It takes the edge of homelessness to drive me to this point. Kicked off social security disability, my food stamps down to 16 bucks, and a house under eviction notice, I have no choice but go to a soup kitchen for a warm meal and a conversation.
It’s been a slow process, 2 years in the making. A lost job, moving back in with my mom, and seeing our house that was paid off 20 years ago by my grandma now get robbed from us because of a lien for money supposedly owed to medicaid. Both my mom and I struggle, my mom herself on SSDI.
But food has never been the problem, and still isn’t. The truth is I’m just in need of human contact, having become socially isolated by depression and society I have nowhere to go somedays but to feel like a prisoner in my own home, at times down to my bedroom.
But not today.
Today I venture out into the wild that is East Toledo, Ohio and partake in the love and ministry that is the Helping Hands soup kitchen located in the former St. Louis church. I walk 2 miles to get there, myself without a car and more inclined to enjoy the fair and very rare February weather that allows such a luxury. The air is warm and a gentle breeze blows against my face, and for once in my life I feel everything will be alright.
As I walk up to the former church there’s a Latino, possibly Italian man, sitting on cement steps that lead down from a parking lot across the street. He looks lost in a thought, perhaps a sad one, and doesn’t seem to notice me. I say hi anyway.
Across the street I venture closer to the church, not quite sure where to go. At the main doors of the chapel I see a line for free clothing, something I could use in the future. I wait a few minutes in line myself but realize I’m wasting my time. Yes, I could use a new pair of shoes, but for the moment what I need is a warm meal and some company. Besides, I’m not sure if I have the proper paperwork.
Next to the church is a cafeteria and office building. The exterior is red brick and old, perhaps built in the 1920s. At first I get lost, walking up steps to the front doors only to realize this is an office entrance. A man and woman are engaged in a conservation, both dressed business professional. I ignore them and go back down and around to the side of the building where a gathering of people linger by a fence smoking their cigarettes. They’re kind enough to show me the entrance to the basement, just to the side where they’re at.
Downstairs I see the food, right off to the side of the door. A woman with a clipboard asks if I need any assistance applying for food stamps or housing. I kindly say no and get in line for my meal.
They’re serving beef and gravy with a side of mashed potatoes and a white flour dinner roll. The meal is served on a pink plastic tray and a Styrofoam plate. To my surprise and delight they serve a side of mixed vegetables and have a cup of peaches waiting for me. I politely decline the cookie that is offered for dessert, myself too concerned with a busting waistline. Like I said, food ain’t what I’m here for.
I take my tray down another set of stairs into the main dining area–just a large with white foldout tables lined in rows. I find a seat at the middle table, lost in a cacophony of sound and conversation. Men chew loudly while a baby cries, and someone laughs at a joke I don’t understand.
At the front of the room is another line of tables, this time offering free coffee and a salad bar. I’m impressed to say the least. I get up from the table and grab a cup of joe, delighted that comfort can be found in such unfortunate times, and feel guilt as I ask for onions and mushrooms for a salad I don’t need. This meal seems to lavish to be free, not quite on par with what a restaurant what serve and yet just what a homecooked meal might offer. Warm and comfort and plenty of calories.
Back at the table I cautiously dig in, trying not to look too delighted at the meal in front of me and yet acutely aware that my stomach is growling. As I mix the beef and mashed potatoes with a dollop of mixed vegetables a man in a black cutoff sits across from me, tattoos up and down his arms. He has a tribal band on his right bicep, the muscle large and thick. His forearms are 2x4s, his expression friendly and yet stern. My guess is he is 35, tho I later discover that underneath his black baseball cap he sports a lock of gray hair.
He starts up a chat about upcoming films. I tell him I’m more of a summer film guy myself, no doubt a lie and yet a necessary one to keep the conversation going. He tells me he’s into comic book movies, a topic that at times is near to my heart. I ask him if he is more of a Marvel or DC guy. He says both.
“That’s awesome,” I say, now cautiously trying to eat slower to keep the conversation going. “I’m doing some research into DC comics at the moment for a play I’m writing. It’s going to be about abortion.”
“Yeah, I’m a big DC guy,” he says. “I can’t wait for the new Justice League film to come out.”
“Looks good,” I say. “Wonder Woman looks to be pretty cool as well.”
“Oh yeah. I’m a fan of them all. Ever seen Man of Steel? That’s my favorite Superman film, even better than the 72 uncut version by Donner.”
“Zack Snyder has an eye for visuals,” I say, my plate of salad now empty. “The opening sequence on the planet Krypton is amazing. He really nails the scene.”
“I love it,” he adds.
I notice at this point that the man only has a small serving of chicken and gravy on his plate and cookie on the side. No salad, no bread, no vegetables. It’s a lean meal.
We chat a little more about DC comics, myself happy just to feel alive for a moment and to be talking about films with someone. I honest to god haven’t talked about movies with another human being outside my head or on the internet for a couple of years now. It’s depressing that it takes a low point such as this to get to this conversation and yet here I am, enjoying myself perhaps a little too much.
We chat for a few minutes more before an awkward silence sets in. The man looks around at other people while I finish my plate, still amazed at such a wonderfully cooked meal. As I finish the lights flicker on and off.
“I take it that’s our cue to get out of here?” I ask the man.
“Yep, time to go,” he says.
We stand up. I offer my hand for him to shake but he merely looks at it quizzically and offers a first for me to bump instead.
“The name’s Mike,” I say.
“Joe,” he says back.
Outside the air is still warm, the sun now shining. I remark to a man and woman walking out of the building next to me that it’s a beautiful day for February. There should be a foot of snow on the ground. They agree.
I snap off a few more pics, trying not to be too intruding on these people’s lives and yet aware that there’s some good shots to be had. As I walk across the street towards the parking lot I make sure to snap one of the man with the white hair.
His face still lingers with me, almost cut like the film director Jim Jarmusch’s. He’s lean with a hooked nose, similar to that of a Dr. Seuss character.
As I walk down the sidewalk I look up and see Joe across the street waving for me to come towards him. At first I fret he might be gay and inviting me for something I’ve been in before, but the fear dissipates. This man has to be straight. I follow my gut and walk towards him.
“Going to work out,” he says, a cigaret now lit in his mouth.
“Ah,” I say. Where do you go?”
“Oh everywhere,” he says cryptically.
We walk down the street, for me headed in the completely wrong direction of my home. Joe strikes up a conversation about a girl he’s met at a friends house, herself only 18. I ask him is she’s pretty.
“Oh hell yes,” he says. “Cute face, nice tits, tights ass.”
“Nice hips?” I muse out loud.
“Oh yeah, real nice hips,” he responds.
We walk further, Joe now going on about where he walks. He mentions he works at a restaurant on Woodville Rd, which cuts thru the east side and into Northwood, a suburb of the city.
I kindly ask where and there’s an awkward pause.
“Well, I work at Rally’s,” Joe says. “It kinda sucks.”
For those not in the know, Rally’s is a fast food joint, hardly what I was expecting to hear. I’m looking for a job myself, perhaps at a restaurant, tho I’m looking for something that involves a wait staff. His own exclamation about being miserable over his job only rings true to my own life and failures working at joints like that.
We walk a few more blocks until we reach Oak St., a main street on the east side that cuts across the whole part of town. Joe says he’s headed to the right, to McDonald’s so he can take a shit. I tell him I have to go left, back home. Before I head in the opposite direction, he pulls out his smart phone and shows me a picture of his ride, a white truck that I squint to see in the bright sun rays.
Back home I sit on my porch and have a smoke. I’ve been reduced to smoking leftover cigarettes I found on the ground. I look for them from time to time on walks and in ashtrays outside 7-Elevens. At times the task amuses me. At times it’s completely necessary for survival.
I take the few remaining puffs of the butt of a Turkish Delight, a great find if there was one. The smoke is smooth and not too heavy, and gives my lung a necessary kick to force me to destress. In that moment I find tranquility and think to myself: The sun still shines, the air still blows, and the earth will still move tomorrow. I don’t know when my home will be evicted or when I will find my next job. But there’s a meal waiting for me now, and as always a free cup of joe. And damn if a conversation isn’t what I need to keep me going. Perhaps another one with Joe.