So on Christmas Eve day, my good friend Alex selflessly offered to join me in a volunteer stint at one of the city's many food kitchens -- the Haight Ashbury Food Program, on Waller at Belvedere. I planned to help out until 7 p.m., because I had a dinner party to go to later and was hoping to stop at home to shower and change beforehand.
Alex and I initially selected the wrong entrance, walking into the Hamilton Family Center. The man behind the desk set us straight, and allowed us to cut through the shelter to the kitchen next door.
As we wove through several small rooms, each filled with a dozen or so bunk beds, I was blindsided by the reality of the place. Although at that moment the rooms were unoccupied, I was overcome with vivid images of what it must be like to sleep here -- to live here. I imagined young children getting ready for bed, families sleeping in these same rooms with other families.
Beyond the doors was a large industrial kitchen with about 20 old folding tables that served as a dining room. After an initial scare from the outgoing kitchen crew, who told us, "Ain't no dinner here tonight. We just finished up for the day," we cleared up the confusion by locating Judy, the manager, in the office upstairs.
Before we were able to get past the "v" in, "We're here to volunteer," Judy swept us into the office with an, "Oh, good. Two more."
Instantly our expectations of dicing endless sacks of potatoes or dishing out seconds to grateful young tummies were dashed. Instead, Judy installed us on a makeshift assembly line with two other dazed volunteers. Before us lay a circular table overflowing with product. Judy took about two seconds to demonstrate our task: Open the baggie, fold the napkin, one knife, one fork, one spoon, two salt, two pepper, and zip locked. Oh, and be sure to squeeze out all the air.
We asked Judy how many sets we should make. "Well," she said, "there's enough for 1,200 here. Let me know if you run out."
Over the next hour-and-a-half we perfected the creation of the plastic mess kit while nearly giving up all hope of ever seeing so much as a carrot in the way of actual dinner. But in the meantime we were introduced to Debbie, a young staffer who minds the computer and politely offered to answer any questions we had.
We learned that the Haight Ashbury Food Program feeds any and every person who shows up -- generally 200 to 300 per day. The number rises to nearly 700 on Christmas.
Judy stopped back periodically to buzz frantically about the office while delivering one-liners like: "We need to make 80 vegetarian dishes for tomorrow. Because vegetarians are allowed to eat too, I think." And: "Serve, serve, serve. That's all we ever do." When she finally returned to ask for "one volunteer," I was especially thankful to be closest to the door.
Following Judy back downstairs to the kitchen, I was introduced to Frank, a somewhat scruffy older gentleman in a well-worn apron. Judy told me to wash my hands and do whatever Frank told me. With little more than a grunt and a nod, Frank directed me to a corner of the kitchen, where two giant sinks were filled to capacity with an ominous pink sludge. Below the liquid's surface I discovered several thousand pieces of chicken in varying stages of defrost. My job was to work the semifrozen pieces apart and sort them into large industrial pans: breasts, thighs, legs, wings.
Finally, I was the man who came to cook dinner.
A short while later, Alex and company were sprung from utensil hell and brought to join me in the kitchen. Frank instructed one volunteer to slice thick slabs of ham from long torpedoes -- Christmas Eve dinner.
We asked Frank about his background. He told us, "Well, I been coming here now for about 13 years, I'd say." Thinking back, he added, "On again and off again. Then I got laid off from my job and started coming by a little more often."
Judy popped into the kitchen and finished the story. "Frank here volunteered for years. Then he retired. Now he volunteers here every day. Every day," she emphasized. "I don't know how we'd make it without him."
Finished with the chickens, Alex and I moved to the dining area where, knives in hand, we took on a crate of celery and a sack of onions. As I chopped I noticed the giant paper and paint mural loosely mounted on the wall beside us. The children of the shelter had created near-life-size likenesses of themselves. Attached to each painted child was a small sign in his or her own handwriting announcing favorite foods:
I like pizza for dinner. -- Latonya
I like carrots for snack. -- Alyssa
I like bread and jam for dinner. -- Kevin
Just then a tiny boy of 4 or 5 came bounding through the doors from the shelter. As though he'd known us for the entirety of his short life he stopped and asked fearlessly, "What are we having for dinner?"
"What would you like?" I parried.
Looking puzzled, he asked again in a louder voice, "What's for dinner?"
"Well, do you like ham?" I asked.
"Yeah," he replied, as though that should be obvious.
"All right, then," I said. "We'll have ham."
Pausing for a second, he seemed to sense my lack of authority and marched into the kitchen to consult with Frank.
A moment later he marched back, stopped as though to do me a favor, and informed us, "We're having ham." Then he disappeared back into the shelter.
The tears were from the onions.
After we'd cleaned up a bit Frank told us he had everything under control. There was still another hour or so until dinner, so Alex and I headed around to the shelter to offer our services.
Upstairs, Jenny, a young blond employee, was hurrying to prepare an aging auditorium for the night's Christmas Eve party. Chairs had been set out, arranged for families, before two Christmas trees and a central chair that would serve as Santa's throne.
Jenny didn't seem to care who we were or where we came from. She was just glad to have the help, and instructed us to carry torn garbage bags filled with batches of wrapped gifts over to the chairs. A family name tag on each bag allowed us to match it up with the same names on the chairs.
Surveying our work, Jenny realized that some families had more presents than others. She headed off to some hidden storage area to retrieve armloads of additional gifts. "Can you guys wrap these for me?" she asked, and, in lieu of wrapping paper, helped us locate a giant stack of construction paper in the children's play area.
We sat down on the floor and began wrapping. Santa arrived, announcing that his costume didn't come with a beard, and Jenny sent someone off to the store for a bag of cotton balls and a tube of Elmer's.
Over the next hour or so we wrapped several dozen presents: toys, clothes, and an occasional frying pan. Jenny rooted in the stockpile, looking for "something for a newborn," and vented her frustration with a former resident of the shelter who, earlier in the day, had tried to collect presents for her children.
"I asked her," said Jenny, " 'Are you still smoking crack? Well, I'm not giving you these gifts so you can sell them for drugs.' Jesus."
The next few presents were wrapped in silence.
As Alex and I watched the clock approach 7, Jenny's supervisor, Julie, arrived. Deputizing us as volunteers, she introduced herself, saying, "Let's all meet back here at 7, to discuss how we're going to run the party."
Alex and I hesitantly explained that we had to leave by then. Unaware that we'd been there since 1, or that I'd invited people to meet me at my friend's party, Julie attempted to sway us, explaining, "I need people to play with the children. Help them open their presents. Sometimes we have difficulties when one child gets better presents than another." As Alex and I felt our faces begin to melt, Julie asked, "Well, what's the latest you can stay? Seven? Eight?" We agreed to talk it over.
Catching a young boy entering the auditorium backward, Jenny put her arm around his shoulders and walked him out, saying sarcastically, "I know, Tyrone. You're not up here trying to scope out the presents. Let's go back downstairs."
Seven-thirty came and went and the party had yet to begin. Alex and I made the difficult decision to leave. "I can't miss this dinner," I convinced myself. For his part, Alex had a flight to Boston at 6 a.m. And we knew that once the children arrived, we'd never tear ourselves away.
We passed through an anxious group of children downstairs, waiting to be let up to the party, and made our way out onto the street, second-guessing ourselves with each step.
"If a child opens a present in an auditorium, and we're not there to see it, does it still make a smile?" I joked to Alex.
And I tried to convince myself that it was Christmas Eve, and I had a real party to go to.
By Barry Levine