By Arthur H. Gunther III
Here’s a story. A very human story. One that might remind you of your mom. And a cold day. And simple soup. And a complex world.
We have been having old-fashioned winter in the Northeast, not as bad in New York State as in New England, but quite cold — single digits and enough snow to double the effect. Not too bad if you have today’s central heating, a warm car with electric seats and a climate-controlled workplace. But not so good if you are homeless or otherwise stand in line at 7 a.m. waiting for a local volunteer breakfast program to open its doors.
One recent Tuesday, during a storm that prevented five of the six volunteers from hitting super-icy roads in the wee hours so they could prepare breakfast and a bag lunch, a line of hungry people formed outside United Church in Spring Valley, N.Y., where, since 1985, the Rockland Interfaith Breakfast Program has unfailingly served daily.
So far in 2015, an average 100 people, sometimes as high as 150, queue up to eat what the cook of the day and the other volunteers put together. Tuesdays is always pancakes (pancake flour, brown sugar, honey, vanilla, eggs, milk, coffee); Polish sausage (two-inch pieces, baked for 2.5 hours at 220 degrees in apple juice, with seasonings, sweetness); oatmeal (also flavored and with raisins, not boiled but simmered in a boiled mixture); and soup (might be canned mixed vegetable or minestrone, seasoned and simmered for two hours). There are desserts, juice, milk, coffee as well. Then the fellows and gals take a cold bag lunch.
On the recent stormy Tuesday, only one of us was able to get in, and by luck, that was me. I could not prepare the fine lunches the ladies do (I have five girlfriends at RIBP, I am the only male Tuesdays). I also could not get desserts out, but I did do the pancakes, sausage and, most of all, the soup.
This was a soup day if ever there was one, with temps at maybe 10, with most of the homeless sheltered overnight at the church in the Helping Hands program, also run by volunteers and Ya’el, the director. But not all the homeless chose to stay inside, as is the way with independent people who harden to adversity. We also had in line men and women who hoped to shape up for whatever shoveling or other work that local contractors might offer.
So, it was very cold, the line to get in was long despite the storm, and awaiting them was nourishing, tasty food. But what was the hit of the morning? It was the soup, this time canned chicken rice simmered several hours with pepper and parsley plus other flavorings. The entire serving area was filled with the fragrance of that soup, that simple offering.
I worked the ladle, and as the people came up and received a large foam cup of very hot soup, as the steam of that hit their chins, almost to a man and woman, their noses dropped to the rim and they took in the smell of the soup. In English, in Spanish, in Creole, you heard “thank you,” but it was as if these good people were not thanking the fellow ladling the soup, or the breakfast or overnight staff, but their moms.
Just about all of us recall playing in the snow, walking home from school in February, horsing around with pals on a Saturday, and mom called us in — friends, too — for steaming tomato soup with noodles, or chicken soup with rice. Homemade, canned with seasoning and noodles added, whatever, the hot soup was proof that moms existed, for those lucky to have one. And affirmation that someone cared.
That was the look on those men and women, in a small but significant, long-serving volunteer food program that asks no questions, makes no judgment and does some good.
The writer is a retired newspaperman who can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org This essay may be reproduced.