Rain falls hard enough to crater the sheets of water that blanket the intersection of Nichol and Esplanade. The wind blows leaves and twigs into the mix and winter begins its inevitable tug on the thermometer.
Standing inside the warm reception area of the Salvation Army’s New Hope Centre, I look out at the dismal day. Val, the receptionist, has been giving me the lowdown on the Meal Program, where Nanaimo’s poor and homeless come to eat when they can’t afford to feed themselves.
Less than twenty minutes to go before the noon meal and there’s no sign of a line-up.
“I’m surprised no one’s here yet,” I say to Val.
“They don’t usually come early, and when they do come, they appear out of nowhere,” she replies.
Val points out the window to the Port Place Mall clock, its bright red digits standing out like an airplane beacon in the downtown core.
“We go by that clock,” she says.
To the area’s destitute and desperate, that clock is a silent dinner bell.
I gaze through the glass door of the adjoining resource room. Sitting at a table inside is an older, heavier-set man whose grey hair hangs down in greasy strands; he is reading a thick paperback novel. The cover is missing and I can only make out the word
Youngblood on its broad spine. I am watching him read when his glasses suddenly fall from his face. He fumbles to place them back on, and I can now see the glasses have no arms; just two stubs sticking out from where the arms used to be. Moments later, the amputee lenses fall once again. I cannot help but be fascinated about the story behind this man, his glasses, and his desire to read.
I think back to my earlier conversation with Rob, who runs New Hope. His biggest concern with me visiting the centre was the clients’ confidentiality and privacy. I promised him I would respect New Hope’s regulations—it was a promise that would haunt the writer in me for the rest of the day.
I turn to resume my talk with Val; behind me, I hear the man’s glasses clatter onto the table again.
Although ticket sales started five minutes ago, not a soul has bought one, and at the exorbitant price of a dollar, who can blame them?
Just before I take my leave of Val to assume my place on the serving line, the first customer arrives, and then another few trickle in. A man wearing a yellow garbage bag as a rain poncho appears, dripping wet and freezing. Val calls him by name, as she does most of the clients. He comes over and she takes his rain-covered glasses from him and dries them. They’re filthy—and like a distant cousin of Youngblood’s—they’re missing an arm. The poncho-wearing man has a kind smile. His hands are raw with cold; Val—in a motherly gesture, clamps them—momentarily in hers, to help warm them.
It’s nearly noon; I head back into the kitchen where I’d earlier been wiping down tables and putting away the day’s donations of food. The eating area is small—somber-looking. Sixteen small tables; four plastic chairs at each. High up on the wall hangs a large hand-made wooden crucifix, almost in the shadows, without the usual fanfare commanding the attention of all who enter; a couple of similar smaller crosses are set discretely behind the serving line. They are just enough to remind those who come, to whom they should be thankful for their meal.
The pale-green paint, security camera, and mesh-reinforced windows, all give the room a cold feel. It is the welcoming staff and volunteers who generate the room’s warmth and life.
Debbie, the cook, runs the kitchen, and controls things behind the scenes while Cheryl is on the front lines, handing out the meals and ensuring the dining area is kept clean and under control. She has the perfect blend of compassion and authority needed for the job. I witness both this lunch hour.
The doors open exactly at noon and twenty clients flood into the small room (Val wasn’t kidding about people appearing from nowhere) and arrange themselves in an orderly row—they’ve done this before.
“First we’ll say grace,” Cheryl says. There is silence as she gives a quick thank you to the Lord—again, not pushy, just letting them know.
Tuna sandwiches and Mexican-tomato soup are on the menu, but they are only the beginning. On each plate is also a pastry, a dessert, plenty of yogurt, and a handful of potato chips. The early customers will also get leftover turkey stew, and lemonade.
The line starts and I’m handing out bowls of stew—every bowl I dish out leaves me feeling fuller. Every face is thankful—and every face has a story. The reader walks by, glasses safely in his pocket, and gratefully takes some stew. The poncho man, his poncho tucked away now, still with his warm, honest smile, thanks me—and there are so many more.
A blonde woman, maybe in her late thirties, comes in and asks for three servings. Cheryl nods and points to a table. I look up to see two small children sitting at a table, the boy is about five, and the little girl is four-ish. Both have mussed-up hair and wear thrift store clothing. They seem oblivious, as children often do, of the situation they are in. Seating is getting scarce; they sit at a table with two men wearing slept-in parkas while their mom comes and gets the food. She is dressed in pink, wears make-up, has a limp—and for damn sure, a story.
Old men with grey unkempt beards and no teeth sit talking while they gnaw on their food. Young men dealing with life at, or near, rock-bottom, eat in contemplation.
I glance around the room, careful not to stare as I take in as much as I can, but some stare back at me. They probably wonder who I am, what my story is.
Some of the seventy-seven we’ve fed today look like they’ve had the same, worn clothes on for days, some don’t. One fellow in his forties appears well dressed, until a more careful survey reveals he isn’t wearing any socks. This isn’t the weather for socklessness. These people are the downtrodden, the addicted, the poor, the ones that luck has stabbed in the back. Most never envisioned—broken glasses or not—ever being here.
The poncho man, done with his meal, is about to leave. He reaches in his pocket for his plastic yellow poncho and slowly trudges back out into the storm—and he takes his story with him.
Michael is a local Nanaimo writer who enjoys writing about human experience. His varied writing interests also include poetry and fiction. Michael is a recipient of the 2011 Barry Broadfoot Award.