The Man Who Came to Dinner

With six free meals behind me and the promise of countless more, "The Man Who Came to" dinners stretching into the foreseeable future, I realized that the holidays would be the perfect time to begin repaying my dinner debts.

So on Christmas Eve day, my good friend Alex selflessly offered to join me in a volunteer stint at one of the city's many food kitchens -- the Haight Ashbury Food Program, on Waller at Belvedere. I planned to help out until 7 p.m., because I had a dinner party to go to later and was hoping to stop at home to shower and change beforehand.

Alex and I initially selected the wrong entrance, walking into the Hamilton Family Center. The man behind the desk set us straight, and allowed us to cut through the shelter to the kitchen next door.

As we wove through several small rooms, each filled with a dozen or so bunk beds, I was blindsided by the reality of the place. Although at that moment the rooms were unoccupied, I was overcome with vivid images of what it must be like to sleep here -- to live here. I imagined young children getting ready for bed, families sleeping in these same rooms with other families.

Beyond the doors was a large industrial kitchen with about 20 old folding tables that served as a dining room. After an initial scare from the outgoing kitchen crew, who told us, "Ain't no dinner here tonight. We just finished up for the day," we cleared up the confusion by locating Judy, the manager, in the office upstairs.

Before we were able to get past the "v" in, "We're here to volunteer," Judy swept us into the office with an, "Oh, good. Two more."

Instantly our expectations of dicing endless sacks of potatoes or dishing out seconds to grateful young tummies were dashed. Instead, Judy installed us on a makeshift assembly line with two other dazed volunteers. Before us lay a circular table overflowing with product. Judy took about two seconds to demonstrate our task: Open the baggie, fold the napkin, one knife, one fork, one spoon, two salt, two pepper, and zip locked. Oh, and be sure to squeeze out all the air.

We asked Judy how many sets we should make. "Well," she said, "there's enough for 1,200 here. Let me know if you run out."

Over the next hour-and-a-half we perfected the creation of the plastic mess kit while nearly giving up all hope of ever seeing so much as a carrot in the way of actual dinner. But in the meantime we were introduced to Debbie, a young staffer who minds the computer and politely offered to answer any questions we had.

We learned that the Haight Ashbury Food Program feeds any and every person who shows up -- generally 200 to 300 per day. The number rises to nearly 700 on Christmas.

Judy stopped back periodically to buzz frantically about the office while delivering one-liners like: "We need to make 80 vegetarian dishes for tomorrow. Because vegetarians are allowed to eat too, I think." And: "Serve, serve, serve. That's all we ever do." When she finally returned to ask for "one volunteer," I was especially thankful to be closest to the door.

Following Judy back downstairs to the kitchen, I was introduced to Frank, a somewhat scruffy older gentleman in a well-worn apron. Judy told me to wash my hands and do whatever Frank told me. With little more than a grunt and a nod, Frank directed me to a corner of the kitchen, where two giant sinks were filled to capacity with an ominous pink sludge. Below the liquid's surface I discovered several thousand pieces of chicken in varying stages of defrost. My job was to work the semifrozen pieces apart and sort them into large industrial pans: breasts, thighs, legs, wings.

Finally, I was the man who came to cook dinner.
A short while later, Alex and company were sprung from utensil hell and brought to join me in the kitchen. Frank instructed one volunteer to slice thick slabs of ham from long torpedoes -- Christmas Eve dinner.

We asked Frank about his background. He told us, "Well, I been coming here now for about 13 years, I'd say." Thinking back, he added, "On again and off again. Then I got laid off from my job and started coming by a little more often."

Judy popped into the kitchen and finished the story. "Frank here volunteered for years. Then he retired. Now he volunteers here every day. Every day," she emphasized. "I don't know how we'd make it without him."

Finished with the chickens, Alex and I moved to the dining area where, knives in hand, we took on a crate of celery and a sack of onions. As I chopped I noticed the giant paper and paint mural loosely mounted on the wall beside us. The children of the shelter had created near-life-size likenesses of themselves. Attached to each painted child was a small sign in his or her own handwriting announcing favorite foods:

I like pizza for dinner. -- Latonya
I like carrots for snack. -- Alyssa
I like bread and jam for dinner. -- Kevin

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