By Itane Vero
At first, I thought I was only doing the work out of guilty feelings. To help those who were less fortunate than me. Because that is how the world works. A small part that is lucky and successful. The bigger part that was born before the accident. And by coincidence and a combination of many circumstances, I fall into the first group.
I later discovered that I also really enjoy working in the charity food truck. Preparing and distributing the soup and sandwiches, chatting with visitors, the cleanup with other volunteers at the end of the shift. It gives my life meaning. And that on every Friday.
Because I have been doing the work for several months now, I have come to believe that I understand somewhat how the system works. To which visitors we distribute the soup, which types of volunteers are attracted to this charity. It is a kind of mini society. With ranks, rules, agreements, and expectations. This group of people around the charity food truck in the park on Friday afternoon.
Those on the wrong side of the line, the slobs, the homeless, the drunks, the powerless, they smile gratefully. They know how the game of mercy is being played. They are expected to be modest, friendly, thankful. And they must be open from time to time. Exposed, naked, susceptible. To reveal something about their past. About how they became this way. So dowdy, so ragged, so poor.
And we, the helpers, the lifesavers, we act like it is the most normal thing in the world to stand in a charity food truck to hand out the food. We, the good Samaritans with our combed hair, brushed teeth, and fresh armpits. We, with our rich education, beautiful houses.
That is why it did not feel right when I saw him standing among the visitors one afternoon. Slim, well dressed, healthy complexion. Of course, we gave him the soup, of course he could grab the free sandwiches from the basket. But did he belong here? Didn't he take advantage of the situation? Wasn't he a crook, a scammer, a swindler? Shouldn't we hold him accountable for his behavior?
The smartly dressed man did not show up every week. Maybe once a month? Perhaps that's why it took me so long to gather the courage to ask and confront him what he was doing here.
“And does it taste well?” I ask him pointedly. It is already later in the evening. Mid-September. The long shadows of the chestnut trees hang over the food truck. The visitor eats the hot pumpkin soup with relish. He pretends he does not hear my question.
I decide to play the game. A bit provocatively, I sit opposite him on the wooden picnic table. The freeloader, however, does not flinch. With the metal spoon he calmly and with concentration scrapes the last remnants of the vegetable soup from his earthenware bowl.
“I suspect you want to know what I'm doing here,” says the guest as he wipes the corners of his mouth with a real handkerchief.
I feel like caught in the act. But I can't go anywhere. So, I stay put.
“It doesn't matter at all,” the man explains. “Had I been in your shoes, I would have done and thought the same. But anyway, why am I here sometimes? Ten years ago, I was also homeless and completely devastated. The classic story. The alcohol, drugs. Followed by divorce, unemployment, loss of family and friends.”
He looks at me like I represent the depth and darkness of a canyon.
“Thanks to the persistent help of friends, I managed to build a new life. But every now and then it is good to remind myself where I come from. That is why I pay a visit to this charity food truck. In this way I keep realizing the misery I have been through.”
I feel reassured by his story and disclose my experiences about how random it is that one person is homeless, and another is rich and happy. And how grateful one must be to fall into the right group.
“Maybe you’re right. But don't be too naive to think that everything in life is the fault of chance or fate. Never forget your own commons sense and savviness,” he replies with a serious smile.
A fellow volunteer calls me. It is time for the cleanup. I return to the truck, the visitors. And for a moment my black and white world is changing into a myriad of different bright confusing colours.