Lunch

by Larry Bensky, August 20, 2013

The woman, bemused, gazes into the trash pail.

“Is the where the leftovers go?” she asks me, in Spanish.

I say yes.

“But there is plastic in here.” She reaches in and delicately removes a thin sheet of tray wrapper.

“I’m sorry, senora, we’re a little short-handed today.” (Actually, we’re a lot short-handed. One of my two co-workers, a good-hearted, but physically and emotionally accident-prone woman in her late fifties, has fallen off a curb and sprained her ankle. She shows up, using a cane. Me, I can hardly stand up without fainting from back and groin pain, which have come upon me, like a plague, in recent weeks. Our third volunteer worker, a high school sophomore, doesn’t show up. )

“It’s too bad,” the woman says, letting the wrapper fall delicately among the abundant food scraps. “I could have taken this to feed my hens.”

“Oh, I’m so sorry! How many do you have?”

“Well, four that are producing eggs right now. But it’s expensive! I spend around twenty/thirty dollars a month on chicken feed, and only get about four eggs a day.”

We sit down at a nearby table, where her two kids, around 8 and 6, are picking at their mostly inedible meal.

“Let’s see,” says professorial/fatherly me. “So you get about 120 eggs a month. And it costs you $30.” I write it down, in large numbers, which she stares at, seemingly not able to read. “That means you’re spending more to get your eggs than they costs in the store!”

“But that’s why I look for food scraps. If I could take this bag home, for example, it would save me half a bag of chicken feed!”

We are in the “heart” of one of California’s largest cities. Our public library based, four-day a week free lunch program for kids has been going since mid-June, one of nine such programs this summer. 8,500 meals will have been served city-wide by the time the program prematurely ends, an awkward two weeks before school begins in late August. Something about not having enough money to last the whole summer, of course.

Kids, often with their mothers, sometimes with their fathers, occasionally with both, are in the libraries from opening till closing, nine hours a day. (The weather is beautiful outside, but the few nearby parks are not considered gunfire-free zones by many families.) Siblings abound ;the average family seems to have four or five kids.. The librarians here at Eastmont are numerous, patient, caring, involved. And the library itself is well stocked with books, toys, videos, and, above all, abundant computers — the population that comes here defines the digital divide.

But there is much hunger.

Adults, or teens over the 18 age limit, often let us know they’d be happy to take anything left over. Many parents sit and wait while kids, finish grazing at the unappetizing cold meat sandwiches and unripe fruit,. Many parents then eagerly finish the leftovers. Although we were told, in our intensely serious but perfunctory training session, not to let this happen, less some nameless state or federal observer descend upon us and see….horror of horrors…that instead of discarding food we were…actually providing it to people!

One of my worst memories comes from one of my first days. I was walking around the library and the almost empty mall outside, trying to find hungry kids. We had half our allocated portions left over, halfway into the hour. A middle aged man looked up from his computer, and said, “Could I have one?” I answered stupidly, and reflexively, “Well, we can’t really give them out unless you’re under 18.” He gave a half smile and shrugged. A few minutes later, after an inner dialogue of self-flagellation, I went back to find him, a meal in hand, an apology in mind. He’d left.

The Eastmont Mall these days is mosly empty. Though clean and well lit, it’s totally bleak. Once, forty or so years ago, it was part of the great Mallification of America. By which the car was enshrined as the ubiquitous means of transportation, “free” parking became a tradition, huge retail spaces squatted on low rent domains and everyone was supposed to be on the way to being much better off. “Consumers” replaced the word “people” in business lexicons. Local governments salivated at increased sales tax revenues (corporate profits were, of course, untouchable).

JC Penney, Mervyn’s, Safeway, Woolworth, Kinney Shoes, and Pay ‘n Save got the message. (All but one of these is itself now extinct, a tribute to the endless profit hunger that transforms retail businesses into consolidation-crazy, paper-pushing corporate structures.) In neighborhoods near Eastmont’s vast 33 urban acres, once the site of a thriving Chevrolet factory, smaller stores collapsed, unable to meet variety, discount, coupon offers, and other money manipulations.

As such, Eastmont is a classic of its American century. From farmland to factory to retail to now providing what limited assistance and outreach pieces of government somehow still offer. Aside from a few struggling, low-end clothing stores, a couple of cell phone retailers, and a frighteningly conventional supermarket (packaged, chemical and preservative drenched foodstuffs) it is occupied only by a few social service agencies.

Some of these are pretty busy. There’s a Social Security office, a big medical /health clinic, a place to sign up for things like WIC and a sad , poorly lit senior center (“they don’t like bright lights,” a staffer tells me). And the library.

Hilton, as I’ll call him, spends most of his days there. He’s easily eligible for the senior center down the hall, but “it’s nothing but old people,” and he doesn’t fancy that. When I meet him as he’s playing his daily chess games, alone, using a book of great masters. Today he’s Bobby Fisher. I watch, then ask if I can sit down. He’s amenable. My chess is rusty to nonexistent, but on the third day we start a game, after my lunchroom is cleaned and locked. It lasts almost a week; surprisingly (to me) he has an i-phone, given to him by a grandson, and takes a picture of the board every day when we adjourn But aside from snapping a picture of every bus he gets on, including the license plate, (“you never know who’s gonna be up to what”) and the chess game, he rarely uses it. Doesn’t even like to take it out. “Folks are watching, can grab it right out of your hand.”

I see what he means. Without even knowing it’s happening, my long ago New York hackles arise on one of my first days, A seemingly disoriented guy asks me for money at the edge of the parking lot. I smile, say hello, and keep walking. He looks to near where I’m headed, and makes head nodding, eye contact wih another guy. Who looks off to the right. I’m triangulated. I alter my trajectory, casually, and head for the supermarket. Inside is an unarmed guard, reading the paper. A (rare) police car cruises by. I go out; all three men are gone. Paranoia? Better a live paranoid than a dead possum.

Hilton’s family are mostly dead or dispersed. Seven grandchildren. He lives alone, in the last house he and his former wife once inhabited with the youngest of their four children, three or four long blocks away. Gets around $800 a month from Social Security. Feels safe going out only between 9 and 4. Changes the lighting pattern every night in his rooms, whose street-side curtains never open. Has no car, internet or cable TV. Reads a lot of books and magazines, mostly from the library, and borrows videos to play as well. “This street, years ago, you could spend all day just talking to neighbors. Kids everywhere, played till dark. Nobody stole, nobody needed to.” Himself, he worked in retail, in…the Eastmont Mall. Got to be assistant manager, but never long enough to qualify for a pension.

“Jobs killed this community,” he says. Meaning: lack of jobs. “People want to work. But it came to be that there was no work. No more railroad, no more factories, no more no more. So you got thieves and whores and the whole drug thing.”

At our kids lunch, the parents, sometimes in whispers, sometimes loudly, discuss who got shot at, or shot, the night before. It’s nothing their kids, almost all cleanly dressed, almost all cooperative and polite, don’t know. It’s their normal. The week after our program ends, even what’s left of the San Francisco Chronicle discovers, in a front-page Sunday feature, that African-American boys in East Oakland are as likely to wind up dead or in prison as in college. Duh.

“T” as we’ll call him, is eight years old. Blasts into the lunchroom on a skateboard on day one. Is told he can’t use it there. Responds with a ferocious, clinging hug. Which he won’t release. An older and younger brother look on, impassive. “T.” needs attention, affection, assistance. And, of course, food. He is rail-thin, eats anything put in front of him, fast. And then insists on seconds. I make him my assistant, setting up tables and chairs. The hugs continue; the skateboard stays outside.

The neighborhood is at what would seem to be bottom. Across the street, down the block from some nice-looking, well-maintained apartment structures, you can buy a small two bedroom house, in the real-estate intoxicated Bay Area, for around $150,000.

A free “swap shop” at the corner Evangelical Church draws huge crowds once a week.

Rafael and Lupita (let’s call them) are from Mexico and El Salvador. They’re been here ten years or so. Neither has “documents,” but both have been working steadily almost all the time. He does drywall, brickwork, yardwork. She does childcare, in-house health services, dishwashing for a caterer. Mostly, they’re paid in cash. If they have to be “on the books” they use someone else’s name and Social Security number; that person takes a percentage before passing on cash to them. They assure me this is common practice.

They have four kids (“and we’re finished! “ says Lupita). The three oldest are in public school. The littlest, around 3, bounces around child care arrangements. They’re almost always first in the food line. But the oldest girl, 9, is often upset. She rarely speaks. Sometimes sits and stares. “They say she has something in her head,” according to Lupita. “She needs testing.” But they don’t want to go down the hall to the community health clinic, where they might have to fill out forms that they think might then get processed in a way that might get them noticed. “We have a friend who got a traffic ticket on his truck for double parking. When he went to pay it they asked for ID. He only had a card with someone else’s name on it. They took him away. A week later his family got a collect call from Texas….” Variations on such tales abound.

Carlos (let’s call him) is going into fourth grade. He comes almost every day, with his exhausted, barely ambulatory grandmother. Sometimes when things are slow we read together. Manga. He is well behind his grade level, but tries. I suggest he take the book home to practice. He gets a library card application from the front desk. Asks my help in filling it out. I see he can barely write his name. When it comes to providing an address, he looks at his grandmother. She looks away. He gives up.

One day, lunch doesn’t show up. Frantic calls to the Food Bank, the City of Oakland, the trucking contractor, the lunch caterer. Nobody knows. An hour and a half late, it arrives. One of us has to do the work of three, as the other two had to leave. But the “client” population doesn’t protest, or get disorderly. They’ don’t expect better. They’re used to worse.

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