“There is more to eating,” writes David Grant, “than the food. There is the ambience, the attitudes of the servers, the disposition of the fellow diners. Not least is the price it takes to get in the door — the payment, often high, that is more than money: numbing indignities, silly obeisances, and time, time, time.”

Grant is a forty-four-year-old father of two. He worked for a number of years as a volunteer in a cooperative kitchen. He turned food critic because he wanted to reach those who frequent soup kitchens, to give some idea of what to expect, some sense of where the food was good, the environment inviting. Then, too, he wanted to reach a second audience, “the rest of us” — those who don’t frequent soup kitchens, those whose dining options extend beyond Seattle’s skid row.

Or “skid road,” corrects Grant. It seems the phrase originated in Seattle, named after the path along which logs were rolled toward the mills. To Grant, the lineage of the word is significant. Many of the mills are closed now; the number of our cities’ skid rows is on the rise, along with the soup kitchens that come in their wake.

Soup kitchens can be brutal places; the violence is subtle and unspectacular, with human dignity as its victim. While Grant catalogs again and again the small assaults on individual pride, he is quick to show that the greatest violence stems from that peculiar myopia whereby human want is tolerated among instances of opulent, and unchecked, consumption. Grant demonstrates well the hidden implications of the “us and them” mentality most of us unwittingly bring to the problem. By crossing from “us” over to “them,” if only for a few evenings at a time, if only long enough to rub shoulders with the disenfranchised and share their food and listen to the human noise they make, Grant places a mirror before us and encourages us to gaze at the broken species we are.

How to judge the soup kitchens of Seattle, what standards to employ? Certain considerations came to preoccupy Grant early on. “In judging the cuisine,” he writes, “I had to adjust my standards. Many people are medically compromised. Will the food irritate or soothe? How will it effect gallstones, ulcers, hypertension, weak kidneys, or those at risk for heart disease? Since dental care is a luxury, overcooked and mushy food is perfect for the toothless. I learned to make other allowances. Salty, for instance, depends on how one was raised; same with spicy, and greasy. Then, too, should the meal be high in calories for those who eat rarely and sleep on the streets? Or would calories only mean more fat on the indolent obese?”

By recording the simplest of human acts, Grant details the deepest of wounds. He made no attempt to interview the staffs that run the soup kitchens, or their boards of directors, or even the diners themselves. His is not an exhaustive accounting. It is merely the testimony of one among others. “I ate three meals at each place,” Grant notes. “As much as possible, I ate in silence. I listened and I observed. I smelled and I tasted.”

— T.L. Toma

 

THE BREAD OF LIFE

They begin with gospel piano from the evening opening at 6:30 until the service at 7, followed by a series of born-again “success stories” — of miraculously healed cancers, medically certified; of beatific recovery from addiction to pornography and licentiousness; of spiritual riches regained after a million dollars lost to cocaine. Next they run you through a gauntlet of the handshaking “saved.” Then finally they march you to the kitchen door where a brawny bouncer oversees your entry under a quote on the wall from Proverbs: “The eyes of the Lord are everywhere, beholding evil and good.”

What appear to be meatballs are hidden under a greasy macaroni that keeps sliding off the plastic fork. The soggy, wilted lettuce, nearly lost in a thin white liquid, forms a salad soup. I know it’s supposed to be salad because after poking around in it I find a thin slice of fresh tomato. On the more positive side, butter and grapefruit juice are served, courtesy of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. True to the mission’s name, there’s a wide selection of sliced bread on a platter.

As soon as the call comes for seconds, several men — obviously experienced here — jump into line with their plates still full. The servers run out of seconds before half of those early birds get any. “Doors locked!” the bouncer booms.

The next time, I go to Bread of Life for breakfast. There’s still the wait, first outside, then in the chapel. The tone is set by the guest preacher, a young native American.

“Only in America,” he says, “can anyone preach the health-and-wealth gospel. They can’t preach it in Mozambique. They can’t preach it in Bangladesh. Not in Guatemala, not in Haiti, not in the Philippines.” He speaks in measured tones; everyone pays attention. “Only in America can preachers make you feel that if you are homeless and hungry and poor, then it means you have no faith. Only in America can preachers step over the homeless on their churches’ doorsteps, not lifting a finger to help, and then go preach this health-and-wealth gospel to the comfortably saved. Gentlemen, I submit to you that this is a phony prophesy preached by phony preachers.” Applause! Shouts of “Praise God! Amen! Hallelujah!”

The young man’s sermon is shorter than the allotted half-hour. The staff director fills the time by leading us in singing “Amazing Grace.” I love this song, recognizing fully the sweet masochism in “a wretch like me.” After stalling for time by making us sing all the verses, the director announces that breakfast is ready. “Husbands and wives first, single ladies next, then those on crutches or otherwise disabled.”

Although the breakfast isn’t as good as the sermon, there’s more than enough to fill my stomach. All I have to do is force it past those troublesome taste buds. The hash browns are gummy in the center and crackly at the edges. They’re bolstered with a side of limp bread sprinkled with bits of bologna and sopped in a thick brown something-or-other . . . unh, gravy. Grapefruit juice, again thanks to the government. No coffee or milk, and no seconds — but all the pastries you want. And tasty apples and decent oranges.

I am surprised to receive a metal fork this time, and a knife (albeit a butter knife). I’m impressed by the sturdy plastic plate. The bouncer, a nice-guy East Indian, lets in six at a time. Most men heed the sign at the counter: “Your mother doesn’t work here, so clean up after yourself.” We’re not particularly rushed; afterward, I feel ready for the day.

On my third visit, the recorded music is especially “heavenly” — French horns, flutes, harp, and piano. The “superintendent,” as the preacher is called tonight, greets the men, some by name. To those he doesn’t know he gushes, “We’re friendly! Friendly here!” After he leaves, a blue-shirted, neck-tied attendant stands with arms crossed at the doorway, scanning the congregation. He spots a familiar face in the last row, walks over to him, and announces, “You’re barred for thirty days. I barred you. Out you go!”

The man mumbles, “I’m not drunk.”

“You passed out on me in chapel,” the bouncer says without rancor. “You swore in chapel. You gave people a bad time.” The seated man remains immobile. Everyone around him maintains profound disinterest. “I’m serious,” the bouncer says. “Man, you got to go.”

The man’s clothes are dirty and torn. He has three or four days of stubble on his chin. His eyes are at half-mast — drunk or drugged. Without another word, he pulls himself up and wobbles out the door. The superintendent mounts the pulpit, turns off the music, and announces, “Isn’t that music great! It’s called ‘Night Sounds.’ We’re honored to have you here.”

Someone blurts, “Is it going to be longer tonight?” “No, it’s not going to be any longer than usual,” the preacher says. “You’ll get a meal, a bed, and the Word of God.” He searches the faces. “We’re like Egyptian mummies here . . . pressed for time.” He laughs at his joke, laughs alone. “The New Age says, ‘No absolutes!’ Baloney! This is IT!” He thumps the big black Bible. “Right here, this is all you need . . . the Book! The word of God will never lose its power!”

The enthusiastic among the congregation shout, “Amen!” He announces that the mission’s weekly “open house” will be held the next day, for an hour and a half, mid-morning. “You need jackets for the winter?” he asks. “We have a clothing supply in the basement. Lots of warm clothing down there. We give it away. And the showers will be open. This is our street ministry. To get a bed, be here to sign up at 1:30.”

When he announces there will be two offerings, some grumble. The first collection, the preacher explains, is for Bread of Life itself. The other is designated for World Missions, the Wycliff Bible translators, and the Seamen’s Service Club. The attendants pass a platter to collect the first offering. They get a handful of pennies, nickels, and a few dimes. The second offering is supposed to go into the slot in the roof of a miniature church in front of the pulpit, but no one rises to contribute.

Seventy-five men sit here, nearly a full house. The mural on the wall is a primitivist Tree of Life. There is also a portrait of Christ knocking at a door. Fifteen minutes into the service, two women — one black, one white — join the congregation. The mission evidently makes exceptions to its rule against late admission.

We are forewarned that Pastor Otto, the main preacher for the night, has forty-six years behind the pulpit. As we sing “Count Your Blessings,” my neighbor chants mysteriously while waving his hands over a Bible. In the middle of the hymn, he bursts out with a short, hysterical laugh.

Pastor Otto invites us to read about the ten lepers who were cleansed by the Savior. He tells us how the lepers had to live in huts outside the villages, isolated from everyone. Pastor Otto raises his hands dramatically, demonstrating what the lepers had to do whenever they came upon someone on the road, and he shouts, “Unclean! Unclean! Unclean!” His timing is perfect, his motions economical . . . an old pro.

“Shit,” my neighbor mutters.

It seems that only the Samaritan, the “outcast of the outcasts,” returns to give thanks to the Lord. “Although all ten lepers were healed, only the Samaritan was truly healed in his heart.” Pastor Otto brings the homily of thanksgiving a little closer to home with an illustration from the Wild West. “On the Oregon Trail, a wagon train was beset by bitter dissension. The leaders decided to stop for a meeting. But before discussing grievances, one man insisted that each person had first to give thanks for at least one thing. After they had gone the round of thanks and it was time for complaints, no one had anything to say.

“Everyone has something to be thankful for,” Pastor Otto says. “After the service, you’ll have a meal. Those of you staying here will have a warm place to sleep. I know some of you have had a hard time. But the Lord — if you commit to Him — will take care of you.”

“Bullshit,” my neighbor blurts.

The other preacher returns to the pulpit. Bolstered by his wife’s fancy piano flourishes, he sings “The Great Creator.” He then asks that we open the hymnal to number one thirty-six. The service is approaching an hour. Someone says, “Are you kidding?” A belch sounds from the opposite corner. A third man sighs loudly. After the hymn, there’s desultory clapping. We finish, mercifully, with “Come All Ye Faithful.”

Clyde, the bouncer, takes over. “I’ve got six beds, and five people still to show. If you want to try for a bed, meet me after dinner.” His manner is abrupt. He’s tough. And short. Clyde rattles off the order of entry to the dining room: couples first, then anyone on crutches, and finally, “Women with escorts.” No one fits any of those categories tonight. But all eyes turn to the two women who entered late. “All right,” Clyde shrugs, “women without escorts.”

The line moves haltingly toward the kitchen. A sign on the wall reads, “Have you rejected Christ again?” When we reach the kitchen, there’s another: “Owner: God; Manager: Jesus Christ; Complaint Dept.: The Holy Spirit.” A man behind me comments, “That’s sacrilegious.”

There are real meatballs tonight, quite a few. The spaghetti noodles are drowned in a thin tomato sauce. Al dente it’s not. The salad is iceberg, crisp, with raw scallions, celery, and the usual ocean of white dressing.

I am surprised by two sweet gherkins in the salad. I don’t particularly crave gherkins, but they are one of those little “extras” that make me feel less like I’m eating out of a trough. It’s gratifying, too, when there is no limit on an item, as with the French bread. Another decent touch is a box of pick-your-own fruit — little apples and pears.

One guy cuts a huge slab of butter, but he can’t spread it because he is shaking like a leaf. He raises his trembling plate into the air and holds it there while he prays. Another guy piles his plate as high as he can. He sits brooding over his food, immobile except for an evil stare aimed at any who meet his eyes. After ten minutes he jumps up and dumps everything from his plate, untouched, into the garbage can. There’s not a word exchanged at the table.

Early on they announce, “No seconds.” But after most are seated and many have left, we hear, “Seconds now!”

One of the last men to sit down mutters, “If you see creepy crawlies, tell me.”

I walk across the street and peer in the window of an art gallery. There’s a small celluloid of Bugs Bunny, Santa Claus, and Elmer Fudd. The handwritten card next to it reads: “Warner Bros., Inc. 1986 31/200 $550.”

 

DOWNTOWN EMERGENCY SERVICE CENTER

Getting into this place takes guts. Maybe it’s best to call it a chance for adventure, or an opportunity to conquer certain fears. It took six misdirections to solve the riddle of where the place is. It’s a B-movie entrance in an alley clogged with thugs who dress the part.

The house rules are on the wall: “No fighting. No possession or use of alcohol or drugs. No display of weapons or weapon holders. Cooperation with staff at all times. Racist/sexist behavior is not tolerated.” One room is marked “Women’s Area. No Men Allowed.” The door is open. Six women sit around a table. A few others sit alone. But most mingle with the men. There are more women here than at any of the other places.

I pick up the meal, cafeteria-style. It comes on a flimsy, chipped, plastic tray. The spoon and fork are plastic; the plate, paper. Yogurt is the meal’s highlight. It’s fresh — dated fresh by a month! After that, the meal heads downhill. Except for one red splotch of something that reminds me of blood, the noodles are untouched by sauce. They are accompanied by a half-dozen skin-colored chunks of something, probably a nod toward sausage. Bread, at least, is unlimited.

The second visit is different. I’m primed this time for the studs preening in the alley. I’m steeled for the entrance, girded for wading through the various liquids spilled on the stairwell. It’s a Saturday night and I expect them to be swinging from the rafters.

Instead, it’s relaxed. What strikes me this time is the pluralism. Few places in America have such a mixture of ethnicities tied to a common purpose. Not surprisingly, almost all are from the same social class. Racially, however, we are nearly as diverse as our government propaganda likes to boast. Too bad that what brings us together is mere survival.

Despite the innumerable “fuck this” and “fuck that”s, the buzz of milling people soothes. There’s a camaraderie here. Some watch and observe, as I do. Most seem oblivious to the situation. A high proportion are mental cases. An old Hispanic, so drunk he can barely stand, nearly douses me with his tea. The place is a haven for the chemically deranged. The age spread is wide, though there are no children. There are a lot of tattoos and missing teeth. Still, there’s an ease in the air; the place is full of characters who aren’t going to hurt anybody.

Lasagna overburdens a paper boat, while a second boat of salad floats alongside. The gooey pasta is glued together with Elmer’s and decorated, gaily, with stringy orange mucilage. On the positive side, the lettuce is green. It sags a little, though it goes down easy. At least it isn’t iceberg. They’ve taken the trouble to add some sliced zucchini. It all swims, of course, in the standard, tasteless, off-white dressing. Yet the creamer for the fifteen-cent coffee is instant milk, better than the chalky artificial powder dispensed in many restaurants. There is, as usual, a wide selection of sliced bread. A caramel cookie bar comes as dessert. Rounding out the meal is grapefruit or orange juice, your choice, USDA canned. The guy next to me offers to trade his candy bar for another load of lasagna.

The loudspeaker gurgles unintelligibly. On the table is a comic book, a health department publication about AIDS. Except for its subject matter, it could be the “Archie and Veronica” series.

 

FIRST AVENUE SERVICE CENTER

Ivan Denisovich, welcome home! The soup of the day is boiled water thickened with cornstarch and flavored with salt and monosodium glutamate. (Some of the diners add still more salt. You could serve a block of rock salt to some, and before slicing it up, they would salt it.) Floating in this flavored dew is a soggy, paperlike remnant of onion. I locate a chunk of cooked carrot and a yellow patch of chicken skin.

Perhaps because my palate has known beetle, python, placenta, grasshopper, various untamed fungi, caterpillar, dog, raw sea urchin, and miscellaneous mollusks, I manage not to vomit. The stale rolls and weak coffee don’t help. This is the closest I have ever come to eating pure garbage.

A mural on the wall depicts determined people of all colors striving who knows where or why. “I am somebody!” the caption asserts. Two-dimensional and stiff, it’s socialist realism without punch. In pastel, no less.

The sign at the entrance window warns, “Verbal Abuse to the Volunteer at the Door = 30 Days.” The sign in the TV room is more brutal: “Touching the TV or Antenna = Permanent Bar.” “Don’t Call 911” states another.

There’s a bum’s rush when the guards announce the meal. The sign behind the counter reads, “Anyone using foul language when guest volunteers are here will be permanently barred.” I guess there are no guest volunteers here today. The servers certainly don’t look like guests. They look like long-time residents, still suffering dt’s. They load my paper bowl so full I spill it. Everybody is spilling theirs, too. The place is a little sloppy.

The young man across the table from me gulps the slop down, saying, “Hate to eat fast, but they’re running low. Hate to see,” he snarls, “the damn bums get all the food.”

On the final visit to this soup kitchen I pause next door in the art gallery of COCA, the Center for Contemporary Arts. COCA is full of ugly, beautiful, repugnant, useless things. On the other side of the First Avenue Service Center’s door the porno marquee is brightly lit: “Babes in Toyland: Sugar ’N Spice Both Naughty and Nice.”

The doors to the center are locked. A number of us wait in the cold. Some complain. When the red van arrives — “St. Monica’s” across its side — a dozen men jostle to carry in the food. I learn, too late, that helping out is the way to the front of the line.

As we wait, one guy trims his nails with a six-inch hunting knife. A woman waits shoeless, in white stockinged feet. Another woman holds a baby in her arms — it’s especially upsetting to see a baby here. I’m beginning to recognize familiar faces.

The meal is macaroni and cheese. It’s gluey, but all right. Sliced tomatoes are getting to be a specialty here. And the salad is four-star: crisp, green lettuce. For the first time, substantial plastic forks are provided, but to my disappointment they are not saved. For dessert, there’s a bag of apples, and fig bars handed out by a volunteer. There are packets of make-your-own hot chocolate.

The volunteers are polite and quiet, middle-aged. One short man, thirtyish, wears a white shirt and tie. Some servers exchange friendly banter with the served. The place fills up — not many to begin with, but they keep coming.

Two other black men join my table. A fourth pulls up a chair and squeezes in. The discussion, one of them says, is “not for outside ears.” They huddle closer and go into a fast, slurred argot, something about guard dogs and security men and chain fences.

Two drunks, an American Indian woman and a bearded white man, weave together out the door, stagger down the sidewalk, and head north. A Clydesdale pulls a carriage past, clopping complacently through the traffic. A boxer dog sits next to the driver on the seat. Two tourists sit in the carriage, bored.

 

LUTHERAN COMPASS CENTER

I enter the line next to the building’s old brick wall. A couple with a baby discusses how to get the stroller up the narrow stairs. The man shuffles his feet nervously. In a few minutes they are summoned through the door. Families go to the head of the line. Since they didn’t know that, it must be their first time here — a new low for a new family.

Some men banter away the time. “Wha’s happening, bro’?” “Nutrients, man, waiting for nutrients.” “Yeah, what it is, nutrients.” Another man plans his future for all to hear: “Come next March, I’m gonna kiss that crab boat— if it don’t sink on the way over.” A thick-lipped, long-haired, acned Indian bebops to the drums and cymbals clashing through his earphones. A guy on his way out announces, “Steak tonight. Porterhouse!” He skips down the steps laughing.

The casserole is worth the wait. It’s stuffed generously with turkey, peas, and dressing. I’m happy to see a cracked wheat roll. The dessert cake is too sweet, but it’s tasty. The salad isn’t much, but at least the crisp iceberg hasn’t been drowned in dressing. The non-fat milk comes in a cup.

Women volunteers walk among the tables, handing out napkins. An, other volunteer, an older man, walks around with a pitcher of milk, gently asking if he can fill your cup. All the servers are church types, mostly older men and women. They are safe people, good people, doing something they don’t have to.

A woman in cleric’s garb cuddles a child. There are several families here, and a number of couples. The place is filled to overflowing, a hundred or so. A child experiments on the piano for a short minute. Just as in a home, it stands open in invitation.

Cheerful photographs and drawings adorn the walls. Most are nature scenes — misty ocean fronts and cathedral forests. A large houseplant flourishes in the corner. The only expression of piety is a portrait of Christ hung high on a wall. There are no other banners or slogans, no sermons. The place feels . . . Christian, as I think Christ would have had it.

The sound of a whimpering baby chokes me up. It might as well be my baby crying, it hurts so. And yet . . . I can still sense the happiness. It’s available here as well as anywhere. Maybe even more here than elsewhere . . . more compassion here, more love. I shouldn’t cry for that child, unless I cry for everyone.

The door to the kitchen has “Chef Antonio” painted on it. Chef Antonio is willing to put his reputation on the line. He stands up front, congenially barking out orders about closing doors and when seconds will be available. He talks street lingo, tough but affable.

I return on a rainy midday for the dollar-fifty lunch. The stairwell is dark, the lone bare bulb unlit. At the top of the stairs, I learn I must buy a lunch ticket in the downstairs office. So back down I go. A sign at the ticket window instructs: “Please Stand Behind Red Line.”

A small plaque on a pillar announces funding by the United Way. This means United Way’s executive director is putting her expertise to work here — all one hundred and forty thousand dollars of it. Or, more precisely, according to her executive secretary, her “one thirty-nine-five, plus thirty in benefits.”

The centerpiece of lunch is white rice covered with a tangy, hard-to-place topping. There’s a lot of it, unfortunately. My guess is that it’s TVP (textured vegetable protein) spiced with whatever they could find in the cupboard. There’s a side of tiny egg rolls, stale and tasteless. The string beans are the real thing, though, not out of a can — green and yellow string beans, as well as some kidney beans mixed in . . . all flavorless. It’s left to me to use what’s on the table — butter, salt, and pepper — to make these beans taste like something. Coffee is self-serve, all you want from an urn.

There’s also fresh-squeezed orange juice from Larry’s Market, ten days older than the date stamped. When a boy opens one of the plastic bottles, it explodes.

Children run around, largely unattended — a toddler, a pre-pubescent girl, and eleven- and twelve-year-old boys. A piano player is having himself a time, singing and improvising from familiar melodies.

I wish the meal were tastier. Unable to stomach it, I throw most of it away. I’m glad that I didn’t refuse, as I almost did, the dessert — a full quarter of a blackberry pie! Luckily, the pie makes the meal. At a dollar-fifty, this is the Maxim’s of soup kitchens. In fact, that price has limited the clientele to only a dozen this noon.

The Lutheran Compass Center is the only place to which I am comfortable taking my four-year-old daughter. She comes with me for my third meal here. Chef Antonio spots her and brings her a glass of milk. He asks me if I want to put her on the list for Christmas gifts.

The free lunch this time is pretty sad — a sandwich of Spam-like stuff between two slices of brown bread. I pull out a large piece of gristle. The chicken soup is thin, but flavorful, with recognizable chunks of chicken. The dessert is a passable cupcake. Fair enough, I suppose.

The dining room is on the second floor. Right outside the window, cars and trucks on the double-decker highway whizz by at fifty miles an hour.

 

MILLIONAIRE CLUB

The gatekeeper demands one prerequisite for entry: “Hats off, gentlemen.” It’s a difficult request for some. A black man across from me has evidently not removed his wool cap in years. He finally obeys, though the cap goes back on the moment he shovels in his last mouthful.

Leaves of paper cut in autumn colors are taped to interior pillars — a small, but welcome touch. On the wall, there’s a two, toned circular painting of gulls and cityscape. Another depicts sailboats cutting through Lake Union. The signs are painted in bright colors: “Since 1921, 6,000,000 Meals Served”; “We Can, We Care”; “Give Thanks to God Always.” A large photo of an old man, probably the club’s founder, looks down on the hiring hall.

The meal is basic. Rice and beans, an adequate pile but without flavor. None. Flatter than a rice paddy. There’s a burrito — a wheat tortilla wrapped around more flavorless beans. But the chef doesn’t leave you utterly stranded; he invites you to knock yourself out with the salt and pepper at the table. There’s a choice of soda pop — Chocolate Diet Fudge or Lemon Lime White Rock. There are no vegetables, and except for tiny, tasteless apples in a box at the exit, no fruit. Basic — with one exception: chocolate mints. At the end of the meal, there are plenty of mints left. Maybe the others know something I don’t.

The servers, all men, wear white paper caps and clear plastic gloves. When asked for something in which to carry out leftovers, a server fetches an extra paper napkin. As we eat, the lights are turned out and a voice orders, “Let’s go, hurry up!”

On my way out, I stop to take a look at a postcard stuck in the window. It’s a photograph of an orangutan begging food at a zoo. Outside the door I look up to a brightly lit billboard: “It’s a Cutter’s kind of night!”

 

PENIEL MISSION

Art studios compete with high-rise condos and brick warehouses. The corner gallery features contorted tubes of neon. Across the street from the line waiting to enter the mission, a woman jogs on the sidewalk. She draws wolf whistles; one man goofs at a chase, retreating before he reaches the curb. “Too dangerous for women here,” laughs a woman in line.

Two young women emerge from a studio across the street and sit together on a bench. They wear jeans and clean smocks. They sit close, basking in the sun’s last rays, and they share an apple.

The guy behind me, an older guy, asks, “They feed good here?” I answer, “First time.” “Oh, me too. When they open?” “Six-thirty. Chapel’s first.” “Chapel? All right. That’s okay.”

We file past a woman sleeping on the sidewalk. When she notices the line moving she jumps up and hefts a plastic bag half her size. Her eyes are heavily painted, her jaw hard and square. She is last through the door. In a gravelly voice, she demands coffee. A guy near me whispers, “They say she’s a man.”

The sermon is mercifully short, delivered by a portly man in a rumpled, off-white shirt. He asks the Lord to help us so we won’t have to come to such a place. It’s a small, bare room, this storefront, with two wall banners of Christian piety. One long table stretches down the middle of the room, with seats for twenty-five. Along the walls, boards fold out for another two dozen to eat facing the plaster.

The meal is palatable. Canned peas, USDA. Spaghetti, standard, solid, tasty, and stringy white meat — probably government issue. Baked potatoes, with good, tough skins. Bread. No shortage of carbohydrates. Butter in a tub with a plastic knife sticking from it. Grapefruit juice, right out of the USDA can, tart, watery, too thin. The men joke, “Pass the parmesan!” “Pass the wine!” “Make it Burgundy!”

The second visit is heavier on indoctrination. We have to sing two songs from the hymnal. We have to pretend that everything is harmonious. Then we listen to an old guy, a guest preacher. There’s a duet sung to a piano accompaniment. Next, a rotund woman introduces her solo by gushing, “I don’t know why this song is the one that came to me while I was praying about what to sing, but I just know it’s going to touch someone.”

Among the gems of the sermon: “. . . and may he get a job and when he gets that job, Lord, may he do the work not for the paycheck but for Thee.” And: “We will find that we get what we need, even if we don’t deserve it.”

I’m not in the mood to abide fools. I want to know why these middle-class, self-satisfied, puffed-up, preachifying hypocrites are inflicting such lies upon us. Talk about menaces to society! These people are caricatures of themselves.

To top it off, we have to listen to the Boy Wonder. He’s a twenty-year-old who found the Lord two years ago. He can’t relate to what it’s like to be us, but he knows Jesus loves us, and Jesus loves him, and although he isn’t anybody special, he is somebody special, because Jesus loves him and Jesus loves us and he just wants to be our friend.

The kid doesn’t stand behind the podium the way the old preacher does. No, he moves among us. He wants to share himself — body, mind, and soul. He wants to insinuate himself among us, to slither into our hearts. He wants to be our friend. And he’s ready, brother, ready to return to his origins. Are you? He asks because he loves us, even though he’s nobody. And when it hits the fan, he wants us to know that there will be no more inner city. No, Lord, thank you Lord. There will be no Peniel Mission. No, Lord, thank you Lord. There will be no more nobodies slinging this shit at us poor sheep. No Lord, thank you Lord. There won’t be anything but the clean, shining, white, lighted suburbs where these good hearted, right-thinking, soul-snatching purveyors of harangue reside.

I have to face a personal assault. “Hi, I’m Scott. What’s your name?” “David. [Please leave me alone, Scott.]” “You have a place to sleep tonight? [You poor wretch.]” “Yes. [Ha, disappointed you.]” “Oh. [I’m disappointed.] What about these others? Will some of them sleep on the streets tonight? [Come on, give me a good story.]” “Yes. [Happy now?]” “[Relieved, thank you.] Aren’t there places for them to sleep?” “Yeah, there are fleabags. [What’s it to you?]” “That’s what I’ve heard. Well, nice meeting you, friend. [Now off to my next ‘witness!’]” Finally, he’s finished with me, thank God, and they bring on the grub.

Today it’s noodles, beans, and mangled meat without any sauce. I’ve come to expect heavily salted meals, but this one’s not. There are decent canned peas and white bread rolls. And grapefruit juice, first in plastic pitchers, and then, for seconds, directly out of the USDA cans.

The plate and cup are styrofoam. The plastic fork is strong enough to poke through the bread, and necessary for spreading the butter. There are no knives.

One guy bellyaches about the lack of dessert, and inexplicably, shockingly, a server brings him a whole round of commercial cinnamon cake, packed in its original box. When the receiver of this largesse doesn’t offer to share it, men grumble. I don’t understand the situation and neither do the other fellows. The guy eats his fill of the cake and then, finally shamed, passes the remains around.

The guy next to me sees that I lack butter and, unasked, seeks the tub. We haven’t spoken, though we’re both struggling with the bent leg of the folding table, trying to keep the whole thing from collapsing as it threatens to do. His unexpected act of kindness touches me.

 

SALVATION ARMY HARBORLIGHT CENTER

They direct us into a chapel for a ten-minute sermon read line for line from a book. It’s about David and Absalom and family estrangement. The old, frumpy, uniformed “soldier of the Lord” spends almost as much time explaining the order in which to empty the pews as he does reading the sermon.

Once in the serving hall, signs instruct us: “One Tray; One Glass”; “Save Spoons.” We file past a long table of bread; at one end a silent young fellow wearing a sweatshirt from Harvard ladles soup from a pot.

We can see a second, separate cafeteria — not for us — behind the soup line. With a glass enclosure full of stainless steel trays and a counter fronting a real kitchen, it looks like a regular restaurant. Two men sit at a small table. They don’t look so different — a little cleaner, perhaps — than those of us in the soup line. The rest of the tables are empty — tables set for four, with silverware and condiments and butter dishes. It’s a cafeteria for the paying lodgers, and it lets us know where we stand . . . or, rather, sit: in an unfinished room at the opposite side of the basement, in metal folding chairs at long, bare tables. The sign at the entrance to the bathroom reads: “Toilet paper in kitchen — ask cooks.”

The noodles in the soup are overcooked, but the broth is peppery, piquant. I find a few pieces of chicken among the noodles. Good enough, can’t ask for more. The selection of bread and cookies is wide. I get my own water, ladling it from a large, open pot. There are apples, as many as you like. And sad, overripe plums.

Except for a buzzing fluorescent bulb that needs replacing, it’s quiet here. It’s as if the sixty men and four women are eating in a monastery.

 

UNION GOSPEL MISSION

In an alcove between the cafeteria and the street a six-foot wooden crucifix shines brightly, eighteen light bulbs to a side. It shines through a large picture window onto a street full of angry shouts and broken bottles. This is the way skid row is “supposed” to look: down and dirty.

Of the twenty eating breakfast, fifteen are black men, one is an old black woman, and the rest are hoary white guys carefully minding their own business. Except for a few small clusters, everyone eats alone, in silence.

The French toast is as good as can be expected. That’s just what this life of begging is: as good as can be expected, can’t complain. But not everyone is as complacent as I. “No coffee!” an older man berates the air. “Can you beat that?!” he exclaims. “Not a damn thing works. It’s just like Russia.”

Given that the U.S.A. has the world’s second highest per capita prison population — right behind the benevolent regime of South Africa — the man is not far from wrong. The oatmeal is the same as the paste I have tasted in jail and asylum.

But the French toast is all right. Still, I wonder why the oatmeal has to be pre-sweetened? And why are the only available utensils small, flimsy, plastic spoons? It’s hard enough to cut French toast with a metal spoon, much less one that cracks under the slightest stress.

When I ask for a clean cup, the dishwasher splashes hot water in a dirty one and shoves it toward me with a grunt. The only sign in the cafeteria is an anomalous wooden carving above the serving line: “Welcome Friends.” Still, the orange juice is a commercial brand; it lacks the watery, metallic taste of the generic stuff from the USDA. The yogurt is out of date by a week, but it’s tasty, with no hint of sourness.

A uniformed guard sits at a table, not to eat but just to look around. He wears a shiny silver badge.

On the bulletin board in the hallway, there’s a copy of the mission’s newspaper ad that mentions the opportunity to work here. Next to the ad is a scribbled note: “You, too, can be exploited by United Gospel Missions!” Last among the long list of posted rules is: “No Immoral Conduct.” A poster offers counseling for the “sexually addicted”; it asks, “Do you fantasize about children? Are you addicted to pornography? Meet in a Christian setting.”

My second visit is for lunch. I enter the cafeteria to find a man complaining to the staff manager: “You ain’t got no respect for people. Three dollars for a bed and a dollar for the meal! This mission’s mission is to rob the poor.”

A fat white woman walks past. Her face is beaten, literally and figuratively, puffy and blue. She pushes an infant in a carriage, followed by an older toddler — a girl with a swollen black eye and a large welt.

The utensil tray includes knives — metal knives, though there’s no use for them in this meal. There are plastic spoons and forks.

Lunch is gristly, heavily breaded meatloaf and greasy, gluey rice with a few pieces of carrot thrown in. There’s a sad, limpy salad drowned in that watery white dressing that I’m now convinced is centrally concocted for most of the soup kitchens downtown. At least the lettuce is dark green. The plate comes with two pieces of buttered garlic bread sprinkled with parsley. The coffee is weak, but — give them credit — they’ve fixed the machine. Finally, there’s a banana, close enough to ripe for eating. The meal is probably worth the dollar, but there’s no charity in that.

A few days later, I overhear a conversation involving someone who used to work at Union Gospel. He complains bitterly about the food. “It’s terrible,” he says. “The cooks are lousy. They even give freezer-burned stuff to the staff.” He impugns the mission’s standards of sanitation and his listener asks why the place isn’t closed down. “Aw,” he answers, “the health department never closes down places like that.”

My last visit is for the free evening meal, chapel required. At 7:30 I join a file of men up the stairs to the second floor chapel. As I walk in the door, I am handed two books, Victorious Life Hymnal and God’s Word. The dais is flanked by an American flag and one from a church of unknown denomination. A simple wooden cross hangs behind the pulpit.

The mission’s preacher, attired in a natty blue suit, tells of a pamphlet we can get after the service. It explains how “Amazing Grace” came to be written by an ex-slave-trader. A young woman sings the song accompanied on piano by an older woman who never says a word. When she finishes, the congregation claps enthusiastically and some shout, “Praise God!” Then the young man asks us to, “Raise your hand if you are saved. Raise your hand if you would go to Heaven tonight, if you died.” He seems satisfied with the dozen or so hands raised.

The young woman takes the pulpit again for another solo. She sings clearly and plainly, right on key. She’s not a pretty woman. Her face is pasty and pocked. She is stocky. Her clinging white sweater emphasizes her ample bosom. She sings deadpan, serious and absorbed. Her stare is spaced-out and spooky. The room is hushed at the startling, haunting effect. “Throw out the lifeline, throw out the lifeline,” she sings — captaining a ghost ship through fog — “throw out the lifeline, someone is drifting away. . . .”

Afterward she explains, “I was flying high on acid in 1982 when I saw a preacher on the streets. I was so drawn to him I accepted the Lord right then and there. But soon the Devil dragged me away. I studied black magic, the occult, witchcraft. I was in the middle of a divorce, about to lose my daughter, when I was walking across a bridge and . . . you know the feeling of being almost pushed to jump off a bridge? How many know that feeling? Raise your hands. Yeah, two or three of you. . . . I was two-thirds of the way across the bridge when I had to stop and dig my fingernails into the railing, to stop the devil from making me jump, to stop me from killing myself. Praise Jesus, I was saved. Can any of you relate to that?”

The guy in front of me, young and fidgety, head bobbing, still a boy, says, “Yeah, yeah, yeah . . . I can relate.” He turns around directly to me, bug-eyed and emphatic. “YEAH! I can relate. . . .”

When we finally get into the kitchen, we are met by three headless males cut off at the neck by a partition. The food is shoved out on a tray. The tray has bits of old food stuck to it. “U.S.” is stamped on the sturdy steel fork.

The centerpiece of the meal is a dollop of mashed potatoes the consistency of Silly Putty. The cook has added a few mutilated bits of beef. The mess is covered with a gelatinized “gravy” that encases a dozen peas. The goo makes my teeth squeak.

There’s half a sweet potato. I like sweet potatoes, but this poor thing is watery and tasteless, so overcooked I can’t pick it up with my fork. There’s a slice of bread and a cheap pastry roll with a dribble of chocolate sauce over the top. Altogether, then, this meal consists of two bites of meat, a dozen peas, and four carbohydrates. I give my pastry to the guy next to me. He’s thankful for it.

 

On my rounds of the soup kitchens, I learned more than fine distinctions among bad foods. I learned the patience engendered by interminable waiting. I learned the deferential glance, a useful grace that gets one past the guards unchallenged. Every time I passed a guard, I wondered if he regarded me as a bum. At the religious missions, I wondered if he really believed that I, too, am a manifestation of Christ. A voice grew within me: “I just want to go inside, eat, and be left alone.” It was best to be inconspicuous, a nobody.

Later the voice became angry and defensive. It’s what any sane person should expect to feel when made to abide fools. What else can come from “earning” one’s meal by being forced to listen to sickly pieties from a callow kid from the suburbs! I wanted to say, “I’m lying to you, Scott. I don’t know piss about where these people sleep at night. There’s no good reason for me to be eating at this place. I can get out of this rut whenever I like. I’m only posing as a down-and-outer. I’m not like these ‘losers.’ I’ve got a wife and two kids and a decent roof. Beware of your informants, kid!”

I first embarked upon this project because I wanted to tell my street buddies what to expect and “where the vittles is good.” I see now that many seeking nourishment will face their biggest obstacle in the overbearing self-importance of these preachers. Whether I agree or disagree with the delivered message, I resent being forced to listen. Even if the message is progressive and liberal, I’m “paying” for a meal by enduring it, and I know I am in the hands of tyrants.

The difference between the goody-goody volunteers and those pressed into service from off the streets is instructive. The volunteers try to break down the barriers with naive upbeat greetings that sometimes serve only to highlight the vast gulf between them and the people served. Sometimes a volunteer’s innocuous words will rebound with the fear of having offended. I once asked a volunteer, “Where’s the bathroom?” She looked at me and exclaimed, “Oh, boy . . .” — the beginning of what she deemed fairly complicated directions. Then she stopped and looked again, seeing my dark skin. She backtracked and said, “Excuse me. I’m around children all day. I didn’t mean . . . I should have said ‘man’. . . . It’s down that hall, to your left, and down the stairs. I’m just not around adults much. Sorry.” I had to laugh, she was so sincere. The man next to me muttered, “You’re lucky! Adults ain’t nothing but trouble.”

I am intimately familiar with the goodwill that runs these places. I’ve been on both sides of the serving line. The church people unloading boxes of food that they have collected and brought to this soup kitchen are sturdy, middle-class folk doing good, making themselves feel good, and really helping. I don’t mean to denigrate their efforts, not one bit.

But when some people work behind the counters, they act like trustees. Whether paid or not, these workers will sometimes go out of their way to establish their dominance, shouting, in effect, “In your place, and crawl!” Some of the served are happier to face this harsh attitude. It’s what they know — a snarl is often more honest than a whimper. I, too, came to judge every morsel from the perspective that we didn’t deserve any better. When the only other places serving free food are prisons, asylums, and the armed forces, feelings of worthlessness become unavoidable.

The opinion on the street generally accepts this standard of the bare minimum — though this might be changing. Bitter complaints are now directed toward the tycoons, the media’s miserly darlings, those who trumpet the “American Way.” Street savvy has it that “the government protects the conglomerates and taxes the little guy. The big guys are grabbing the farmland. The corporations are taking all they can. They’ll set the prices however they like. The way this country is going . . . it’s real bad.” On a brick wall in a weedy parking lot the grafitto reads: “Big Money Taking Over.”

Unlike the autonomous poor displayed in travel brochures of exotic tropical destinations, the American poor are stripped of self-respect. A tour to skid row wouldn’t sell. The faces of the woman and her babe-in-arms and her toddler in tow — each face red and black and blue — just don’t compare to the painted faces of culturally intact aborigines.

Truth is, I’m not that far from being a “client” myself. With a family of four I’ve got only a few months of food money in the bank and no car and no home and no insurance and no money for rent and no wages coming in. Admittedly some of this is self-imposed. I’ve written novels that don’t sell. Sheltered by friends and community, I’ve managed to survive off odd jobs and to avoid all but medical welfare. I haven’t reported taxable income for more than a decade. So I’m not far from needing these soup kitchens, not far at all. For the time being I visit them, self-appointed and curious. It’s a preview maybe, a taste of my own possible desperation. It’s an inoculation, I hope, preventive medicine.

But even given my precarious economic situation, this foray into the “restaurants” of the underclass felt sometimes like playing a phony game. If I couldn’t tolerate the “food quality” or bear the “ambience,” I could run home to my wife and two daughters, take a shower, and snuggle up under the down comforter on our king-size futon. A couple of times when I had planned to bicycle downtown, I felt lazy and instead did just that.

I originally thought of titling this survey “Eating Under False Pretenses.” I didn’t have to be sitting in a soup kitchen night after night, meal after meal. There was nothing that had put me there, nothing that forced me to eat the food. Behind such sentiments, however, there lurked a deeper, unspoken presumption: if I did not belong in a soup kitchen, if I deserved better than this food, there were still those who did belong, those who deserved no better, those whose proper place it was to stand in line and eat swill with fragile plastic utensils. I was wrong, of course. Take the family that lacks money for food, the man dazed on crack or alcohol, the woman fleeing her abusive husband; such situations aren’t authentic expressions of who these people are, or what they are about. They, too, are false. A person down on his luck is not the person as he really is; he is someone else suddenly, he is a stranger, a mask. Soon enough I came to understand that no one really “deserves” to be eating out of a soup kitchen; no one “belongs” there.

In the soup kitchens, everybody is eating under false pretenses.