Sweating my balls off, spattered with chunks of mashed potato, hosing tap water into a plastic beverage dispenser amidst the din of mass production.
“Hot pan!” Somebody yells and I yell “Hot Pan!” back at them, tense my shit up as they go whistling by behind me, feet shuffling on the slop greased floor, pan sizzling that serpent sizzle and dropping with a clatter into the steam bath. My bucket is full and the guy beside me hands me the Gatorade powder.
When he’s handed the canister over he adjusts the hairnet on his head, which I would readily make fun of save for the fact that he looks like he just got out of prison for eating babies and that I am wearing one also.
“You with the church?” He asks.
“Oh, uh, no.” I say.
“You working off a fine?”
“Why you here?” He says.
“Just wanted to help out.” I say, which isn’t entirely true. That motivation is definitely in there, but I’ve got a deeper fascination that I’m looking to feed as well.
“That’s cool man.” he says. “We need the help.”
‘We’ is the Tacoma Rescue Mission, which you can find tucked between two hillsides on South Tacoma Way, or a the bottom of a long fall through hard times. It’s been in operation in one form or another for more than 100 years, first opening its doors in 1912 at the behest of an evangelical preacher named Gypsy Smith. In the time that followed it’s creation, it has grown exponentially, picking up campuses and programs, shifting locations and widening its focus to meet the needs of men, women and children at the end of tattered ropes for all the different reasons people find themselves there. The Great Depression, World War 2, Vietnam, the Great Recession and all the while, the Rescue Mission picking up pieces and giving them the shelter and food they needed to try and put themselves back together. Shelter in the form of their various housing programs scattered throughout the area. Food (on this occasion) in the form of Shepherd’s Pie, hot heavy and serious.
“Hot Oven!” Desiree screams over her shoulder, and I echo it back to her, my voice ringing off the insides of the Brave New World style potato cooker that I’m scrubbing. Steam rising out of the hot water I’m massaging into the slick steel sides of it, gloves disintegrating against the grit of the Brillo pad. There’s a big plastic bin at my feet filled with potato chunks. That bin and all the other “slop buckets” will be picked up by local farmers at the end of the day. The farmers will feed it to their pigs.
Desiree heaves the pan out of the inferno saying,
“ Watch those doors kid, they’ll get ya.”
I believe her. She’s got a shiny pink spot on her forearm where it branded her earlier in the week. Little dark dots on her hands from earlier encounters.
“Yeah they will.” the head cook says from behind her, arms folded over his chest, eyes never leaving the pan she’s easing onto the counter. He’s got tattoos on his forearms, which are corded with that hard work muscle. That hungry muscle.
“That oven don’t care who you are.”
And he looks over the crusted cheese on his shepherd’s pie and hints at a muted smile.
Trays of bread and pastries, donated from local bakeries are slid out onto the counter. Over the steam baths are pans of Shepherd’s Pie and corn on the cob. Salad in four cold cases further down the line. Desiree, one of few non-volunteer workers in the kitchen, stations me at the pastry tray. Says,” Give ‘em one for now. Line gets shorter we’ll start passing out seconds.” I nod and start to peel the saran wrap off them. The Asian lady beside me at the bread station stops me from fully uncovering them. “Only half off.” she says. “Sometimes, the spit fly.” The doors leading out to the hall open slightly and a white guy pokes his head in. Kinda guy that might make you cross the street if you saw him coming towards you. Feral in the eyes, scribbled with blue ink tattoos.
“ Can I help you Larry?” Desiree says and she posts her hands on the line, leans on them.
“ I was just seeing if it was ready.” He says.
“You know what time it’s ready.”
“Yes ma’am.” he says and the door shuts behind him.
Trays are stacked, silverware cleaned and separated. The whoosh and roar of the dish station subsides briefly and the sound of music drifts into the room through the doorway of the seating area.
“What is that?” Desiree asks, and a dude they call ‘Ghost’ answers her.
“ They’re doing Karaoke in the dining room.” A laugh crackles out of him.
“Who’s idea was that.” Desiree says and his answer is lost in amidst an off key rendition of “The Way You Look Tonight.”
Then the doors open and the people enter.
Food has taken on an unusual dynamic in our society. Its an industry, like coal or oil, now. Food has channels devoted to it with reality television programs centered around it. Some of it is prepared by highly paid megalomaniacs in pristine kitchens to be carried by struggling servers and eaten hastily by people who barely appreciate it. Some of it is processed bullshit in hip packaging. We gripe constantly about food. We rip good efforts by hard-working cooks to shreds because it is fashionable to do so. We trash restaurants on yelp because it was “too hot in the seating area on the day I went there” or because “ the street outside the restaurant is loud.” Which brings me finally to my ulterior motive for standing on the serving line at a homeless shelter on a sunny Sunday afternoon.
“Want a pastry sir?”
“What looks good to you, man?”
“Shit, they all look good.”
“Ha, how about this almond croissant?”
“Here you go man, enjoy.”
And he will. He absolutely will. They all will. One after another, sliding down the line smelling the lovingly crafted shepherd’s pie as it’s scooped into their steel trays. Carefully picking their bread out, surveying their pastries and asking questions about their salad. Some are smiling and some are not. Some ask for what they want and others point. They are men and women and even the occasional child and dog in varying degrees of disarray and the beef in the pie is not wagyu and the bread on the tray is day-old. But everyone is happy to have it. And I’m happy to watch them be happy. The head cook walks out onto the line to look things over, arms still crossed, that muted smile still muted. A guy in wifebeater is back for seconds and when he sees the cook he flags him down. Says,
“Hey man, the food….”
There’s a dramatic pause, then he’s grinning, both thumbs straight up in the air. Cook cranks the smile up to 11.
When the lines been whittled down to basically nothing, Desiree sends me to the dishwashing station to help out the old guy back there hosing dishes. He’s a resident, putting in some extra work, singing along with the guy doing Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Simple Man in the other room. Both of them singing with their eyes closed. Putting feeling behind it.
“Forget your lust for the rich man’s gold
All that you need is in your soul
And you can do this, oh baby, if you try
All that I want for you, my son, is to be satisfied
And be a simple kind of man
Oh, be something you love and understand”
-Lynyrd Skynyrd “Simple Man”
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