Waterproof and Green ~ 4
Today, Deena has me working in the food line. This is considered a privilege at St. Magdalene’s. To stand on one side of the long, sweating metal counter, watching the down-and-out shuffle past on the other side, and giving each one a scoop of tater-tots or turnip mash, or macaroni –whichever dish you’re assigned— is to know that you have arrived. It is generally a position reserved for church volunteers and high school students: that is to say, the people who are here by choice. Those of us who are not here by choice –youth recovery kids, juvenile delinquents, etc.- usually work behind the scenes in the kitchen, scrubbing grease out of the deep fryer, or removing dead rodent carcasses from the premises, when necessary. And this makes sense because: (A) those of us who are not here by choice are, as a general rule, a great deal more unkempt and less attractive than the church workers and high school kids, and it is always a good idea to put your best face forward, so as not to put the homeless off their lunch. And (B) if the people who were here by choice were made to scrub grease out of the deep fryer, there would be a great deal fewer people here by choice.
Harry is the boss of the soup kitchen. Harry is a big, sweaty, balding chef, appropriately named in light of his forearm region, whose task it is to sort through all the random, miscellaneous items donated by restaurants and food banks and grocery stores –day old bread and stale cakes, limp asparagus and soft fruit and endless, dented cans of beans- and creatively blend them together into one, cohesive meal, for a crowd of 190. It is Harry’s fault if, for example, we receive twenty bushels of potatoes and some of them rot before we’ve served them all, or if someone fails to treat one of the soup kitchen workers with the appropriate level of respect, according to his caste, or if, for example, one of the convicts molests one of the high school students, and we end up with an upsetting legal situation on our hands. Harry has a difficult job. Harry is still recovering from an incident several years ago, when he was accidentally polite to a sweet-looking, sixteen-year-old girl whom he took to be a high school volunteer, but who later turned out to be one of the delinquents. It was Harry who came up with the idea (after that incident) of having all the soup kitchen workers wear colored vests, to divide us into categories. The volunteers wear blue vests; the rest of us wear orange.
Personally, I like the vests. I’ve always had a thing for uniforms. It reminds me of being on the traffic guard team in the sixth grade, a position from which I was eventually removed for daydreaming on the job, and nearly getting blindsided by a four-wheeler. But it still made me feel important while it lasted. Decked out in that day-glo, carrot-colored vest, I stand up that much straighter.
Harry nearly has a fit when he hears Deena put me in the food line.
“You put that little rat in the food line?” is the way he phrases it.
“Justin has been with us for nearly two months,” Deena points out.
“That’s not exactly a positive character reference,” Harry snaps, and he has a point, but Deena tells him I have restaurant experience.
“Oh yeah?” growls Harry. “Doing what? Robbing them?”
Actually I do have experience robbing them, from this one time in junior high school when I broke into Wham Bam Ham with my friend Billy and tried to rob the cash register. It was a disappointing experience, because it turned out that I’d forgotten the cash register key, and I didn’t want to smash it or my dad would know I’d been there. So in the end, we just took a handful of weebie burgers and left. But I don’t mention this to Harry.
Instead, I tell him about my childhood memories of watering down the mustard jar. Harry looks impressed.
But this raises the puzzling issue of what color vest I should wear, if I’m allowed in the food line. If I wear an orange vest, I will completely ruin the color scheme. There will be this whole row of nice-looking, blue soup kitchen workers, and I will stand out offensively in that row like a single, flaming golden poppy in a field of respectable and decent cornflowers. Also, it might alarm the clientele; if they see my orange vest they will realize I’m a convict/delinquent, and not a volunteer, and they may abstain from eating the food I’m serving, for fear that I’ve poisoned it. Then we might wind up with, say, an entire pan of un-devoured turnip mash, which Harry will have to figure out a way to doctor into something remotely appetizing on Thursday, and Harry (he says) has enough complications in his life without having to deal with that kind of crap.
On the other hand, if I wear a blue vest, someone might accidentally be polite to me, and this Harry really cannot tolerate.
In the end, Harry and Deena arrive at a compromise, whereby I can work in the food line if I wear both the orange vest, and the blue: the blue on top, the orange underneath. That way, I’ll blend in with the others, but no one will really be deceived about my identity. You can paint a moth purple and yellow and turquoise, but the brown will still be there underneath. No one will ever mistake it for a butterfly.