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The Man Who Came to Dinner 

Dolores Street Community Services

Wednesday, Dec 29 1999
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Around this time last year, the holiday spirit sent me combing the city in search of some charitable twist on the old "Dinner Man" theme. The result was a somewhat frustrating but ultimately rewarding day of volunteering at a local food kitchen. The experience never quiet jelled the way I'd envisioned it would, but in the end I realized, if only temporarily, "Barry, it ain't all about you."

This year, aiming to establish an annual tradition, I once again set about to find the ideal outreach opportunity, something with adequately exposed heartstrings, seasonal sentiment, and of course ... food.

I called in an old invitation from Charlie Anderson, president of Dolores Street Community Services, who'd invited me to visit any of several homeless-related projects they run throughout the Mission.

"Great. Sure," said Charlie. "It's just too bad that, well, the holidays are the only time people really seem to pay attention to this stuff. But, of course, we can always use the exposure." I understood. I cared. But, my new holiday tradition ....

We settled on the Dolores Shelter, one of the four DSCS facilities providing emergency housing, with a focus on Latino men. "We're the only shelter serving culturally sensitive food," explained Charlie. "We used to make regular American fare, but the men just weren't used to it. Now we let the guys join in the cooking and make the food as spicy as they want."

A few nights later I stopped by La Mejor Bakery on 24th and Mission streets to pick up something appropriate for dessert and headed over to the shelter at Dolores and 15th streets. The shelter is on the ground floor of an otherwise condemned building. It's all that remains after arson consumed the old Baptist church next door about eight years ago.

Down a side alley, I ducked into a little open doorway and found the shelter, a small, low-ceilinged, yellow-lit room. A few men sat at one of two old folding tables watching Spanish-language programming on a static-lined TV.

A little more nervous than I should have been, I darted through the room toward the industrial-sized kitchen at the far end. Surrounded by a series of large metal serving trays filled with food, the cook directed me back to the young man sitting at the small desk by the door. Having breezed past him like I knew where I was going, I walked back to introduce myself.

"You're, Barry?" he asked, smiling and shaking my hand. "Hi. Nice to meet you."

Edgar Perez, the DSCS operations coordinator, had come over from the organization's main office on Valencia and Liberty to walk me through dinner at the shelter.

"I brought some cookies," I announced, holding out two brown paper bags.

"Oh, cookies," said Edgar. "What kind?"

He took a peek inside. "Those are pretty good," he decided, placing the sacks next to the rest of the evening meal.

"This is Jose Antonio Kubaro," said Edgar, introducing me to the tall, baldheaded man in the kitchen. "He's our cook on Thursdays and Fridays. And we have two other people that work the rest of the week. We give them as many hours as we can."

"What about volunteers?" I asked.

"They come by every once in a while," he explained. "There's a congregation down the street; every two months they come out, bring some people, and cook something. And there's a restaurant around the corner on 18th Street called Delfina. For about three months now they've been giving us a big tray of food each week."

Back at the small entry desk, the phone rang and Roberto Galvez, the night supervisor, yelled for Edgar to take a call. I took the opportunity to survey the room, whose small space was filled almost entirely by a long line of 10 metal bunk beds. Each bed was pushed side-by-side up to the next. Together they made a rainbow of mismatched sheets and pillows. The bedding looked awfully sparse. When Edgar returned I neglected to ask, but I guessed that they could use some real blankets.

The only other fixture in the room was a bank of metal lockers, numbered 1 through 25, against the one wall not covered by beds. Off in the corner, an aging picture of Jesus served as the only decoration.

"This is our one shelter with a kitchen," Edgar explained. "So from 4 to 6, the men from the other three shelters come here to eat. Most of these gentlemen coming in now will stay here tonight.

"Would you like to try some of the food?" he offered.

Over by the kitchen, Edgar and I each took a plate and served ourselves from the simple buffet. The main dish seemed to be scrambled eggs mixed with chopped-up hot dog pieces. Other trays contained seasoned rice, pinto beans, one unidentifiable bright red concoction, and a tray of sliced-up orange something. "Maybe some kind of squash," I thought.

I also briefly noticed that the cookies I'd brought seemed to have disappeared. Perhaps they'd surface later.

Edgar and I sat down at the empty table, to eat and talk. Unlike most of the other shelters in town, he explained, the DSCS shuts its doors at 7 a.m.

"Due to the fact that most of these gentlemen, most of our clients, are immigrants," explained Edgar, "they have it a lot harder. They really can't depend on us during the day. They know where to go get work. There's no excuse. All we provide is one meal a day and a place to sleep, and you have to do the rest -- which is finding employment."

Most often their employment is found by chasing pickup trucks along Cesar Chavez Street, competing for day jobs in manual labor or construction. On average, Edgar told me, they earn $40 to $60 a day -- when they get work. "A lot of these guys," he added, "are professionals in their home countries. Once people see that they're good at what they do, they may get a lot more."

After dinner, the doors are closed for an 8 p.m. curfew. There are about 100 total residents in the four shelters (120 in winter); each client is allowed to stay for a maximum of 90 days.

"Where do they go after that?" I asked.

"Most of them don't stay the 90 days," explained Edgar. "A lot of them find other places. They find work and get a place. We only have 10 or 15 people a month that we have to remind about the limit."

The food was nothing fancy. But it was warm. And for the dozen or so men who had by then assembled around us, it was a vital part of their day.

Edgar, I learned, came to DSCS a little over a year ago from a job on the graveyard shift at another Mission District shelter. Born in Guatemala, he moved to the Bay Area with his mother at the age of 9. "About a year after we had been here," he told me, "my mother and my father passed on. So I grew up with my brothers and sisters." He was number nine, out of 10 children.

"How did you start working in the shelters?" I asked.

"We always helped," he told me. "Growing up, when I was about 14, there was a program on the radio called, well, in English, the translation would be "Give Without Expect.' They'd take calls on the air from people that were needing. You know, a place to stay, a refrigerator, whatever somebody needed. And on a separate line, off the air, people would call in with donations. One day my brother called in and said, "You know, I have a truck.' I'd go out and help him help other people." One volunteer stint led to another, and another, until Edgar began working full time in the shelter system.

I asked whether most of the shelter's clients are generally new to town, or are longtime San Francisco homeless. "I would say a good 50 to 60 percent are new immigrants," he told me. "Most commonly from Mexico. The second largest contingent is Salvadoran. And third largest is Honduran. Lately a lot of Hondurans have been showing up because of the storm. They come here to make money to send back. Because there's really no work over there. There's very little."

I paused to take my first bite of the red mystery stew and discovered the definition of hot. This must have been what Charlie was talking about.

"How do you like the food?" asked Edgar.

"It's pretty good," I said. "But what is this?"

"Oh, that's a corned beef hash, I think."

"Aha. Well. It's a little hot," I told him. "And this?" I asked, pointing to the orange vegetable.

"Pumpkin," he told me. "Baked."

"Really?"

"The way my mother used to do it," he continued, "was to boil it with brown sugar, and drain the juices. Then you put it in the broiler for a while, and cool it down with a little milk. I really liked that. It must be an acquired taste, though?"

"No, no," I said. "It's good. It's probably great for the holidays."

"Mostly we had it around Christmas. Not like an everyday thing."

Looking down at my plate I saw all that remained was a healthy pile of the red- hot hash. "All right, Barry. Suck it up," I said softly.

And so I did.

With our plates properly cleaned Edgar headed off for another phone call.

The cookies I'd brought were nowhere to be seen. "Maybe they'd be saved for the next night," I thought, "when they wouldn't already have pumpkin for dessert. Or maybe they were on their way to a family shelter somewhere."

Once more I strolled around the room, listening to conversations in Spanish and wishing, too silently, to know some of the stories behind them. For the first time I noticed the almost-perfect, still-unadorned Christmas tree in the corner.

"This was donated," said Edgar, rejoining me. "We got a voucher in the mail, from one of the tree places. We just had to go pick it up over by the piers."

I might have asked Edgar to introduce me to some of the residents, but it was clear that behind all those phone calls were a growing list of nighttime tasks that needed to get done. He put on his black ski cap and leather jacket and walked me out to the street.

"Nice to meet you," said Edgar. "Sorry, but I've got to go run some errands for these guys." We shook hands and wished each other happy holidays.

Turning to look at the community garden that now grows where the church used to stand, I thought how once again it hadn't gone quite like I'd hoped. And once again I realized -- that's the point. The annual article, like a last-minute bag of cookies, doesn't solve the world's problems. People like Edgar do.

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

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Barry Levine

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