Nancy Vernon Kelly, The Other Side
It’s Wednesday, and David says he needs a food voucher. A sweet and angry young man, he is once again in our face begging for help. It is the era before people started lining up outside the church very early in the morning, before guidelines. We don’t ask many questions. We give David a food voucher for Central Meat Market and invite him back to the church for supper later in the evening.
It’s a well-worn script: He dances out the front door onto King Street, whistling to himself. He wont be at the supper. In fact, I know from experience that this is the last we’ll see of him until a few days before the end of the next month. This time though, the script goes awry. I am wrong – so utterly wrong – that I’ve been questioning what I know “from experience” ever since.
That afternoon, David Simon is back, a couple of hours before the meal is to start. Carrying a large ham under his arm, he cheerfully calls out, “Guess what’s for supper?” David (who has no money in the bank and sometimes doesn’t have a roof over his head) is in the church kitchen washing his hands and vesting himself in a gingham apron. He’s smiling like an angel, putting the ham he bought with the food voucher in the oven to share with all the hungry folks who will soon gather for supper. I am shaking my head.
Already Tim is setting up the tables and chairs like he always does. For the last hour he’s been cleaning up the cigarette butts outside the back door of this old church. Andy is hanging around in bare feet pleading with everybody who comes through the door to play crazy eights with him. Mary is arranging daisies in those cheap cut-glass vases that breed in church kitchens, and setting out candle stubs so we can eat by candlelight. The man who lives in the cemetery and celebrates his birthday every day of the year has his head down on one of the tables. Over by the stage, Bill is sitting backwards on a Sunday school chair playing “This Little Light of Mine” on his harmonica.
About 4:00PM, one Diane comes through the door bearing hot dogs and salad. The other Diane brings something made out of tofu. Jim brings a crisp made with apples sliced as thin as parchment. Andrew presents a dented tin of beef stew. Jason wheels in on his bicycle bearing buns from the Portuguese bakery. Meanwhile some of the guys in the parking lot are kneeling on the asphalt shucking corn. The water is boiling in a big pot on the stove. In the oven there are pigtails and a 20-pound bird donated by an Old Order Mennonite farmer. And David Simon’s ham.
We haven’t even said grace yet, and already I see hints here and there. In the first place, it’s so hard to tell who’s who. There must be eighty of us in the hall by now – or maybe a thousand; and at 5:45 many hands deliver the food to the long table. We make a circle that reaches all around the room; and for one moment of deep-in-the-heart peacefulness there’s complete silence in the middle of the city. “Anybody’s birthday?” asks the woman who lets the children go first. “Yee ha!” hollers another woman, the one in the cowboy hat. She’s sitting on her motorized scooter in her usual place up close to the table. “I’m eight years old today!” Some of the guys erupt in rude noises. “Not my belly-button birthday! Eight years ago today, I rose up from the dead!”
A wild round of applause goes up from the heart of the circle, and somebody runs over to the piano and starts banging out “Happy Birthday.” Elaine’s been sober for eight years, and who knows how many of the rest of us are living under the influence of resurrection. Now we are ready. The woman who lets the children go first says grace; and as soon as the “Amen” is out of her mouth, Chris yells, “Go, Broncos!” like he always does. It’s a little ritual we have, almost a cue for folks to start lining up on both sides of the table.
There are no rules to say David Simon can’t buy a ham with his food voucher to share with a group of hungry people. And no rules to say Chris can’t yell “Go, Broncos!” after grace. At least not yet. Sometimes you just see more than you can see, and this is one of those times. I see him in a gingham apron leaning against the kitchen wall, and he’s positively glowing. I see him in the slicing of the ham, in the breaking of the Portuguese buns. It’s not supposed to happen this way, yet it does. It’s downright contrary and spectacular.
It all happened one Wednesday night at the church downtown – one block up from Central Meat Market – in between the hospital and the high school, on the mainline bus route. It happened to a bunch of susceptible people. The man who lives in the cemetery and celebrates his birthday every day of the year. The blind Avon lady. The man who can tell me how much I weigh on Mars, Venus and Jupiter. The woman in the apron who cleans the bus station by day and does the best she can to raise her little boy. The man who sets up the tables and chairs. The woman who arranges contraband flowers in cheap vases. The eight-year-old cowgirl who rose up from the dead. The woman who lets the children go first. The man who bought a ham with his food voucher. Doubters, believers, dreamers and seekers, card players, stargazers, and me.