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A Routine Scarcity
From the corner of Ellis and Taylor, a line of sleeping bodies is drawn towards a deteriorating soup kitchen. It is early morning: early enough for the homeless of San Francisco to conjoin here but not early enough to enter and receive one of the two thousand meals Glide Memorial serves daily. I always come at this time, to admire the people – a woman resting against a shopping cart, a man sprawled on the sidewalk – and pray that no one wakes as I move along. I’ve never admitted the actual price of the train ticket to my mother, who believes a twenty dollar bill is enough for both transportation and lunch. In fact, I am already penniless, and if anyone were to ask me for a dollar or two, I would have to give my coat, or socks, or one of my mittens, certainly not nothing. Some part of physically saying “I have nothing,” with my fuzzy boots and Emily Dickinson tucked under my arm, to someone who can’t afford a lunchtime sandwich strikes me as objectionable. Still, I have nothing to share but a good book and since everyone prefers eating to reading, I’d rather just not disturb anyone at all.
When I enter the building, my guilt finds new spaces. It drifts along as I tie my apron and hairnet, it follows me out of the dining room and into the assembly line. The assembly line is the most systematic form of giving I’ve found yet. A tray is passed down with two pieces of bacon, some sort of fruit, two slices of bread and a side of oatmeal. The bread, donated by local grocery stores, is expired. I like to think it makes no difference but I often daydream of mass supermarket burglaries: stealing fresh bread and replacing the aisles with these expired loaves. I should concede to my conscience and fight with Dave the Manager about it, but he would only gaze at me in false understanding and say, “At least we’re not serving rotten eggs.” And that is not idiomatic.
Beside me, Carlos rinses a handful of dirty forks under the sink and whistles to something like The Girl Is Mine but not quite. He is not exactly a volunteer but someone far more helpful. Carlos had illegally immigrated to America twice – first at seventeen and then sometime in his twenties. Before he was employed, he regularly came to Glide for breakfast. When we first met, he had been deported twice and had decided to work towards his residency. Since then, he has been volunteering at Glide every other morning. He laughs now and mimics his mother’s voice – in their last phone call, she asked how San Francisco was treating his flamboyant homosexuality. He wipes his hands with a towel and probes Dave for a new TV set. Dave knows where to get them at the right price. As I watch Carlos, I find no resemblance to the people we are making trays for. With his crooked teeth and warm smile, it is impossible to imagine him as one among these plastic chairs, sipping black coffee and watery milk. His eyes are honest; he does not believe the world has cheated him. Though this place is exhausted with sadness, I find none of it in him. I have grown accustomed to melancholy and when Carlos blinks at me with beautiful, gleaming eyes, I know he is free of the hollowness that inhabits this place like maggots in a corpse.
When he realizes how intently I’m watching him, he nudges me. “Girl, aren’t you gonna feed them some bacon?”
I want to ask him how his hollowness disappeared and if he knew how to take it away from everyone else because wishing them a good morning wasn’t working. But I shake my head, pretend I was just guessing which song he was whistling to, and dig through my bacon pile.
I tell him I can’t find a piece that is whole and intact. I ask him how to find a good combination. The sizes are hardly ever uniform. There are strips as large as my palm and others curled up like rotting livers. I try to find a small piece of bacon to go with a big piece – that way, everyone is on equal footing. Once I made at least a hundred trays with several small pieces, rather than the mandatory two, and then we ran short and some people didn’t have any bacon at all. Dave would be surprised if he knew I had time to think of all these things and still manage to pass the tray down by the time the front guard had ripped the ticket stub of the next man in line.
This man might not even like bacon. He might trade it with the stout woman across the table, as often happens between diplomatic people over second cups of tea, or helpings of oatmeal, or pieces of bacon. I often see people leave with a deteriorating orange tucked into the sack of their shirt, as another survival tool to trade during lunch. These sorts of diplomats never come for breakfast twice. People can come as often as they like if they get back in line and wait for another entry ticket. The diplomats never do. Instead, they probably hustle to Montgomery Street and mingle in some form of work, gifted with a clear perspective of the future.
Mostly, it is women who are diplomats. Men usually wait in line, over and over again. You frequent upon these patterns if you’re the Greeter. The Greeter has the most unnecessary responsibilities Dave can think of: standing in front of the doorway, handing out trays and feigning bright smiles. Everyone directs their thanks at you and reciprocates a “good morning”, but you are aware that it is only social convention. Some are already searching for seats as you wave hello, others wink cheerfully, and a few see nothing but the meal in your hands.
It ought to become routine – the continuous waiting followed by an exchange of brief conversation and the passing of the tray – but it never does. It is the only job at Glide which will never, ever become mechanical and so, I hate it. I dread the apologetic awkwardness of waiting for a tray, where I introduce the volunteers and explain the difficulties of their job. Though my listener nods politely, perhaps even smiles, I am filled with guilt for the seconds that linger on and prolong the respite from hunger. I know it can’t be easily forgettable, and still I exercise my poor conversationalist skills as some mediocre distraction.
It never works because I’m not like Carlos. I’ve never felt hunger like him or anyone else in line. When I am hungry, I do not suffer, but at Glide, I’ve come closer to suffering than ever before. I’ve tried to stomach it and all its prickly sensations, tried to mask it with conversation or an interest in bacon. Tried to lose it in the assembly line, and between slices of toast. Tried to see hunger as a statistic rather than a reality.
At Glide, we’re a little bit stuck. The misery and starvation from the streets of San Francisco are pressed into the crevices of our bones. There is no escape. The most that can be done is to acknowledge the sensation and bear it. And so we do. It is cold and frightening, but we do. Through our mechanics and conventions, we find common ground.