The Uber driver is a New Jersey woman who becomes chatty as we pull away from the 30th street train station and turn the corner. She launches into a story about the woman she just dropped off, which leads to a story about a woman who cussed her out and a mom who packed her children into her car and told her to take them away and a group of sailors who clambered into her jeep in Atlantic City. She’s chuckling and talking about the business. I end up talking about teenagers, and she talks about her grandson, and as the streets get rougher, I feel a need to say something.
“I bet you don’t often take people to this part of town,” I query. We’re driving under the subway trestle that always makes the shops and homes underneath look like shadows. The pavement cracks widen, the trash proliferates, and the broken windows gasp. She hesitates then replies, “Sometimes.” She pauses for another second before launching into new chatter about the parts of Philly she drives and why she stops working before nightfall. When she turns the corner onto Hagert Street, I stop her and say, “Yes, here, this is good.” I spring from the car, slinging out my backpack, and as I swing it onto my shoulder while shutting the car door, saying, “Thank you so much,” she says, “Welcome home.”
I step up to the side door of the Inn and ring the doorbell, which my mom answers, and I am wondering why the driver said that — “Welcome home” — when I hadn’t told her why I was coming to this part of Kensington or where I am from. I wonder if she thought it was home or if she knew I was. In the one part of the city where she could find three hundred homeless people lining up at the door of a dining room for a meal, she said, “Welcome home.”
I drop my bags in the office by the door and hug my mom in the doorway, and she hurries me into the kitchen. It’s the middle of Thursday evening dinner rush, and someone throws me a towel, “You’re on dish duty.” A man shouts over by the pick-up counter, “We need more bread!” Another shouts, “Got it!” A cook scoops a pot full of food from a vat and carries it to the volunteers who distribute it into bowls for the servers to whisk away. The dining room clamors with spoons scraping the last out of bowls, and a family asks for chocolate cake, and a woman taps a server on the arm to ask for a bag, for the leftovers. My partner at the sink is a man with blue eyes and a small ponytail. He slides a new tray of dirty bowls into the industrial washer and tells me what to do when the dishes emerge, steaming and damp, and it is so simple, we quickly fall into a comfortable routine of tray-up, wash, towel dry, stack, and return for another round. We talk about his children and his grandchildren on the way. He says he’s been coming here for years, on weeknights, because it was something to do during his commute. “Before, I was just sitting in traffic,” he says. “When I leave here now, it’s all clear.” It strikes me as profound that he traded his commute for a soup kitchen in North Philadelphia. Most people try to be somewhere else.
After the meal is over, the dining hall is quiet, and we mop and sweep and gather the dirty towels and aprons. My mom and I carry them down to the basement and start a load of laundry in a machine that is stuck between shelves and rows of canned food, baby formula, and diapers. After all is settled and cleaned, we come out of the Inn into the night. Immediately coming off the concrete steps, we are stopped by a stooped man with baggy clothes. He is stammering, as he struggles to say something to us. I lean toward him to hear. He eventually stutters, “Can you, can you, can you please be careful turning on your cars. The cats like to sleep under them, and they can get killed.” His heart is distressed. He stutters again as he says it again, and I assure him, “Yes, we’ll check under the cars.” “And… and… and… can you let everyone else know?” he asks slowly, and we assure him before he is satisfied and turns away, walking back toward the Avenue. We walk toward a neighboring building where we will sleep. We turn the key in the lock of the house, and I’m still touched by his heart, so I am mentioning his thoughtful words again to my mom, as I replay them in my head, and my mom smiles at my delight. She doesn’t seem surprised. She stays here all the time. “Yes, in all their struggles, they’re endearing,” she says. Endearing. Deserving. Heartfelt. I love him. I love all those he is trying to protect.
When we come out of the house after dropping my bags, Barb is feeding the strays a few stoops down. My mom introduces me to the cats. “This is Boots.” “This is Mariska.” There are nine or ten feeding, and two let me pet them when I sit on the step. Karen (“Karen the lawyer,” my mom calls her to me) comes out of her house to join us. Mariska abandons me and runs across the street into an alley. We head off to find our own food for dinner, and ten blocks away, we are close to passing a group of people who seem listless as they shuffle on a corner ahead. As we approach them, I am wondering if I should be afraid. After all, it is night, in Kensington. This group seems one I might avoid on a dark corner. Yet, as we pass, Karen and my mom give them a warm salutation and the group responds in a chirrup of the happiest greetings and hellos. After we pass, I ask, “Do you know them?” My mom laughs, “Oh yes, they’re guests.” Her answer is a smiling chuckle at my own endearing question. Of course, sweet child, of course. There are no strangers in this town.
The next day, I head from the early morning gathering in the Chapel, down a narrow staircase, out the door and across the street with a young woman named Natalie, who runs the women’s center. I’m carrying a cardboard box I’ve filled with breakfast pastries, and Natalie is chattering with me about how the women’s center works now. It is in a new building since I last was here. We prep for the morning. At ten, the doorbell rings, and the women start to come up the stairs. They greet me, and I introduce myself. I serve breakfast. I help them do their laundry. We all watch Netflix before lunch. When Natalie and I are serving tuna sandwiches, my mom calls from the Inn. They need my help at the meal next door, so I run downstairs and cross the street again, swinging into the kitchen, and am quickly tasked with unloading deliveries and doing handouts in the yard for the guests. I set out boxes of bread and piles of vegetables. “Tell them that one is squash, if they ask,” my mom tells me, as she points into a box I’ve just put out, filled with some colorful vegetable. Women are loading their grocery bags.
The rest of the days go by the same. There are more meals. Many hands. I start to recognize faces after one day. Two. I serve them, and some tease me. They’re all kind.
On Sunday, my last day, the Chapel over the kitchen is filled with people. Outside the windows, the subway rumbles by on the trestle over the Avenue. As it passes for the third time, somewhere in the middle of the service, the priest talks about three roadmaps to life: (1) humility and simplicity, (2) contemplation and prayer, and (3) charity and justice. The first, the antidote to self-aggrandizement; the second, the space in our days for peace and silence; the third, not just helping people but curing the reasons why they need us to. Fighting racism, poverty, unemployment, addiction. “That’s justice,” he says. After the service, everyone in the Chapel goes downstairs to the kitchen and rolls up their sleeves and start to do what he talked about, or at least part of it. I repeat to myself for the rest of the day: humility, simplicity, contemplation, prayer, charity, justice.
Sometime during the last lunch meal I will serve this time, I am in a momentary pause between grabbing plates of food when my mom comes up to me and takes my sleeve, leans in, and asks me if I remember a woman from the women’s center on Friday. She says her name. Of course, I knew her. I’d seen her every day since. She always smiled. I always asked her how she was doing. I nod, “Yes, of course!” “She wants to say goodbye to you, she told me today that she’s leaving the life and getting her own place. I told her you’d be so proud. I told her you’d come see her before we go.” I am shocked she wants to see me, but a wire of happiness strums from the top of my head to the bottom of my heart. When we leave, we trip a final time down the concrete steps out of the Inn and cross the street to the mini-encampment along the sidewalk. It is a strip of mattresses, boxes, bags, and shopping carts where some guests sleep during the day and overnight.
We come up to the woman’s mattress, and she sits up from her bed on the pavement half-asleep as we approach – litter and cracks split the ground around. The night-to-morning rain and drizzle has stopped, but the sun still has not come out, so we are all under the clouds. She doesn’t say anything but stretches her two open arms up to me, like a human will do when it wants to be held. I lean in, wrap her into my own arms, and she hugs me and hugs me and hugs me, and I say into the space by her hair, “You got this. You got this.” When she lets go, she says, “Next time you see me, I’ll have my own place.” I say, “Yes, you will. You got this. You got this.” I don’t know how else to encourage her, so I also say, “Stay strong. Stay strong.” I add, “Good luck.” Easy for me to say. “Good luck.” I imagine myself sitting there beside her on the mattress, saying to her, “Let’s get out of here,” together, because we were tired of sleeping there, and it was time to fight harder than we’ve ever fought, and even though it seems like the fight never ends, I imagine myself anywhere close to her, on the mattress, sharing the space of her experience, wondering if somehow I’d been born her. How many nights would I have to sleep under the stars before the world would agree that I deserve more? Would someone help me find a place better to go? I feel in my heart the braveness of hers, as we let each other go from the long hug.
I know I believe the radical thing I’ve been witnessing for three days in the hearts in this kitchen: it is possible to love people hard, to believe in them, to want the best for them, without ever caring who they are or where they come from. It’s a love that hurts and blunders and continues, continues, continues. A love that forgives and hopes and dreams, dreams for that wild nebulous entity we call each other.
Radical (adj): (especially of change or action) relating to or affecting the fundamental nature of something; far-reaching or thorough.