Like many people, Tom Lagasse felt his job at a large multinational corporation was “hollow, trivial, and meaningless.” Dispirited, he quit and went back to school, where he heard about an opportunity to volunteer at the St. Francis Inn, a Philadelphia soup kitchen and homeless shelter run by Franciscan monks. “Dinner at the St. Francis Inn” is an excerpt from the journal he kept while helping out at the Inn for a week, serving dinner to those who had previously been only stereotypes and statistics to him. The experience was, he says, “the only thing that seemed true during a time of personal confusion.”
I grew up in the suburbs, and the only time I remember encountering a street person as a kid was when I was about twelve, on a trip to Boston with my father to see the Red Sox play.
Leaving early so we could watch batting practice, we arrived in Boston in time for lunch and headed straight to a deli our neighbor had recommended. We ordered club sandwiches piled high with turkey, ham, bacon, and cheese, and topped with rich Russian dressing. I ate mine heartily, the meat falling from its sides as I stuffed it into my mouth. My father finished only half of his; not wanting to waste the rest, he had it wrapped.
We walked back toward our truck for my father to put the leftover half sandwich in the cooler. On the way, a bearded, dirty, tattered young man sitting passively on the sidewalk asked us for money. Unaccustomed to the city, my father wasn’t sure what to do. He asked me if he should give the man money. Dismissively, I said, “He probably has more money than we do. Let’s go.” But my father quietly gave the man some change.
As we continued toward the truck, my father said he should have given the man the sandwich, too. I discouraged the idea, not revealing my motive: I wanted it for the ride home. My father decided to go back and give it to him anyway, but when we turned around, the man was gone. Now, some fifteen years later, that man haunts me.
I and several other volunteers sat at a table in the St. Francis Inn’s small dining area. The walls, once an upbeat yellow, were dirty and faded. I wondered how several hundred people could be served here each night. There were Christmas decorations along the walls and plastic holly centerpieces on the thirteen tables, set with plastic tablecloths. Father Michael Duffy joined us from the kitchen.
The Inn fed families and the elderly first, he explained, from 4:30 to 5 P.M., then served all others. “After someone leaves,” he said, “make sure you clean off the table and set it again before you get the next person. Hold up a number of fingers to show whoever is working the door how many people you have room for. When you get them seated, go tell Brother Tom how many plates you need; for example, ‘one adult and one child.’ ”
I listened carefully, hoping to remember it all and not spill food on anyone.
“Only children and pregnant women get milk,” Father Michael added. “And remember: no seconds.”
Just before 4:30, people began pounding on the door, eager to find shelter from the cold. We went to our stations. When the door was opened, a blast of cold air poured in, and families filed toward the empty tables, removing old, dirty coats and hats with relief. The flurry of activity reminded me of a school cafeteria, except for the overwhelming poverty.
A grandmother, mother, and three children sat down at one of my tables. Their faces were tired. One child, in particular, had sad, sunken eyes; an oversized, dirty blue parka engulfed his frail body.
“Would you like some milk?” I asked the children.
They nodded shyly, and I filled their cups. Two of them gulped it down, but the one with the somber countenance sipped sparingly. The grandmother lifted her cup toward me.
“I’m sorry,” I explained, “but the milk is only for kids.”
I returned five minutes later to ask if everything was all right.
“Can the children have more milk?” the grandmother asked.
I noticed that the cup nearest her had a film of milk at the bottom. I refilled the kids’ cups without saying anything. I was angry that she wanted to manipulate the system, upset that she would take advantage of the Inn’s generosity. But then I reminded myself that this woman lived in an entirely different world than I did. How could I impose my values on her when I didn’t know what it was like to be hungry and have to beg for a glass of milk?
After dinner, Father Michael talked to us about the people and the neighborhood.
“Not everyone who comes to eat here is homeless,” he said. “Some people work. They have enough money to pay their rent, but not much else. This is especially true in winter, when they often must decide between heat and food. They’re trying to maintain their dignity by working, but the pay isn’t enough to survive. So we provide a little help by having food for them.”
Where were all the lazy, deceitful poor people I’d heard so much about? I recalled a well-spoken, polite Hispanic man at dinner. I’d assumed he didn’t have a job. When I’d turned down his request for seconds, he hadn’t become volatile, but had only sat meekly, drinking his sugared tea, waiting. When the man across from him left without finishing his meal, the Hispanic man had asked if he could eat the leftovers.
Where was he staying tonight? I wondered.
“Because of the variety of food tonight,” Father Michael predicted, “there are going to be some problems. Not everyone is going to like what you give them, and some will want something else. Just tell them that’s what we’re serving now. They’re usually good about it.”
When my first family of the evening arrived, my offer of milk was met with silence. Finally one child looked at me and nodded yes. His mother ate quietly, not acknowledging my presence. The children were clean and neatly dressed, but that doesn’t feed hungry stomachs. When I returned and asked if they had enough, 1 again received only silence.
Frustrated, I said to another volunteer, “It’s weird. Some people don’t say anything to you. It’s almost like they’re ungrateful.”
“I’ve had the same problem,” he said.
Those who demanded a certain meal or type of roll also angered me. It was difficult to empathize when I didn’t know people’s stories.
Yet, for every chilling silence, there were three or four courteous responses, and just as many children whose dull eyes came to life when I asked if they wanted milk, and who thanked me as if I had just given them the greatest gift in the world.
One couple in their late twenties or early thirties had a son around five years old and a daughter around two. The father was noticeably intoxicated, thin and unshaven, with long hair beneath a dirty baseball cap. His clothes looked as if he had just come from work.
The son obviously idolized his father, studying his every move, trying to attract his attention. The father, however, practically ignored the son. The longer the father ignored him, the harder the son worked to get his attention, banging a fork or cup until the father finally demanded, “Be quiet and eat your food!”
Several minutes later, swinging his feet back and forth, the boy accidentally grazed his father’s leg. “Stop it and eat!” the father yelled, and raised his hand threateningly. Then he turned his back on the boy and squared his shoulders to his young daughter. “C’mon, honey, eat your chicken,” he cooed. The boy’s face drooped, and he fumbled with his glass; milk spilled over the brim.
“Stop spilling your milk!” the father shouted.
By 5:30 Father Michael’s prediction had come true. Some people had heard we had chicken and were disappointed when I placed kielbasa and sauerkraut in front of them. If they asked for chicken, I had to tell them we’d run out. I was reminded of something else Michael had told us: “Although you are trying to help, you are going to spend 80 percent of the time saying no.” It was more difficult than it had sounded. I felt uneasy with the simple truth that there was no more chicken.
One frail man entered with a cigarette jutting from his mouth. Though he could have been in his twenties, he walked like an old man, with small, shuffling steps, supporting himself on a chair or the wall.
“Sir,” I said to him, “please put your cigarette out. You can’t smoke in here.”
He looked blankly at me. He was pale and gaunt, with a few days’ stubble on his chin, and his eyes bulged.
I reiterated my request more sternly, but to no more effect.
Finally, pointing to the cigarette, I demanded, “Put it out!”
My shouting attracted the attention of several men at the next table, who yelled in Spanish to the ghostly man. He sleepily nodded his head, and slowly set the cigarette on the floor. I lifted my foot to crush it flat.
“No, no,” he muttered. Gently, he placed his foot on the lit tip and carefully extinguished it. Then he retrieved the half-smoked cigarette and placed it in his pocket.
As I emptied my tray of dirty dishes, another volunteer said to me, “That guy over there just spilled water on the table.” She pointed to a man in his fifties, wearing a blue wool cap, a long, threadbare top coat, and soiled khaki pants tucked into his boots. A stream of water was flowing from his table top to the floor. Assuming it had been an accident, I moved to clean it up, but Sister Bernice stopped me.
“George took another helping of dinner when he knew there were no seconds,” she explained. “I scolded him, and he spilled the water to get me back. But I’m not going to let him get away with it.”
George rose from his chair and headed for the bathroom, but Sister Bernice intercepted him, blocking the bathroom door. “George, do you realize what you did?” she asked calmly.
“What?” George retorted with phony innocence.
“You spilled water all over the floor,” Sister Bernice said, pointing to the table.
“It was an accident,” he said, planting himself just inches from her face.
“No, it wasn’t. You did it on purpose because you were angry after I got mad at you for having seconds.”
“That’s bullshit,” he grumbled. “I have to shave.” He moved toward the bathroom door.
“No, not until you clean this mess up,” Sister Bernice said. Several volunteers gathered round, but when one of us moved in closer she motioned him away.
“Don’t be a bitch, and quit with the fucking bullshit!” George shouted.
“Hey,” one of the diners yelled, “don’t talk like that in God’s house!”
“This is bullshit,” George said. “It was an accident.”
A man in a fur hat said, “Hey, fellas, this guy’s starting to be a problem.”
“Get out of here, man!” another yelled to George. “You was wrong.”
“Shut up!” George yelled back.
“You want me?” the man in the fur hat asked, pointing to the door.
“Yeah,” George said, “I’ll kick your ass.”
“Outside!” Sister Bernice commanded, pulling George by the arm.
“Go!” a man standing near the doorway yelled, his fist clenched.
“I’ll kick your ass,” George grumbled as he left. “This is bullshit.”
With George gone, the Inn returned to its usual din, and we cleaned up the water.
Later, as I cleared a spot next to a Hispanic man in a green work shirt, I watched him eat the last of his spaghetti. Taking the napkin from his lap, he wiped his mouth delicately, placed his spoon and fork on his plate, and picked at the crumbs scattered around it. Then he lifted his plate and wiped the napkin over the table. I asked if 1 could take his plate.
“That’s OK,” he said. “1 can do it.” Looking me in the eye, he said, “Thank you for dinner.”
Most nights there were leftovers. Tonight I spooned the remaining spaghetti into several yogurt containers and coffee cans. “This is when you find out who’s really hungry,” another volunteer said as we brought the containers to the door. “These people have been waiting in the cold for half an hour.”
Opening the door, I saw a line of about fifteen men and women, their faces shrouded in darkness. Impatiently, they reached for the containers.
“Hey, what about me ?” one man asked with outstretched hand. 1 gave him a container.
“My son’s still hungry!” a woman shouted. I gave her one, too.
“OK, that’s it!” I announced. “We’re out!”
Five minutes after the crowd had dispersed, someone tapped on the side door. 1 went to answer it.
“Got any food?” a wide-eyed man asked.
“No, sorry,” I answered, and shut the door. Then I went upstairs for dinner.
I walked outside, inhaling a deep breath of cold January air. Despite my thick winter coat, wool scarf, and lined wool gloves, 1 was chilled and hopped around, trying to keep warm. Two men who had been leaning against the Inn’s brick wall approached me. One wore a naugahyde coat, and struggled to maintain his balance, leaning on his friend for support. His body odor and alcohol-soured breath overwhelmed me. His friend wore a light windbreaker over several layers of unraveling sweaters.
“Gloves,” the man in the naugahyde coat muttered. “Gloves.” He extended his reddened hands and gently flexed the frozen fingers.
“I could use a pair, too,” the man in the windbreaker added, showing me his chapped hands for proof.
These men were freezing and had no place to go. I went back into the Inn and located the cache of gloves donated by a merchant. Most were for women and children, and I searched for men’s gloves with an unusual sense of urgency; the longer it took me to find gloves, the longer the men’s hands would freeze.
Finding two pairs of gloves, I brought them to the men. The man in the windbreaker put his on immediately, but the man in the naugahyde coat was less successful. Between his drunkenness and his frozen fingers, he was unable to get his hand into the opening. He mumbled something to me in Spanish.
“Do you need some help?” I asked.
“OK,” I said, taking the gloves from him. “Straighten out your fingers.”
Slowly, painfully, the man uncurled his fingers as if they’d been rusted in place. I placed the glove over his fingertips. But the elastic on the wrist pulled his fingers together, and as I pushed the glove down, his fingers bent.
“You have to keep them straight, OK?” I explained.
He looked confused. His friend repeated my instructions in Spanish.
Again, I tried the glove. And again, the man balled his fingers.
“You have to keep your fingers straight, or else I can’t help you,” I said. I tried twice more, but to no avail. Either his fingers were too cold, or he was too drunk. Finally, one finger slipped halfway into its hole; it would have to do. I put the other glove on over his fist. “Is it OK like this?” I asked.
“Sí,” he said. Then, with his hands balled in the palms of the gloves, he extended the right one to me. “God bless you,” he said.
“God bless you,” I said, and shook hands with his fist and the glove’s empty fingers.
A family was eating at one of my tables. Before bringing their doughnuts for dessert, I made sure that all the children would get the same kind of doughnut, so they wouldn’t fight for a lone jelly or chocolate one. As I put the plates in front of them, another waiter passed by with four chocolate doughnuts on his tray.
“I want a chocolate doughnut!” one boy cried.
“Me, too!” said another.
I couldn’t blame them: I would have wanted a chocolate one, too. “I’m sorry,” I said, “but we don’t have enough.”
“They’re fine,” their mother said. “You boys eat what’s given to you.”
I smiled and mouthed, “Thank you.” Some other mothers would have demanded a chocolate doughnut themselves.
During a lull, I watched a small boy and two girls tear into their ham and cheese sandwiches, and I began to feel melancholy. As a child, I was always hungry. An hour after each meal, I would want more, and more was always there for me. These children had no such luxury. This would likely be
their only food until breakfast at school the following morning. They devoured their meal in minutes, and I could only remove their cleaned plates. There would be no seconds.
A stocky man with glassy eyes and an impish smile shuffled down the aisle. He appeared to be high. Squinting, he found his way to one of my tables. I placed soup and a sandwich in front of him. Within minutes everything was gone.
“Can I have some more?” he asked.
“Sorry,” I said, “I can’t. I was told I could give everyone only one helping.”
“How about some rolls?
“Let me check.”
There were plenty of rolls, so I slipped him a couple, fearing someone might see; it was important to be equitable. After that, every time I walked by the man, a regular named Kim, he would smile and say, “More soup?” I’d shake my head. It became a friendly game.
Soon only he and a dozen others were left, and a large pot of steaming soup remained. This relieved the burden of withholding food. (None of us enjoyed saying no.) The next time Kim asked for more, I said, “Yeah, hold on a second.”
He smiled and winked. His persistence had finally paid off.
I returned with a full bowl and sat across from him, watching him spoon the soup into his mouth as quickly as he could. I’d never seen someone so hungry. He finished and asked for another bowl, which I brought.
“Cold out there, huh?” I said.
“It’s freezing,” he replied.
I wanted to learn about him, but wondered if I would be putting him on the spot. I decided the worst that could happen was he could change the subject. “You have a place to live?” I began.
“Yeah,” Kim said, “but I don’t have no heat.”
“How do you keep warm?”
“I have some blankets, and I just pile them on. I keep everything near me so I don’t have to reach too far or get out of bed until it’s warm.”
“What do you do every day?”
Did he mean nothing like sitting around, or that it was none of my business? “Nothing?”
“I have a family . . . a wife and two kids. I love them. They’d take me back, but I’m not ready to go back yet. I can’t set an example for my children the way I am. I don’t want my kids seeing me stoned, you know? That ain’t no good. What would they think?”
“So what do you do all day?”
“I get up when it’s warm, and just kind of walk around. Sometimes I make three or four hundred dollars a day dealing.”
Clearly, he also spent three or four hundred dollars. Dean, another volunteer, joined the conversation.
“Why don’t you get a job ?” Dean asked bluntly. “You’re a smart guy.”
“ ’Cause I’m not ready,” Kim said. “I could get a job with Philadelphia Light and Power. I know someone who’s a supervisor there.”
“So why don’t you ?” Dean said. “Why don’t you straighten your life out?”
“Because I don’t want to.”
“Kim,” I said, “you have to go. We want to get out of here.”
Really, I wanted to talk to him longer, to learn more about him. He left, but not empty-handed: we gave him a bagful of bread and a doughnut.
A black man and a white man sat together eating doughnuts. I joined them. After a brief, awkward exchange, the two men resumed the conversation I had interrupted.
“She wants you,” the white man said to his friend, referring to a young woman who sat at a table across from them.
“She’s ugly,” the black man said, “really ugly.”
“No shit,” the white man said.
“She wants you,” the black man said, reversing the jibe. “See, she keeps looking over here.”
“Damn, she’s ugly,” the white man said. He wasn’t exactly attractive either. Stringy hair hung from beneath his sweat-soiled hat; his front teeth were brown and chipped, their bases black with rot; and his hands were grimy and dotted with scabs.
“You guys have a place to stay?” I asked.
“Yeah, we’re staying at a shelter down the road,” the black man said. “We’ve been there about five days.”
“I just got out of rehab,” the white man said.
“You working?” I asked.
“Nah, I can’t work,” the white man said. “My counselor doesn’t want me to. Because if I work, I’ll have money. And if I have money, I’ll do drugs. I’m trying to stay clean.”
“What drugs did you do?” I asked naively.
“Coke, heroin — anything I could get my hands on. . . . Hey,” he said to the black man, “she’s still looking at you.”
“Why are you here?” he asked me.
“Just kind of curious, I guess,” I said. I couldn’t be as honest with him as he had been with me. How do you tell someone, “I want to help,” when you know you’re going to leave once your time is up?
“She’s still looking over here,” he said. “Man, she’s ugly. Hey, watch this.” He pulled his ski mask down over his face, stuck his tongue out at the woman, and flicked it in and out, then collapsed with laughter.
“Do you want to hand out slips for Benny’s?” Sister Flora asked, referring to the thrift shop the Inn ran next door.
“What do I have to do?” I asked.
“It’s easy,” she said. “People will tell you what they need. All you have to do is fill out a slip for them. They’ll bring it to Benny’s later and exchange it for the clothes you’ve specified. Just watch out for people who’ll try to take advantage of you because you’re new.”
It only took several minutes for someone to ask, “Can I have a slip?”
“Sure, what do you need?” I said.
“A shirt, some pants . . . ”
“Could I have a change of underwear?”
“Sure,” I said, and signed the slip. “Here you go.”
A small crowd gathered once people saw I was distributing the slips. A young man wearing a clean white hat, a knee-length coat, crisp jeans, and new basketball shoes asked, “Can I have a slip, dude?”
“Sure, what do you want?”
“What you got?”
“What do you need?” I said.
“How about a Mercedes Benz convertible?” he said with a laugh.
“We gave away the last one yesterday,” I deadpanned.
“So, man, what you got?”
“What do you need?”
A woman interrupted: “Could I please have a change of clothes and some underwear for me and my daughter?”
I filled out a slip and gave it to her.
“Hey, give me four pairs of jeans,” the young man demanded.
“I can’t give you four pairs of pants,” I said, growing irritated.
“Hey, I’m gonna kill you,” he said.
My pen was out of ink. Nervously, I walked away to get another one. I never did give him a slip.
Kim, the drug addict I’d gotten to know, shuffled inside, looking horrible. He was stoned and slurring his words.
“I couldn’t fucking sleep last night,” he said. “It was just too fucking cold. I walked around all night. Man, my feet are fucking killing me.”
At dinner the night before, he’d told us he had a place to stay. His face was puffy, and he squinted under the fluorescent lights. His swollen feet bulged from his untied sneakers. Dean placed dinner in front of him. He devoured it without raising his head.
“Yo, yo,” Kim said to me, “can I have some more?”
There was plenty, but I was disappointed that he was stoned, hurt that he had lied to me about his circumstances, and too tired to deal with him.
“This isn’t my table,” I replied. “Ask Dean.”
“Can I get some more soup?” he repeated, as if he hadn’t heard me.
“Hey, man, I can’t help you,” I said. “This isn’t my table. Ask Dean — he’ll take care of you.”
Dean was cleaning a countertop in the corner.
“Yo, Dean,” Kim said in a loud whisper, waving his arm. “C’mere.”
“I’ll be right there,” Dean said.
Dean finished what he was doing and, without question, got Kim some more soup. When only a few people remained, Dean filled a container with soup and slipped a few rolls into a plastic bag for Kim.
“Thanks, man,” Kim said. “I don’t want to go back out there. It’s too fucking cold. But at least now I’ll have plenty of food.”
As I washed the trays, I thought about my unwillingness to serve Kim. Selfishly, I had put my personal misgivings ahead of the job of feeding people. I was still torn between the stereotype of the manipulative poor person and the troubled, hungry individual before me.
The following day at breakfast, my final meal working at the Inn, a father and two preschool-aged children sat at my table. The children looked like little Michelin men in their snug, puffy snowsuits. Their cheeks were rosy, their noses wet and runny. I gave them apples and their father butter cake: pound cake with melted butter in the center. When they were done, I offered to get more apples for them to take home.
“Do you have seconds on the butter cake?” the father asked.
“No, I’m sorry,” I said, still trying to be equitable.
Watching the father wipe the mouth of the younger child and gently pat him on the head, I thought of my behavior with Kim the night before. I had been too strict about following the rules. Now here I was in the same situation. Circling the dessert tray, I took the last piece of butter cake and brought it to him.
“Now, don’t tell anyone,” I said.