Waterproof and Green ~ 3
St. Mary Magdalene’s soup kitchen is a squashed-looking, flat building on the edge of the downtown area. It looks as if all the other glossy, glittering downtown buildings around it conspired to elbow it into a corner, like the unpopular kid in school, and then arrange themselves in a semicircle with their backs to it, so it can’t make any friends. I think they built the mall next door an extra story high, just to keep it hidden from sight. As you wind through the downtown area, getting closer St. Magdalene’s, you start to notice a smell. People who don’t know the soup kitchen is there glance at the rusty, black dumpsters, and wonder if the trash collectors went on strike again. But really the smell is coming from the soup kitchen itself, specifically two sources: the rotten potatoes, sorted into a barrel in the back parking lot, and the unwashed bodies, sorted into a line in front.
There is no smell in the world worse than rotting potatoes.
(Although to be one hundred percent accurate, I have to admit that there are some smells in the world I have yet to experience. A decomposing corpse, for example, might hypothetically smell worse than rotting potatoes; I can’t say for sure, never having encountered one. But once, crouching in the kitchen at St. Magdalene’s, searching through piles of dented pots for a soup tureen, I came upon the decomposing corpse of a mouse. It was lying on its back on a yellow shelf, its head thrown back, and it appeared as if some other animal had come along and taken a bite out of it. It didn’t smell at all, that I noticed. Or if it did, it was drowned out by the smell of the potatoes.)
The people who stand in line in front of St. Magdalene’s can pretty much be divided into three categories. There are the crazy people; there are the people who have a substance abuse problem (most of whom mesh fairly well with the crazies); and there are the immigrant families who don’t speak English. They come with their children for the medical care and the meals. The children wear bright jackets, blue and pink and green, picked up at the Salvation Army, and it is strange to see them scattered through the cafeteria, their bright faces incongruous specks between the meth addicts and the crack heads, and the doddering old men, spitting tobacco juice into their beards. These families are always clean. Even the men, most of whom do manual work for a living, when they can get it, grinding so much dirt into the rough calluses of their palms that it will never completely come clean again, scrub their hands with rough soap, the texture of sandpaper, before sitting down to a meal. Most of the immigrant families are Latino, and I have heard some of the church volunteers, who work behind the counter, muttering about aliens taking over our country, but I don’t judge. My own family is Italian, and it was only a few generations ago when the Italians were the ones flooding into the country, desperate to feed their families, and before them the Irish, and before them the Germans. And long ago, I can just picture the Native Americans looking condescendingly at the shivering, seasick English, wobbling queasily off their boats, totally unfamiliar with the national language and customs.
“We’d better serve them some corn,” the Native Americans whispered among themselves. “Obviously these turkeys will starve, left to their own devices.”
As for me, I am not yet crazy and I’m not an immigrant; I fall into the second category.
Mary Magdalene’s offers a youth-recovery program, where kids with substance abuse backgrounds can get their meals for free, in exchange for working in the kitchen. So after I waved goodbye to my dad at the drive through, I came here. Actually, the soup kitchen isn’t that different from the drive through. The people who push their damp plastic trays along the metal counter have the same contemplative look as the ones who pull up to Wam-Bam Ham and look thoughtfully at the menu, trying to decide between corn chowder or bean soup, onion rings, or an extra large serving of fries. The grease-spattered stoves in the kitchen at St. Magdalene’s are similar to those at the drive through, and the food is slightly more sanitary.
My sponsor at the soup kitchen is a woman named Deena. Deena is a former convict, destined always to be either a convict or a soup kitchen worker, because of a misguided decision during an earlier stage of her life, when she allowed someone to liberally tattoo her forehead and cheeks with rudimentary sketches of what appeared to be burning crosses, thereby barring herself from the job market for life. Deena says I am a more hopeful case than she ever was. I have no noticeable burning crosses, or objectionable physical emblems of any kind, on my visible skin, and I even went to college for nine months. What I gained from college is hard to say, other than a pot habit and the permanent bitterness of my parents, but Deena says it’s a blessing not to be discounted that I escaped without any noticeable, irreversible, offensive body art.
I guess it’s easy to take for granted the defects we never had.