—Would anyone like to say a prayer and bless this food?
A woman rises from her seat and begins singing a hymn.
What a wonderful, wonderful Savior,
Who would die on the cross for me!
Her face is weary, her carpenter jeans worn. She is 45, white. Someone’s daughter once. Someone’s mother perhaps still. The jeans are too big for her figure. Her hair what they call mouse brown in color. Yet from her mouth comes hope. It fills the air in a soup kitchen feeding the homeless.
He was wounded for our transgressions,
And He carried our sorrows, too
Though her voice trembles at her throat, it is nonetheless pleasing to the senses. She is not an immigrant, but she is foreign to this land, hidden from our daily lives. I picture my friend here once upon a time—in a different city, a different state—a warm meal set before him. His head bowed, his eyes never meeting you even when his head is raised. He always seemed aware his life was a little different than ours.
I wasn’t expecting a song. I wasn’t expecting her voice to be so beautiful.
He’s the Healer of every sickness,
This He came to the world to do.
A cell phone RINGS at full volume, the treble sharp and piercing. The ringtone a song I do not recognize.
—Damn it!, the owner of the phone says too loud in frustration as the hymn continues. A black woman of about the same age as the white woman, 45, thin and talkative, mostly talking to herself and under her breath since she walked in and sat down. She is only one of two in the dining hall that has a cell phone.
He was nailed to the cross for me,
He was nailed to the cross for me.
The cell phone RINGS again.
—Damn it, will you stop calling? Stop calling me! Stop calling me! (inaudible)
On the cross crucified for me He died;
He was nailed to the cross for me.
Somehow this hymn is more beautiful outside a church than it could ever be in. Somehow it means more coming from a throat that isn’t encircled by a starched collar. Perfume replaced with body odor, a hint of urine in the air.
She ends the song abruptly and finishes with a prayer. Everyone claps.
Every seat has a body in it. There are so many faces here. Black, white, young, old. A large Japanese man who requests more meat and bread. A young couple enters pushing a baby stroller, a small child in tow. An old man, an amputee, without his left leg, folded up into a square and safety pinned. A large woman with wall eyes. An eighteen year old with short dreads.
“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses
yearning to breathe free,”
Emma Lazarus once said.
An elderly black man in a plaid button-down who looks to be about 72 years in age comes in and takes a seat. He positions himself at the end of a table by himself. He dresses like my grandfather Garland Hyde Hamlett once did, my mom’s dad.
—Jeff, can I have some tea and a packet of salt with my meal?
He reminds me of my grandfather in his gentleness, his voice. There’s a calm about him. Then I realize he just said my name. But how does he know?
—Yes, sir. Let me get that for you.
A strangeness washes over me as if I am in a holy place being watched by God.
The man sits by himself at the end of the table as if invisible to everyone else. Everyone around him converses with one another, but he just sits there, alone, in his plaid shirt and dark blue Dickies pants, a certain warmth about him.
He reminds me so much of my grandfather, I keep thinking. Same height, same build, same mannerisms. Except for the obvious. My grandfather was white.
—Bless you Jeff, he says looking me squarely in the eye, smiling.
As I begin to walk away, I turn back in his direction as he places a helping of food in his mouth, followed by a sip of tea to wash it down, just like my grandfather used to do.
It’s then I realize the elderly man has seen my name tag on the left breast of my apron. I had forgotten about the name tag.
It is not until a few days later I realize that this same day, 11 years ago, on September 19, 2005, was my grandfather’s last full day alive. The day he ate his last meal. He would die the next day. I wasn’t aware of the exact date, just that it was September. And as I sit down to write what you read now my emotions gather water behind my eyes, heavy, and it hangs there like buckets that don’t spill.
“Send these, the homeless,
tempest-tossed, to me:
I lift my lamp
beside the golden door.”
We will fill over 120 empty bellies before lunch ends. As one body exits, another body enters, filling the already warm seat.
—They can have as much as they want. Just make sure their utensils are off the plate when you bring up the plate for seconds. They have to keep their forks and spoons at the table.
—Girl, you late.
—You know I live over there where the white folks is. Shiiit.
—More meat, please.
—Can I have some more salad and some of that rice stuff. I don’t know what it’s called.
The elderly black man in a plaid button-down rises and walks over, emptying his plate into the trash.
—Thank you, the elderly man says. God bless you, Jeff.
And then he walks out the door.
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Photo: Robert Couse-Baker. “Maximum Comfort Food.” Licensed by CC BY 2.0