Volunteering at a food bank or soup kitchen, like paying taxes and flossing, is something that everyone should do. Much like flossing, I felt ashamed that in all my years, I had never done it, so to make up, I went and spent a couple of hours at the Rainier Valley Food Bank. I was assigned to the canned vegetables station, guarding the treasures of diced tomatoes and beans.
It was certainly a humbling experience, much like that one time I challenged Jameelah to an arm-wrestling competition. The people who came were mostly elderly and didn’t speak much English. They had waited in line for hours, some having taken the buses from far away. They were friendly, as poor people tend to be, and it was very difficult enforcing the “one item only” rule. “Psst,” I whispered to a sweet old Bosnian lady, “Quick, take it!” It was a tiny dented can of tomato paste, which she couldn’t take because she had already claimed a can of kidney beans. She quickly put the tomato paste in her bag, grabbed my hand, pulled me closer, and patted me on the shoulder, the two of us simultaneously laughing, as if in cahoots in some serious secret.
At a food shelter, even one as diverse as the Rainier Valley Food Bank, you get to see how similar all of us are. A young Mexican woman and her two little daughters came by, looking very shy and nervous. “Buenos dias,” I said. They lit up. “How old are you,” I asked the older girl in Spanish. She raised up five fingers and smiled with two missing teeth, which made me realize that no matter what culture we are, all children who are five have missing teeth and use fingers to indicate their age.
At the other stations volunteers distributed milk, baked goods, turnips, carrots. On occasion, arguments broke out, mainly because there were ten languages spoken at any given time. I couldn’t talk with most of the visitors. At one point, a string of four elderly women came by and thought I was Chinese. They broke out in what sounded like Cantonese, as if I understood everything, and I nodded and smiled, and they patted my shoulder and laughed. I never understood why.
For those couple of hours I was there, I met several dozen people, including some really great volunteers. “So what do you do?” I asked the young lady standing at the station next to mine. “Well, right now I’m unemployed,” she said. I was floored. When I was unemployed five years ago, I spent most of the day sitting in the darkness, weeping and rocking, coming out of my lair only at night to feast.
The clients continued to arrive. “Good morning. How are you,” I would say, and all would respond they were fine. “I feel blessed,” said one woman as she picked up a can of baked beans, “and how are you, honey?” It was not all smooth sailing, though. “Good morning, sir,” I said to a tall man with a ponytail, who turned out to be a woman, and she was not at all happy. Thinking quickly, I said, “It must be the sweater. I have one exactly like that.” “Uh-huh,” she said, before grabbing a can of green beans and moving on to the next station.
It was a thought-provoking experience, one that I hope will affect me for a while, one that I hope I will remember the next time I complain about the expensiveness of organic broccoli or the grossness of cream of corn. As I was leaving, an elderly Ukrainian woman arrived, holding a cane. “Good morning,” I said. She smiled, looking at the shelves, and mumbled something that sounded like “olive.” I dug around and found a can of black olives. She was ecstatic, grabbing my hand. “Oh, thank you, thank you. God bless you,” she said. I’ll never look at black olives the same way again.
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