I slung two tote bags over each of my shoulders and grabbed another one to carry from my parked car. It was dark as I crossed three lanes of traffic to Williams Park. This park is home for those without one and a place typically avoided by those with homes, myself included.
This was Christmas and I was there to help feed people who were hungry.
After crossing the street, I walked quickly past small pockets of people sitting on a low wall and benches. Some stood near an overflowing trash can. I lowered my head a little, looked ahead and didn’t make eye contact. I was ashamed. Here I was to feed and interact with these same people in a few minutes, but I was uncomfortable. What do I say to people that I often try to avoid on the streets?
The Food Not Bombs organizers quickly popped up folding tables and began placing pots of rice and vegetables, and trays of tomatoes with basil, plantains and other goods on the tables. I set down my container of pre-made peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and another container of spaghetti. Opening tubs of hummus and a loaf of bread, I placed those in line on the buffet. People quickly and quietly formed a line at the end of the tables.
One boy from our group leaned in to his mom and whispered, “I’m nervous.” His eyes darted around.
“Why are you nervous?” She asked quietly. “It’s okay.”
“I don’t know, I just am,” he replied.
We well-meaning and more fortunate folks stood together one on side of the tables as those who were hungry waited patiently on the other side for 6:30, when we would begin serving.
There was chatter from adults asking kids what their favorite Christmas present was. Feeling aware of and embarrassed about the glaring contrast of privilege between the two groups of people there, I slipped away from the conversation and walked down the line of people waiting simply for food on Christmas.
Not sure what to say or do but knowing I wanted to connect, even just a little, I stopped by a woman slightly hunched over her walker. Her face with sunken and wrinkled. Her eyes and cheeks were wet.
“Hi. How are you?” I asked simply, not knowing how else to start.
“Today’s been hard,” she began. “It’s Christmas and I’ve been crying all day.”
I nodded and listened. I dug my hands into the pockets of my sweatshirt and stood there, giving her space and time to share.
“My family is far away, where it’s cold,” she explained in a child-like way. Many of her teeth were missing. There was a big gap on her bottom row.
“Oh, I’m sorry to hear. This is a hard day when you’re not with family,” I agreed. “Where up north is your family?”
“They live in a cold place, where it snows,” she continued.
“Who is in your family? Will you tell me about them?” I asked.
“My sisters and my parents. And my parents are old. They are in their seventies.”
At the sight of her wrinkled skin, I had thought she was nearly seventy. Recalculating, I figured maybe she was in her sixties and her parents had her in their teens.
“I haven’t seen them since 1994. I’ve been on and off the streets for 23 years. And it’s hard.” She leaned her head into her hand and her eyes welled up. She sniffed.
Her walker moved a little as she leaned on it with her elbow.
“And this thing,” she gestured to her walker, “is missing a screw and I can’t get it fixed.” I leaned down to examine both sides. Three blankets were folded and stacked on her walker’s seat. She moved them out of the way as she pointed out the part.
“If this breaks, I don’t know what I’ll do. I can’t walk without it. I have a fractured pelvis. And they can’t help me. It hurts when I sit. It hurts when I stand,” she shifted her weight, sniffed again, and continued, “it hurts when I sleep.”
“And now it’s getting colder out. I like to keep warm with a cup of coffee. But you know if I go into a place they just look at me in disgust. It’s awful. And they won’t let me pay with pennies.”
I have no words other than, “Would you like a hug?”
She nodded tearfully and reached her arms out. I leaned down and we embraced. I wondered when she was hugged last.
“What’s your name?” I asked.
“I’m Cindy,” she said.
“Hi Cindy, I’m Sara.”
“I need to get to the tables to help serve food. I’ll see you over there,” I told her wishing I had better words, a cup of coffee, and the right screw for her walker.
A man who had been setting up tables stood in front of the line and welcomed everyone at precisely 6:30. The line began to move, and I stood in front of the containers of hummus and bread.
“Would you like hummus?” I asked the first man.
“Oh, yes. I love hummus!”
“Would you like garlic or pine nut?”
“Garlic, please. It’s so good for you!” He replied.
I scooped the hummus onto a slice of bread and topped it with another.
The line of folks continued, and the majority requested garlic hummus.
Cindy came up.
“Hi Cindy, would you like hummus?”
“No thank you, but I would like a tomato slice,” she told my friend.
“Sure thing. Merry Christmas, Cindy,” I said.
“Thank you,” she replied.
After everyone had gone through the line, I realized the woman I met last week, Connie, was not there and I wondered how she was doing.
I packed up my containers and utensils and walked toward my car. This time, I stopped and looked at the people sitting on the benches and around the trash can. I asked cheerfully if anyone wanted a pb&j sandwich. No one accepted, so I kept walking to my car, this time less nervous.
My walls and prejudices were chipped away a little more. And along with Cindy’s hug and standing side by side with friends to serve others, those chips were the best Christmas present.