It was nearly 1 o’clock, and people were already starting to line up across the street from Seattle Municipal Tower, arguably the main hub of administration and influence in the city. These people in line, however, had no power or influence. In fact, most of polite society tries desperately to ignore their existence.
They are what the tactless and uncharitable might call the dregs of society; the homeless, the mentally ill, the drug addicted, the working poor, the financially destitute. They are the hungry who have no means of supporting their nasty food habit. This continual need for nutrition is the great equalizer.
I’d be lying if I said I didn’t approach this crowd with a certain level of trepidation. You’re taught from childhood not to talk to strangers, especially smelly, scary, unpredictable ones. But approach them I did. I was part of a group of coworkers who had volunteered with Operation Sack Lunch to serve that day’s midday meal.
Operation Sack Lunch is an amazing Seattle organization. They serve three meals a day, seven days a week, every single day of the year. Free to all comers, no questions asked. According to their website, in 2015 they served 435,711 meals to almost 10,000 individuals at 18 locations in the city. From those stats, it’s easy to see that without their help, many people would have starved to death, here in the heart of one of the most prosperous cities in the most prosperous nation in the world.
On this day, like so many other Pacific Northwest days, it was cold and the rain was pouring down. We were all grateful for the steady, loud hum of cars on the interstate overpass above our heads. And yet the people came from all directions, about 270 of them that day, to face our volunteer force of ten. They formed a polite line.
The meal was simple but nutritious: rice, salad, salmon patties, a drink. We were all given a task to perform. Mine was to pass out sporks, those plastic half spoon/half forks that I’ve always considered to be one of the handiest inventions of the modern world. That also meant I was their first point of contact in the food line.
At first I was overwhelmed with this steady flow of unrelenting need. I felt inadequate and helpless, and rather pathetic, if I’m honest. Here was privation on a grand scale, and I was handing it a plastic spork. I couldn’t meet their eyes.
But they took the high road. Every last one of them, and I mean, every single one, thanked me for that spork. I should have responded, “Thank you for understanding that a spork is all I can give you. Today.”
And then I began to realize that I could give them something else, however humble: dignity. Courtesy. Respect. So I made myself look each one in the eye and smile and say, “You’re welcome.” I even joked with a few.
Seeing the women in line was hardest for me to take, somehow. These are dangerous streets. They have to be tough as nails, but they are still at a disadvantage. How do they survive?
This experience had an added layer of angst for me. As I’ve written a previous blog entry, my late boyfriend, for various and complex reasons, was often mistaken for a homeless person. And sure enough, as I expected would happen, midway down the line was a man that could have been his twin. And strangely enough, he winked at me. He was the only one who winked at me. Why did it have to be that guy? I swallowed the grapefruit sized lump in my throat and did my best not to lose it. The hunger of these people was more urgent than my longstanding grief.
There was no pushing, no shoving. Those coming back for seconds waited patiently until everyone got their firsts. And then before I knew it, it was over and the crowd rapidly dispersed. What had been a place of give and take quickly converted itself into a deserted, fenced in patch of parking lot, inhabited by only pigeons and graffiti.
I walked away feeling equal measures of sadness and restored faith in humanity. I was reminded of something that John Bradford said in the 16th century that remains equally true today: “There but for the grace of God go I.”