ago, he had a ghastly wound on his elbow and ended up being admitted to the public hospital, but left against medical advice and also stopped taking his antibiotics. It just is impossible for him to follow any sort of instructions, or do anything that has to be done on a schedule. The wound healed, but his elbow is heartbreakingly lumpy and misshapen, and now one of his feet has an infection. How many body parts can you lose, or lose the use of, before you can’t go on?
He asked for a bowl of soup plus a paper cup of soup to be brought to him while he waited in the medical van line, but when I brought the soup out, he was lying on a piece of cardboard on the sidewalk. He said he also wanted two servings of salad, in paper cups, and he wanted four pieces of a certain kind of bread and two pieces of another kind. I walked in and out, in and out, getting everything he wanted, which soon ended up spilled on the sidewalk. For the third or so time, I wrote down my name and phone number for him, so he can call me when he’s in the hospital. I have told him I’ll come and visit him, but I am sure he loses my number minutes after he receives it.
While I was outside making one of my trips to bring B. something, a fight broke out, somehow involving B., who picked up a big pipe and starting swinging it. The main combatants were two other men, and at first, the fight was so volatile that I hopped off the sidewalk into the street to avoid accidentally being hit. Then the executive director came out and inserted himself between the two people, saying, “You can’t fight here, you can’t fight here.” They at first backed off, but then one became belligerent again and tried to push his way through the executive director, who has become a close friend of mine—he’s my walking friend—and who is 70 years old. He has poured everything he has into this work for 40 years now, and done without so much, living nearly as frugally as the soup kitchen’s guests do in many ways.
The guest was twice his size, but didn’t persist long with his renewed effort, thankfully. I was afraid he was going to injure my friend. I told him later that I had not enjoyed watching him in that situation, and he said he hadn’t enjoyed being in it. Certainly if the guest had started hitting him or had knocked him down, any number of people would have rushed to his rescue, including me, but premature intervention would likely just have made things worse.
I went over to stand with B., who was very agitated, now screaming at the executive director in his Arkansas accent, “You need to give this work up! You’re too stupid to do this work! Your brains are too fried! You need to give this up!” He was expressing the same anxiety I had felt, that the executive director would be injured. I think my friend understood that, too. He said to B. calmly, “Yes, I probably am too stupid for this work.”
Then all was more or less tranquil and a passerby drew abreast of us and started to reach into a large blue recycling bin with its lid open. B. warned him off: “Excuse me, that’s my stuff: I stole it.”
The passerby said pleasantly, “Oh, I’m sorry. I thought it was trash.”
B. replied, just as pleasantly, “It is trash.”