“ Welcome! We are so happy to have you again!”
Many animated greetings awaited us as we stepped out of the notably crowded school bus. I had never, in fact been there before, but the gestures did relieve some tension.
The gentle smell of exhaust fumes and smoke filled my nose, causing a slight dizziness as we walked up to the back door of Andre House, a local homeless shelter run by a church, and I felt a rush of warm air like a slap to the face against the chilly evening outside air. We were shuffled through a large, modern kitchen and into a medium work room where many other volunteers were already hustling around.
After being introduced to an abounding number of new names and faces, I was immediately placed at a workstation, knife in hand with a large tub of tomatoes occupying most of the wooden table. The vapid task of slicing and dicing vegetables left me a feeling superfluous, but that slowly changed to a feeling of relief. It was a simple task where I couldn't make a mistake unless I deliberately tried. Soon cutting tomatoes actually became engaging and enjoyable. Though the feeling of the light metal of the large case knife was a familiar one, my gloves were ripped at the tips, I had a small cut on my index finger, and both hands were soaked in tomato juice by the time all the tomatoes were diced, in the grey tub, and ready for the kitchen.
Hands intertwined and heads lowered we ended preparations and a prayer with a cohesive “Amen.”
Our stations were already assigned for when dinner would be served and I was a tad nervous. It hadn't been the first time I volunteered, but the social engagement with others was what made myself skittish, for I had not counted on this part of the evening. Being taught all my life to avoid people along the side of the road, and warned not to give out money or food had left me uneasy about interacting with the very “drug ridden scoundrels” that I've been warned about.
Standing in what was called “the line,” I stood over a large case of Pico de Gallo with a large serving spoon in my right hand. With a repeated mention of the name, and multiple people to refer to, I became confident in pronouncing Pico de Gallo correctly when the line began accept the long line of hungry people outside.
When the door opened, my eyes instantly fell upon a small beetle-like man first in line.
“Finally,” he exasperated. “I'm so hungry I could eat a horse.” His clothes were strewn with dirt and he had no shoes on. But the most noticeable features of the man was not the white, tostled, greasy hair, but rather his protuberant eyes.
“Excuse me! What is that?” the short man said holding out his tray. He had an impatient look in his furrowed eyebrows, and his voice was was lined with annoyance at having to repeat himself.
Panic instantly hit me, for I had forgotten again the name of what I was serving. I could feel my face flush red and I stuttered.
“It's Pico de Gallo” the girl said beside me. Her smile seemed to burn right through the old man like the way light stabs through a glass window as if it wasn't even there. Later I would find that my face had never returned to its white colour, but remained as bright red as the Pico was. Many more tattered faces walked through the line but the embarrassment of looking them in the eye remained. A few times I had even referred to my serving as salsa and not Pico de Gallo, leaving some people with a laugh of amusement. After service came the dreaded time of the night: clean up. Though most of the people had already left I still felt uncomfortable as I grabbed a washcloth, and tried to avoid the still eating customers. Running the wash clothes up and down the long table left the suds of soap in streaks all along the table.
“ Hey! Do ya mind,” and angry voice shouted seemingly right in my ear. Startled I turned around, heart beating. The stout, little man sat hunched over his tray of food with a scowl on his bearded face. He raised his arm to his forehead and drew his hand back, leaving a dark mark of dirt along the back of his white hand.
“I-I’m so sorry sir,” I stampeded, trying to explain the suds and why I almost wiped his food clean of the table.
“Eh, it's alright,” his voice seemed more subdued. His eyes fluttered sightly, out of exhaustion, when he scooped another spoonful of food into his mouth.
“How is your salsa?” I asked the man, not knowing how else to respond.
The man stopped and looked at me thoughtfully as if he were exasperated from our chat. A small smile curled his lips.
“This does taste an awful lot like salsa” he said in a matter of fact tone, “and maybe you won't forget how to say it.”
I returned his chuckle.
“It reminds me of a time when my wife and I went to Peru and…’
I had immediately sat down as his story took off. It was almost as if the man wasn't talking directly to me,but just streaming off his thoughts openly without questioning
This man was nothing like the beggars you see on the sides of freeways holding up signs. There was a sort of glint in his eyes that made them only more profound as he recaptured his story. Yes, the small man was dirty. Yes, the small man didn't have a house. Yes, the small man’s only company was the collection of ripped tents and weather abused shopping carts just outside the doors. But, the small man also had a wife, adventures along the patted roads of Peru, and a past filled with many other stories, some less extravagant than others, just waiting to be told. Afterwards I had felt energetic and I had realized my prejudices against homeless people. But if there were more homeless people like the short man, i’d be happy to sit through more stories. Exhaustion didn't fully seek into my body until all of us loaded back into the bus and departed from the small church.