Prompted by Sunday Scribblings: Ethics
It’s Friday, and I’m with several women in the parish kitchen making sandwiches for the soup kitchen tonight at the Downtown Chapel on Portland’s skid row. We’ve mixed up an enormous bowl of tunafish, pickle and mayonnaise, and we have bologna and Kraft American cheese slices along with a big tub of peanut better and a jar of strawberry jam. Two local supermarkets donated the bread as well as boxes of day-old bakery goods for dessert.
Madeleine says not to use so much tuna, and she thinks we should make sandwiches with the crusts at the ends of the bread loaves.
“No way,” I tell her. “How would you like to come for a meal and they give you a sandwich made from dried-up crusts?”
“They’re homeless people,” she sniffs. “They should be thankful for whatever we give them.”
“Oh, I’ll take the crusts home,” Alice says. “There’s a pond with ducks next to my building, and I feed them just about every day.”
I don’t understand why Madeleine even bothers to come and make sandwiches if she doesn’t want to give the people decent ones. It’s a lot of work; we make several hundred.
When we get to the Downtown Chapel, we go up to the big community room on the third floor and start putting pizza slices into individual bags. The pizza place up the street sends three giant pizzas every Friday. Joe and Andre are in the kitchen making a huge pot of soup.
At seven o’clock when we open the doors, crowds of people are waiting. When they file into the room where we have the food, we’re all at our stations. Tonight I’m handing out sandwiches. All kinds of people come: hungry families with children, prostitutes in all their finery, mental health patients who’ve been turned out on the street, and men who get all dressed up in stained, threadbare suits to come to dinner. I feel humbled; it’s such a honor to be giving food to these people. But then I think of Madeleine and I start feeling self-righteous. She doesn’t come to serve the food–making stingy little sandwiches is enough for her. Everybody has a different way of looking at things, I tell myself, a different set of ethics, and I start swelling up with superiority.
“Hello! Would you like a sandwich, Sir?” I ask a man in torn jeans and a thin, dirty jacket. “We have tuna, bologna and cheese, and peanut butter.”
“Anything’s fine. Actually, I was hoping you had a blanket. It’s going to be cold tonight.”
“I’ll go ask, ” says Jean, working next to me, as I put sandwiches in the man’s bag. “Hold the fort while I go look.” Later, I see her come back with a blanket, and I’m glad. Stewing about Madeleine seems silly now.
A pimply teenage girl is suddenly leaning over the sandwich table to get right in my face. “I’m pregnant. You Catholics love it when people get preggers–give me six of those sandwiches, two of each kind.” She knows we’re only supposed to hand one out until everybody is served; then they can came through again for seconds. “If you don’t give me extra, I’ll go have an abortion, and it’ll be all your fault.” I give her the sandwiches. I wonder if she’s really even pregnant; I hope not.
A few of the people are like her, demanding and hard to like, but most of them gather up all the dignity they have left. “I really appreciate what you’re doing,” they say. “Thank you.”
Later, I’m back upstairs in the kitchen, scraping a layer of burnt beans stuck on the bottom of the soup pot. While I scrub, I pray the Rosary, and it makes the tedious work feel holy.
It’s after midnight when I step into my apartment, and instead of the cheap, dingy hole that is all I can afford, it looks like a palace. Even the drunken, shouting neighbors on the second floor don’t keep me awake tonight–I’m too tired and grateful to care.