Most Sunday afternoons this semester have been a combination of pre-Monday jitters in anticipation of the busy day and a mad dash to finish x, y, and z assignments and readings. These afternoons are typically fueled by my most recent foodie obsession: hot green tea with truvia. Okay, maybe that’s not true foodie talk, but I try to get some actual cooking in there on Sundays, also. At least something yummy and nutritious that will add to the aroma of food smells wafting from the microwaves at lunchtime.
This past Sunday was a little different. After a MUCH-longer-than-expected car ride and an unhealthy amount of driving around traffic circles and missing the exits, I arrived at the Pine Street Inn. For anyone familiar with Jamaica Plain, unlike my very lost, out-of-stater self, it is located right next to the Lemuel Shattuck Hospital. All you have to do is follow the wooden sign at the 2nd exit off the traffic circle. This apparently proved easier said than done.
My purpose for this adventure was twofold: I wished to do something productive and helpful on a weekend (not that getting my homework done isn’t both productive and helpful to my grades.) Also, I really needed to get out of the apartment. After squirreling myself away in the middle of nowhere for my first year, this second and final year really had to be different. It had started to feel like I was never going to take advantage of any volunteer opportunities and that sense of community responsibility and “meeting the need” was a huge part of why I chose this school. So I responded to an e-mail, said what my t-shirt size was, and showed up to serve dinner in closed-toed shoes.
As I stood on the serving line armed with the mini gravy ladle, I tried to make eye contact and exchange a smile with most of the folks. It was interesting how most followed their specific plate as it reached each station and how others looked away until it was time to retrieve the food from the volunteer giving out bread. Before the dinner service began, we were debriefed on how the shelter works, what services and programs are made available, and the different stages of recovery at which different men might be during their 45-day stay. Working under the guidance of one team member, also a consumer of services there, we each served our respective portions of the meal and all seemed to enjoy our interactions with the clients.
At one point someone observed that it was likely that the person who was first in line for dinner had probably been “staking out” that spot since 3:30pm. It was interesting to observe the calm manner in which clients instinctually lined up for a napkin and utensils before coming to retrieve a plate of hot food. Perhaps most surprising of all for me was the potato man. He has been named the potato man because he came back for thirds of potatoes, so eager for another two that he cut the others who had been waiting patiently. At first we responded to this man in hesitation. “He just got food. Others have not had firsts. Can we just give him another potato?” Maybe we made it far more scientific than it needed to be but two things were quite clear: We wanted to ensure that all were fed and this man was bound to get more potatoes. In time, after third servings of dinner had been offered, we had completed our volunteering task and were sent off with cheers and applause for a job well done. Most dinner attendees had even learned what the letters M-S-P-P stand for
It might sound silly how I write about the potatoes, but as I am reflecting on this volunteer experience at such a late hour, something very obvious occurs to me. It might be speculation, but if this man is seeking food and a roof at the homeless shelter, I understand that to mean that he is navigating some difficult life circumstances. The temperatures in Boston have already begun to dip towards freezing, if not below. Asking for a few extra hot potatoes when there are enough to go around might have been the only sense of control this man felt he could exert in his life. Who am I to judge him for his desire for more potatoes?