The driveway behind the food bank on Saturday was an uneven sheet of ice. As I made my way carefully over it to lock my bike, I was pleasantly surprised by how few people there were waiting. “Quite a crowd!” I commented sarcastically as I arrived within earshot of everyone. The nearest person to me as I spoke looked at me as if I’d just said something suspicious in a foreign language. She was bespectacled and wearing a white toque with green trim over longish wavy and mousy hair. I stopped to enunciate my joke more slowly and though one or two people beyond her smiled, she reacted the same.
I went to lock my bike and then came back to find out who the last person in line was. The woman with the toque looked at me and said, “Why are you even talking to me? Do I know you?” There was something un-present about her manner though and her initial reaction to me was starting to become less of a mystery. I ignored her question and asked the group in general to let me know which person I was directly behind. The older, friendly looking, short man over by the fire escape, who’d smiled at my joke, pointed to himself.
As I tried to find a foothold on the ice, I commented that someone needed to salt the driveway. I walked over to the food bank door to ask about salt, but it was locked. I walked back to the area where the woman with the toque was standing and could hear that she was continuously making comments. I could also see that she wasn’t actually talking to any of us there in the driveway but perhaps to voices in her head.
I pulled Michael Ondaatje’s “The Complete Works of Billy the Kid” out of my backpack and began reading, grateful that the temperature was above zero this time, so I could turn the pages without my gloves on. I read one of the poems and then the food bank door opened. The volunteer that I’d argued with about his smoking the week before, I think his name is Wayne, came out with some garbage. I asked him if they had any salt. He answered that they had “SOME salt”. I told him that somebody has got to salt the driveway or else someone was going to break their neck. He turned and walked back to the door, but called out in a bored voice, “I’ll get right on it!”
A couple of minutes later he came back out with a half empty ten kilo bag of Sifto sidewalk salt and using a Styrofoam coffee cup, began scattering it along the south side of the driveway where the line-up tends to form, as far out as the sidewalk. When the cup broken, he put down the rest with his hands. As he headed back inside I called out, “Thank you!” He nodded. Then I asked, “Do you have any pepper?” He turned to look at me and I smiled. Half, annoyed and half amused, he answered, “No, we don’t have any pepper.” And then he went back inside.
I continued to read while the woman in the toque kept on talking to herself. It was clear that when she had earlier said, “Why are you talking to me? Do I know you?” that it had just been a coincidence that she’d been looking at me at the time. There was definitely an argument with at least one voice going on. She demanded of the other on several occasions to answer, “What’s with all this Scooby doo?” and frequently offered the challenge, while assuming dominant body language, “Who’s gonna come out on top this time?” The man who’d arrived before me felt the need to walk across the ice, come up close to me and explain in a quiet voice, “Ah, she’s a little bit …” and then he finished his sentence with the gesture of drawing circles near his temple with his index finger. I matter of factly told him, “I understand” and went back to my book.
An SUV arrived, driven by a young man, but the person that emerged from the passenger seat, a heavy set, middle-aged woman in braided pigtails, was clearly the one in charge of the delivery that was being made. She opened up the back of the car and it was packed with several milk-crates filled with three-litre bags of Sealtest 2% milk. Several male volunteers from inside the food bank came out to help carry the crates in, including the big guy with the prematurely white hair. The woman in pigtails stressed to her driver that she needed the crates back.
After the back of the vehicle was unloaded there started bringing in from the back seat several boxes full of a very wide selection of packages of name brand cookies such as Christie and Dad’s. Milk and cookies? I was beginning to suspect that this delivery was not intended for food bank clients but rather for a certain Turkish bishop with a fetish for furs of white and red and who as far as anyone knows lives entirely on milk and cookies.
Once the car had been emptied the white haired guy stayed outside for a cigarette and talked to no one in particular but to everyone, as he often does. He commented in reference to this most recent delivery that Christmas Eve is the only day of the year that anyone remembers the food bank. Before the woman with the pigtails left, her driver took some pictures of the back of the food bank with an expensive looking camera.
The woman in the white toque started speaking in a mocking little girl’s voice to whoever it was in her head with whom she was arguing. When Joe, the manager came out she broke from her argument and asked him if the coffee was ready. He said, “Yeah, go ahead Michelle, and behave yourself this time!” Then after she was inside and out of earshot he said, “I don’t even know why you’re here today! You’re not gonna get any food because you were already here on Wednesday!” A few minutes after she came out with her coffee and got back in line, Joe came out and told her that she wasn’t going to get served because she’d previously come that week. With surprise, she asked, “You mean I’ve got to come back next Saturday for it to be a whole week?” Joe confirmed that she could only come once a week. She finished her coffee and her internal conversation and then left.
A little later, one of the guys that works reception came out and wished everyone a merry Christmas as he walked down the driveway to leave. Then he turned and walked backwards as he told everyone that the food bank would definitely be closed next Saturday, but if we couldn’t come on Wednesday or Thursday we could come on Friday. Friday is the day set aside for the elderly and the disabled, so I guess they were making an exception in this case. But then again, he’s not in management and I didn’t hear anyone else say that it would be okay to come next Friday. Then again, again, if he’s the one checking people in he’d be the one in control of who’s eligible and who’s not.
The big Jamaican woman who sits by the door arrived and was very carefully trying to negotiate the ice. I offered my hand to help her across and she gratefully took it.
I assumed my place in line behind the friendly older man. He looked at my book and said, “I assume it’s poetry”. I confirmed that it was and he indicated that he wanted to look at the cover. He said that he recognized the author’s name. I told him that Michael Ondaatje is very rich because his book, “The English Patient” was made into one of the most successful movies of all time. He exclaimed, “That is a fantastic book!” Then he wanted to tell me who his favourite poet of all time was, adding with sadness, “He’s no longer with us, but he wrote beautiful poetry and songs!” I guessed he was talking about Leonard Cohen. He nodded. I affirmed that Cohen had been my hero as well. He bragged that he has all of Cohen’s records and I mentioned that I did too, as well as all of his books. He informed me that he was from Poland. I pointed out that Cohen’s family came from Russia originally, but for some reason he disagreed. When I looked it up later, I could see why. Cohen’s paternal grandfather had been a Polish Jew and his mother’s family were Jews from Lithuania. I guess I’d always that it had been Russia because the mother of Breavman, the Cohenesque character in his novel “The Favourite Game” had come from Russia. My Polish friend also didn’t seem to want to allow that Cohen was very Jewish.
Then he made a comment about the Muslims, insisting that it was a horrible, violent and hateful religion. It’s funny; you meet the nicest people, but if you talk to them long enough some kind of bigotry will reveal itself. I started arguing that Christianity has killed millions more people over the course of history than Islam has, but he interrupted me, “Don’t! Don’t try to say that Muslims are good! It’s a BS religion!” I was about to ask him if he actually knew or had spoken to any Muslims or had ever had any personal experience at all that would have confirmed his opinion, but he was one of the next five to be allowed in the door to get a number. I knew that the answer would have been “No” and that he’d never had any real interactions with Muslims at all. I’ve had that kind of conversation in the comment threads of fake news sites online more times than I can count. One guy responded to that question with, “The first thing I will ever say to a Muslim will be, ‘Enjoy eternity in hell!’ just before I blow him away!” And these are the people that voted for Donald Drumpf.
I got number 11, went home for fifteen minutes and then came back. They called numbers 1 to 10 and about ten minutes later numbers 11 to 20. I went inside and sat down. There were one or two people standing. Joe came up to the doorman and said, “What the fuck!” Then he started asking each person that was sitting down what number they had. I was sitting in the middle of the row of chairs against the wall and when he asked me my number, I said “eleven” in a voice so low that he asked me again. I really should have asked him what fucking difference it made what my number was since when my number was called I would get up and go to get my food. But I repeated that I had number eleven. He was about to tell me to move down to the front but he saw that there were no seats.
My number was called by an attractive woman of East Indian descent who was wearing a tiny top hat about the size of a teacup. The top of the first set of shelves was brimming with items and as I was hesitating she said, “Oh! I really like these!” and she reached for a package that turned out not to be what she’d had in mind. The foil bag said, “Potatoes with gravy”. How do you get potatoes and gravy into a package, the contents of which are obviously dried? I took a can of turkey gravy.
Below that were the crackers and cookies, though I didn’t notice any of the cookies that the woman in the pigtails delivered earlier. I picked a box of Vegetable Thins, noting that this volunteer, unlike the one form last week, let me select things with my own hands.
From the bottom shelf she gave me a few small packages of rice crispy squares, a bag of peanut Glossettes and a chocolate peppermint stick Luna Bar. I noticed later that the Luna Bar said that it is “for women”, so I had to look it up. It doesn’t contain anything men shouldn’t take but rather just some stuff that women’s diets are frequently deficient in like calcium and vitamin B.
I skipped the pasta and sauce as usual and was about to skip the canned beans when I noticed a tin of Bush’s honey baked beans. It’s rare that canned beans would have a label that actually says, “baked” because they usually aren’t. My helper offered me another can of beans because I hadn’t taken very much of anything so far. She seemed almost concerned, but I said I didn’t want any. From the soups I picked a carton of Campbell’s Everyday Gourmet Asparagus with Sweet Basil, but she said I could have another so I took the Golden Butternut Squash soup of the same brand.
She gave me a little bottle of lemonade and then I picked a bag of Cheerios with flax.
In the cold section, Sue was back in her old spot. I had run into her outside while parking my bike and she told me that she has a full time job now but was just helping out the food bank for the holidays. She had two boxes full of a wide selection of various personal care items. She gave me a couple of little flat cans of Vaseline lip care, but I asked if there was any dentil floss. She dug a bit and said there wasn’t any but then dug some more and found some. It usually takes me a while to remember to buy floss when I’ve run out and I ran out a week ago. She also pulled out a bottle of conditioner, which I accepted. She told me, “You have nice hair.” I noticed later that the conditioner is for tinted hair so I had to look that up too. Since it simply retains colour rather than adds it, it shouldn’t do anything bad to my hair.
Sue also had some cottage cheese, a litre of milk, a package of frozen ground beef and a bag of five eggs. She gave me an extra bag of eggs.
In the bread section I noticed a bag of blueberry bagels, so that was all I took. I noticed later that the blueberry bagel was just on the end of the bag and that the rest were cheese.
The vegetable lady was serving the Polish guy who hates Muslims and she called him “Pops”. I’ve only noticed this since I’ve been coming to the food bank, that people from the Caribbean, or at least those from Jamaica, often address older men as “Pops”. I’m glad I’m still considered young enough to get the “my dear” or “my darling” treatment. She was in an extremely upbeat mood this time. She kept saying, “Take! Take! I want you to have as much as you want!” There was a bin of broccoli flowerets and another of zucchini. She gave me almost a full 4.5 kg bag of potatoes, declaring, “You can’t have Christmas dinner without spuds!” She handed me a few mandarin oranges and granny smith apples. There was a box full of bags of raw cranberries, so I asked if I could have some. She said, “Of course! You can’t have your Christmas turkey without homemade cranberry sauce!” I noted out loud that I’d have to buy some sugar. As I wished the vegetable lady a merry Christmas, I asked her name as we took each other by the hand. She told me her name is Sylvia.
I immediately went to the bank to take out some money for the supermarket. The guy after me at the bank machine thought that I’d forgotten my cash because the “please remove your cash” sign was still up. I said, “Thanks for looking out for me!”
I rode to Freshco and as I was looking for sugar and salt, who did I see but Michele, the woman that was talking to herself at the food bank. I assumed she was shopping, but all the while she was still using the mocking high voice as she referred to “Parkdale crackheads and Scooby doo.” The guys that stock the shelves at Freshco seemed to find her amusing and they were talking about her and laughing after she passed by.