I have never been able to stop thinking about this for very long.
On a morning in March 2011, I showed up at a meal center in order to help serve lunch to seniors in need of food, companionship, or a combination of the two.
The place was in a bad neighborhood, which meant that I got to do two things on the way there: 1. Bask in the smell of pee and 2. Make the acquaintance of an ominous man named Peaches.
Once I arrived, I learned that it would be my task to hand out the plates themselves once other volunteers had filled them, assembly-line style. I had the fun job, in other words, except for the fact that some of these people might be a little eccentric and not super well-versed in the laws governing personal space.
“They can get a little feisty, but they’re harmless,” my volunteer coordinator reassured me.
I stood there in my jaunty paper hat and surveyed the room full of positively geriatric individuals, many of them struggling to get around on their own in the bright, industrial room.
“They’re pretty old,” I told him. “I’m pretty sure I can take any of them in a fight.”
They weren’t just old — they were hungry. The menu today was chicken, and because we aimed to please, I needed to ask them whether they wanted a leg or breast. But I had to accomplish this before they touched any of the plates they so eagerly grabbed for, or health code rules dictated that they got what they got.
This led to a strange sort of keep-away dance in which I ducked away from their outstretched hands, repeatedly yanking the plate out of reach while anxiously demanding to know their cuisine preferences, a rather exotic way to spend a Tuesday.
My years of experience behind fast-food counters and cash registers took over, and I chatted with them and smiled at them as they came through the line. Much to their delight, I flirted back when they tested me.
That’s wrong of me, maybe, but you should have seen how their worn faces lit up, to be treated like men again. I’m a raging feminist every other day of my life and have had the nighttime parking-lot altercations to prove it (I bet that guy at Taco Bell will think twice before following another woman to her car while hooting at her ass, is all I’m saying), but I didn’t have the heart to stonewall their trademark Dirty Old Man nostalgia about days better than these. I knew from a previous life as Grocery-Store Cashier to the Elderly that sometimes, it’s just a way of finding someone to talk to — of coping with a more pervasive, more devastating variety of impotence.
Plus, I mean, I was just repeating the word “breast” over and over again, so.
It was complicated, watching this deeply weathered parade file past me. It’s always embarrassing to be plainly revealed as spoiled beyond redemption. This might be why I often avoid situations in which my relative wealth is painfully, awkwardly obvious, to the point that I want to apologize for it, as if anyone is really interested in making me feel better about the privilege that I am sheepish about but not particularly eager to give up — as if they can really be expected to empathize with my dime-a-dozen, middle-class journey in which I perpetually wish I could find a way to be a better person, but without all that inconvenient personal sacrifice.
Later, when I wiped down tables, one of them would wave me over to him so that he could ask me who Rebecca Black was, and why she was rich and famous.
I fumbled around. “Oh, she has this … song, on the Internet.”
“Is it a good song? Do you think it’s a good song?”
“Oh, well, no, I guess the whole point of it is that it’s a bad song.”
His eyebrows knitted together. “She gets money because she has a bad song?”
Well, it did sound kind of stupid, when he put it like that. A whole lot of things would have sounded stupid in that room if I had said them out loud.
Before my conversation with him, and after we had served everyone, it was time to read off names from the waiting list.
A crowd of them stood there in front of us, and I winced when the director had to tell them to get back repeatedly, to shuffle a few more feet away from us and stay there, so they wouldn’t unconsciously push forward in their eagerness.
You wonder which ones are somebody’s grandparents, and whether that person knows or cares that this is what they’re doing, right now: waiting to hear whether they will eat.
You also wonder, God help you, whether these people deserve this, whether they have made terribly ruinous mistakes and hurt the ones they loved and refused to accept help or get better, whether they went out for smokes and didn’t come back and left small children abandoned, whether they put a bunch of notoriously life-destroying drugs into a big pile on the kitchen table and just ate it all with their bare hands, licking narcotics off their palms in childish defiance while sensible people pleaded with them desperately to stop.
You wonder because some part of you prays that the world works that way, even though you know that it doesn’t, not always.
And even when it does, nothing is ever really that simple, is it.
As we read names off the list, their owners stepped forward happily, one by one, to claim the only plates we had left. The ones still standing there even after we had fallen silent simply sagged a little, turned, shuffled toward the door, and disappeared, just like that. Nothing lingered but questions I probably didn’t want the answers to.
Only one addressed us on his way out, to point at a few stray slices of white sandwich bread left on the counter and asked if he could maybe take that, if we weren’t going to use it for anything. We bagged it up for him and threw in a few butter packets, and his reaction was a breed of sly relief that I still struggle to grasp within the context of a few pieces of Wonderbread thrown into a Ziploc.
Afterward, the director pulled me aside.
“They like you,” he said. “They can tell when a volunteer is freaked out by them, and it makes them feel bad about themselves. I hope you’ll come back.”
“I’ll definitely come back,” I promised.
But I didn’t. I meant to, like always. But I got caught up in the emergencies of my own life, like always.
Unlike always, I didn’t forget, not this time, and it does not appear that I am going to be able to. As vividly as ever, I can still see all of them standing there, behind the imaginary line we had drawn, hoping we would say their names.