A day at the community kitchen
“You’re putting pepper on your watermelon?”
The black gentleman looks up at me in surprise. “You never had pepper on your watermelon?” I confess that I never have. “Well you need to try it honey, you don’t know what you’re missing!”
The man’s name is Willy. He’s eating lunch at a community kitchen in the basement of a Lutheran church in downtown Lansing. I’m making my way around tables with one plate at a time: barbecued chicken, plain white rice, beans, and dinner rolls. Others are wheeling around mini-salad bowls, drinks, and watermelon slices.
I was in the kitchen while the main course was being made, but I didn’t make any of it. I divided my time between pouring out drinks and making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to be distributed in to-go bags later. I’m working with a very small group of other volunteers—a few older men and women, a couple of young adults like me, the church pastor and a girl who I think is his daughter, and the Anglican priest who invited me. He’s brought his son, who dashes around full of willingness and loud eager commentary. In the end, the one thing I distribute for lunch that I’ve had any hand in making is chocolate milk. “I made this,” I tell a younger black man when he requests it and I set down a glass, “So I hope you like it.” “I’m gonna call you Chocolate Milk,” he says.
Another young black man, Terry, very overweight, asks me who made the chicken. I say I’m not sure. “I want to kidnap him,” he says. In the kitchen, I discover it was made by a cheerful-looking, skinny boy with bad skin and an overbite. More compliments trickle in. At one point the boy exclaims, “I did nothing! I literally just poured barbecue sauce over it and put it in the oven! It’s not my fault!”
A little later, Terry gets up and walks over to compliment my tennis shoes. Then he adds, “And you’re beautiful. You’re so beautiful. You’re gorgeous.” I try to recall when a man last said this to me. My memory is fuzzy.
A white man with a salt and pepper beard tells me, “You can have my cookie.” It has a bite out of it. I demur politely. “I got 40 pounds I could give ya,” he says. He’s not wrong.
An older woman beckons me over to ask what size clothes I wear. She’s fairly small, toothless, with a schoolgirl’s hairband around her silver head. “Uh…small?” I answer non-specifically. She then launches into a rapid disquisition about a shirt she tried that she thought would fit her, but it was too small, it showed her belly. She goes into great detail about what sizes she’s worn in shirts and dresses. All the while she picks at her chicken leg with her bare hands, chicken under her nails, her napkin crumpled and spent. I’m bending over to try to listen, but I can’t keep up with the stream. But I do grasp that she’s been struck with the idea of giving me this particular shirt, this shirt she tried that was too small. “Oh, that’s so sweet of you,” I say, “but I have tons of clothes.” “Well, it’s better than just throwing it away.”
At another table, there’s a black grandmother, mother and child. The child, a little girl, looks radiantly healthy, constantly grinning, wearing a coat with pink leopard spot lining. The mother looks too thin.
I hand another plate to a man with uncombed wispy gray hair under a knitted blue and white kippah. He wears a Star of David around his neck, hanging over a green Spartan T-shirt, pulled over a long-sleeved plaid shirt.
I’m thinking about the woman’s used napkin, and I grab a stack of fresh ones from the kitchen to distribute around the tables. In a little while longer, we’ll be allowed to distribute second plates. Another black man, maybe 40, has been wondering about this. “I’ll tell you when it’s time,” I say. “You promise?” “I promise.” But when the time comes, he’s gone. Soon I see him coming back in. “Ah…I actually ate too much,” he says, rubbing his belly. “I’m full.”
One woman would like most of another plate but with no rice, so I give Willy a double portion. This pleases him very much. Not long before, I watched Fr. Steve realizing he had miscalculated his ratio in the giant pot, removing extra water a ladle at a time. He managed to make it workable, if rather sticky. I’ve noticed a few people mashing their butter pat into it to give it flavor.
Finally, I’m told we can take our own plates and sit down. I arrived on an empty stomach and have been eyeing the very simple food very hungrily. But what I really want to know is whether there’s any watermelon left. There is, exactly one slice. I take it, then take my seat next to Willy. He beams at me. “Welcome to the fold of God.”
I haven’t been able to make out just what Willy has been chatting about with the other men at this table, but whatever it is has triggered a small disquisition on soteriology. “If you wanna go to heaven,” Willy says, “you gotta do right. You gotta follow Jesus. Don’t follow the devil, he ain’t gonna get you to heaven!”
Willy tells me all their names. I have to repeat my name a few times for everyone around the table, but it delights Willy. “This is the original Bethel, from the Bible!” The woman who wanted me to have her shirt is at this table too. Her name is Penny. She’s on Willy’s other side, and she leans over a couple of times to try to say something to me, but her voice is so thin and rapid I can never quite pick it up. I just look at her and try to pretend I can. I think she’s relating the history of some couple she knew, where this and that happened, “but then he got Parkinson’s…”
Johnny is across from me. This is the man who offered me his cookie. It takes me a moment to figure out when he says something to me, because he always looks past me, never at me. I wonder if his eyesight is poor. He’s definitely hard of hearing, cupping a hand behind his ear with each of my answers. He gives me a new nickname, “Hot Rod,” for “the way you’ve been running around here.”
Willy asks me if I’m in college or something. By now I’m used to this question and am coming to take it as a compliment. I explain that I’m actually 30 and have done a couple degrees and been a high school teacher, but now I’m a writer. What do I write? Oh, different things. I write short articles on politics and religion, sometimes. I have this newsletter. I’m writing a movie. “What are your views on politics?” Johnny asks me. I say I’m a conservative. “Well you’re young, that makes sense.” I wonder if I heard him wrong, but I don’t think I did.
The moment of truth has arrived with my watermelon. I take a packet each of pepper and salt and promptly proceed to overdo it while Willy laughs at me. I try to wick away the extra, but with one bite, I know it’s a failure, especially in the salt department. Even so, I say it’s good.
Sometimes, I tell them, I write about this kind of thing—and I gesture around the room. “About all the boring people here?” asks Johnny. I assure him they are not boring. They are quite interesting, in fact. “You could call it ‘The Watermelon,’” Willy says. “Yeah,” Johnny says. “That would be the title.”
Willy picks up another salted slice of watermelon. “Here, take a bite of this.” I bite in. The sweet and the salty balance perfectly. I have never tasted better.