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The Man Who Came to Dinner 

Wednesday, Apr 28 1999
Ever try to stuff an entire In'n'Out Double Double Burger and a full order of those homemade fries (you know, the ones they serve in a towel) along with a whole vanilla milkshake into your mouth at once, while attempting to steer the car with your inner thighs in a mad dash to get to Tahoe before the bars close on a Friday night after work?

Yeah, me too.
However, that is not what is meant by Meals on Wheels.
Meals on Wheels, one of San Francisco's better-known social services, has been delivering meals to the homebound elderly for just about 30 years now. So Amy Kirk, Meals on Wheels' development associate, invited me to pay the organization a visit and sample some of the culinary creations it sends out every day.

It didn't sound like a greasy burger and fries. But I eagerly accepted.
Meals on Wheels makes its home in a converted greenhouse in Bayview-Hunters Point. Amy took me on a tour of the modest offices where the administrative staff does its thing -- fund-raising, screening new applicants for eligibility, and trying to find ways to decrease the number of names on the waiting list. I spotted a group of "fan" letters from some of the Meals on Wheels clients pinned to the side of a cubicle. One woman had written, "This is about a thousand times better than I had been eating (and often not eating). The food is so unexpectedly delicious."

My interest in chowtime crept up a notch.
Amy introduced me to Sima Sara Dahi, one of the MOW staff dietitians. Sima led me downstairs, draped me in a hairnet, and showed me where all the magic happens: a spotless, mostly stainless steel environment of kitchens, walk-in refrigerators, freezers, and prep rooms, in which Meals on Wheels cranks out about 1,500 meals a day.

The meals are made to a variety of specifications (low sodium, diabetic, mechanically softened) and delivered hot, cold, or frozen, depending on the client's needs. At the far end of the facility everything comes together in insulated Meals on Wheels packs to be loaded by the drivers for each day's routes. It's a highly organized and fairly seamless process for getting a good chunk of the local population fed.

But the question remained: How does the food taste?
Back upstairs, Sima led me into the MOW boardroom, where Amy rejoined us along with Richard Lipner, Meals on Wheels' executive director, and nutrition assistant Maria Alvira. Laid out on the large table was a buffet of 10 or so of the stand-ard Meals on Wheels entrees, along with a variety of salads and even some cookies for dessert.

First up was a Salisbury steak with mashed potatoes. Yum.
Corned beef and cabbage. Yum yum.
And stuffed peppers. Triple yum.

As I was eyeing the tuna noodle casserole, we all turned to catch Sima with her fork, inspecting the underside of a large slice of turkey loaf. Sima, it seemed, had planned her monthly quality-control meal to coincide with my visit. In summary I'd give it all ... mmm ... 3 1/2 stars.

After our meal and back downstairs in the loading area, Amy and I waited for Toni Maher, a veteran Meals on Wheels driver and my host for the rest of the afternoon. Another longtime driver, Chuck, rolled in to meet me. Although Chuck is in a wheelchair, he's been one of Meals on Wheels' top delivery drivers for 11 years. He had also just returned from Sydney, Australia, where his team had won an international basketball championship.

Toni rushed in, her head covered by a large green ski hat, moving to load up the truck for her third route of the day. I tried to introduce myself, but she just swept me up -- along with two large bags of meals -- loaded us into her pickup, and took off.

"So what are you up for today?" she asked me. "You just want to watch? Or actually make some deliveries?"

"I'm up for anything," I answered.
Our route took us through the Mission, into Noe Valley, Glen Park, and Twin Peaks. Toni made a lot of the early deliveries without me. "This one's not very interesting," she'd say, grabbing a meal pack and rushing in and out again.

Then, at the very top of Castro Street, on the Diamond Heights side of town, we pulled up to an old Victorian home on a terribly steep stretch of road. "Why don't you come in for this one?" she asked.

Meals on Wheels Delivery 101 teaches you, first: Knock very loudly, then wait. And wait. And wait. A few minutes will go by -- picture a slow walk down a hallway -- before you hear the rustling at the chain and doorknob inside.

Toni raised her voice to introduce me to Ms. Wilcox before the two ladies made with their daily conversation about the plants that fill the small front sitting area, the plumbing problems Ms. Wilcox has had, and -- a consistent Meals on Wheels client theme -- Ms. Wilcox's health.

Ms. Wilcox liked to talk. And living alone at the age of 94 she had every reason to. Pulling ourselves away after a few minutes was no easy task. My guess was that Toni usually spends a bit more time with her each day, helping read the mail, or finishing a particularly tricky chore around the house. But today she had a guest in tow, so ... off we went.

As we made our way down the front stairs, Ms. Wilcox called out somewhat nervously to Toni. "He's not going to be taking your place, is he?" she asked.

"No, no," reassured Toni. "He's just helping out today."
Back in the truck and heading for our next stop, Toni explained that many of her clients don't see anyone but her all day. So in addition to delivering the day's meals, the MOW drivers often provide another much-needed bit of sustenance -- human contact. How've you been? And where does it hurt?

Over on a curvy little side street, just off Portola, Toni rang a bell and reached through the metal grating on the front patio to deposit the meal package for the day. Eventually, Mrs. Linden made her way outside for a hello and a thank you.

She was a charming old woman in a blue sweater and worn sweat pants, with beautiful long hair that, though gray, was somehow girlish. In a delightful German accent she told us about her frustration with the mailman: "They used to come at 2 every day." And the telephone: "I tried to call the number you gave me," she told Toni, "but they hung up on me."

"Oh, you probably got the answering machine," Toni explained. "Where they tell you to press this, or press that."

"Yeah, but I haven't got that," she exclaimed. "I know everybody, almost everybody, has the ... the push buttons, yeah? It's hard for me. I take a pencil sometimes," she said, demonstrating how she dials her rotary phone.

"You might ask your son to get you one," suggested Toni. "They have machines now with big buttons, so you can see them."

"Do you know, I cannot go down these steps anymore. I go down the three steps before, but I'm not going down anymore." With a sad smile, she added, "Everything I do is something wrong."

Later Toni told me that Mrs. Linden had been a fashion designer in New York City. She'd followed her husband to San Francisco, but he'd died shortly thereafter.

"Nice to see you," she called to me as we left.
"Nice to meet you," I said. "Have a wonderful day."
"A wonderful day for what?" she answered, only half-kidding. "I haven't got wonderful days."

I paused for a moment, unsure how to reply.
"Well ... have a good meal," I said.
The rest of our route took us to a housing a project in the Lower Haight, up Market Street to a single-room occupancy hotel, and back through the Castro, where Mr. Ortiz met us at the door with his shorts bunched up around his waist -- "I put the Ben-Gay on" -- and back to a convalescent home in the Mission.

In all there were about 12 or 15 stops -- some quick drops, some longer visits -- and this was just one of Toni's three routes a day, every day, across San Francisco.

Back at Meals on Wheels headquarters, Toni pulled the truck into the lot for the night. "Sorry it wasn't more exciting," she said.

"It's nice work you do," I told her.
She thought for a moment, as though what I'd said wasn't quite accurate.
"It's purposeful," she finally decided.
For more information or to volunteer, call Meals on Wheels at 920-1111.

By Barry Levine

Want to host The Man Who Came to Dinner? E-mail and tell us what's cookin'.

About The Author

Barry Levine


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