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Cover Story: Food for the (not so) homeless

Fri, Jan 31, 2014

Franciscan Outreach serves free dinners without discrimination to those working or jobless

Franciscan Outreach

A Christmas tree provides the backdrop for dinner at Franciscan Outreach for (I-r) Terry Spencer, Paul Islas, Jose Marrero and Primo Torres. (Suzanne Hanney Photo)

One Saturday evening in July, I finished my practice of Transcendental Meditation technique in time to go to dinner. I gathered up my blue cloth Walmart bag, checked its contents to be sure my self-published book, “I Dream of A’maresh,” was included, along with some recent poetry that I had printed and a cold can of diet pop. Everything was in order.

The day had been overcast, hot and muggy with a threat of rain. I then placed a stringed blue pouch, with my Free Ride CTA transit pass inside a clear plastic pocket, around my neck and picked up my blue bag and an umbrella for protection from the potential downpour.

Once outside, I felt the hot summer mugginess as if smothered by a wet blanket. I tightly clutched my bag and umbrella; my blue pouch wildly twirled around my neck in the fierce wind. I looked up at the overcast sky. It was an eerie yellow, the sickly color of chicken broth stains on a dirty dress shirt. I absently shuddered as I was overcome with a flash of fear.

Being broke one day after payday, I was not going to your typical restaurant. I had just that day used my allowance from my paycheck to purchase a Samsung Galaxy S4 cell phone. Having any food was the furthest from my mind when faced with not having the latest smartphone.

Even today, writing this true story in a hospital bed, I love that phone. Why I am in the hospital today is another story. Briefly, I am here because of extreme exhaustion from overwork. I sometimes play, writing and doing visual art, as hard as I work at a regular job.

While I am in the hospital, I write my thoughts and past experiences down with a small eraser-less pencil in a black speckled composition book to pass the downtime between occupational therapy groups and to keep my mind positively active. I clearly remember that day not too long ago when I needed to eat after the fine purchase of my new smartphone and had left my apartment to get some dinner.

On that day I quickly walked across the street to wait at the bus shelter for the CTA Ashland Number 9 bus. Two black young men and one attractive Latino young woman waited alongside me. I imagined what would happen if they might end up where I am going. What would their reasons be to come to a soup kitchen?

When the bus finally stopped at the shelter, each of us boarded it. The bus itself is slightly full with only a few empty seats. I silently thanked God that no strollers took up the four front seats to further crowd the bus.

At Webster, we passed an empty lot with a long, high hill of gravel from a demolished building. The lot has been prepared for new construction of a Mariano’s Fresh Market grocery store.

My heart swells in my chest at this grand sight. I am looking forward to its opening next spring 2014. I work at a supermarket.

We then pass Elston with its huge blue and yellow sign for Best Buy. Next we travel under the Metra overpass to stop at Cortland and Ashland. The bus picks up men and women who were passengers of a train just leaving the station above for the northern suburbs, including Evanston. I can hear the engines of its heavy locomotive deep within my bones.

Part II
My eventual destination is the Franciscan Outreach Marquard Center, 1645 W. LeMoyne St., in the heart of Wicker Park/Bucktown. The ministry there serves a free dinner every day of the year, including all the holidays. Those overseeing the meal do not limit those who receive their food. The financial circumstances of each consumer aren’t a factor in who gets served. I have enjoyed these meals since 1997. I have been both unemployed and gainfully working as I am today, without any discrimination by the people serving the food. Walking into the Center is like coming home for me.

Franciscan Outreach 2

Full-time volunteer Emily Ford shows off a sample tray for other volunteers to fill. The meal includes turkey, macaroni, fruit, bread and a pastry for dessert. (Suzanne Hanney photo)

I remember well when Alberto Mendoza, one of the Center’s case managers, helped me to get a free eye exam and pair of glasses. He also supplied the clean clothes that I wore to get my job interview at the supermarket, right down to a pair of dress shoes my size.

I have seen the administration change from Father Manny, who directed the student volunteers, to a man named Dave Erickson, who replaced Father Manny in the same capacity, and whom I know quite well. He has even tried to include my poetry in the soup kitchen’s newsletter. I joined their former Art Workshop for two summers, encouraged by the helpful interaction among artists and art students.

Those being served today are from every race, creed, and nationality. As I wait in line for the doors to open, I hear a lively conversation between a Hispanic man and a Polish woman about God, His Bible, and the End of Days with some few references to the current state of Chicago politics and politicians. Thus new friendships are secured.

Volunteers loading trays

Santiago Piedra, in foreground, helps a volunteer group load trays with eating utensils and napkins in the Marquard Center dinning room. (Suzanne Hanney photo)

The door opens and the line of people enters slowly and politely. As we file in, a newcomer is asked to register with her picture I.D. after she is finished with her meal. I am not sure of her true age, but she dresses and looks like a teenager. Each of us receive a laminated ticket with a number on it. Some have been printed in bold type, but most of them have been handwritten in magic marker.

When I get my ticket, a young college student volunteer greets me by name.

“Hello, Allen,” she says with a bright, genuine smile, “How are you today?”

I then set down my umbrella and reach into my bag for my book of poetry and art, “I Dream of A’maresh.” “I’m feeling great today!

“Have you seen my book?” I ask with a returning smile as I place it into her hands.

“No, I haven’t,” she says as she looks over the book’s cover with its aerial view of the clouds enveloping the Earth from space, “So you had your book published? That is awesome! May I look at it while you eat?”

“Yes,” I reply as she leafs through it, “But I need it back when I leave.”

I have loaned the book to her, hoping for a sale. But I am realistic about the outcome. I realize that the most that I can hope for is to acquire another fan of my work. In the end, that is what I have. A student volunteer certainly has limited funds to buy a $17 book.

As I then sit down in the waiting area to be called to dinner, several other people come up to the young volunteer to present their own tickets. I patiently wait as others who came before me are then called by number.

When my ticket number 61 is called, I politely wait for others to exit the doorway. I walk into mostly a full house. I walk toward the back of the huge banquet hall to a corner seat at the last table on the north end.

I raise my hand high with my ticket. A lovely older woman server brings me a red plastic tray laden with two pork chops, au gratin potatoes thickly coated with cheese, mixed berries, a rich chocolate cake, and an empty glass for the usual pitchers of water. The average plate contains good portions of nice food, but sometimes we receive plain chipped beef. All the food, except on beef au jus night, is donated by the Greater Chicago Food Depository.

Instead of water, I pour my still-cold can of Coke Zero into the plastic glass. Initially a thick foam, the cola subsides into a dark amber color of carbonated soda. I fill up the glass.

I watch as more people come to have their food served to them. An older matron stops cleaning a lightly-populated table to start a conversation with a young man whom I recognize as a regular.

“Are you enjoying your food?” she asks, “How has your day been so far?”

She is genuine in her desire to engage with him. He answers her with gentle conversation about the events of his day. He is quite animated when telling her about his hunt for interesting castaway objects in the alleys of our city.

My attention to this verbal exchange is interrupted by a kindly question from the man sitting across from me.

“Are you still working at [the supermarket]?” a gray-haired, grizzled older man, sitting across from me gaily mispronounces my employer’s name.

“Yes, I’m still working there,” I reply with a laugh. I feel pride at such recognition.
I soon finish my meal and pick up my tray as well as my bag and umbrella. I take my tray to a male dishwasher, who accepts it. I place my plastic glass upside down in the rack. I walk up the ramp and out the door.

Once I’m in the soup kitchen’s lobby, the lovely young woman hands over my book.

“Your book is so beautiful,” she said, “Who did your illustrations? I really like the use of the colors!”

“I did both the writing AND the illustrations.” I said with quiet pride, “The original drawings are 14 inches by 17 inches. I made 48 pictures, two for each chapter.”

I take the book as I prepare to leave, taking pride in this new appreciation of my story.

“I would like to read more of your story,” she said, “Will you bring it with you when you come tomorrow?”

“I will certainly bring it back,” I promised, “But I won’t be back before Thursday. Tomorrow I will be at a writer’s workshop getting feedback on some other poems that I have written.”

Part III
As I walked outside, a suddenly fierce wind picked up. A loud clap of thunder rent the air. Then a heavy downpour of water fell from the sky. Yet there still was a yellow cast to the air. I quickly opened my umbrella and covered myself and the now-flimsy bag containing my precious book. I firmly grasped my bag to my chest to keep its contents safe.

Walking swiftly, I waited to cross the busy street. When there was a gap in the heavy traffic, I carefully crossed the thoroughfare. I then rushed to stand under the brick awning of a modern building, erected during the early years of gentrification. The wind and rain were so fierce that I couldn’t catch the first Ashland bus to rush by my corner. Instead of pulling to the curb to let anyone off or on the bus, the darn busdriver whizzed on by LeMoyne Street.

Chicago River skyline

Sunset paints a skyline view across the Chicago River on Ashland Avenue (Suzanne Hanney photo)

Fortunately, the heavy downpour let up and I caught the next bus. I checked my bag to see that my book did not get wet. All was well.

northbound Metra train

A northbound Metra train passes by the Mariano’s site on Ashland Avenue, close to the Clybourn stop. (Suzanne Hanney photo)

After a short ride, I walked from the bus to my apartment complex. As I rushed into the entrance of my building, the rain — which had been a fierce rage before I caught the return bus — now became a steady shedding of heavenly tears. Once inside the building’s lobby, I again checked to see that my book was alright. I was grateful to see that everything in the bag was dry. I took the elevator up and walked from there to my apartment door.

Feeling finally comfortable after a good meal at the Marquard Center, the soft patter of the rain against my windows relaxed me. I happily reviewed being served a fine meal and seeing others be served. The meals are definitely given out to deserving people from others who care. The years in which I have gone there have been memorable: seeing different men and women, its clients and staff, come and go, their lives enriched by fine food and welcome conversation. With thoughts of going back again, I am ready for the night to come.

I have often wondered why I have become such a fixture at this particular Soup Kitchen. I have found its atmosphere to be quite congenial to my disposition of maintaining a consistent structure of habit. Enjoying people who work as hard as I have in the past to improve a seemingly hopeless circumstance of life has affirmed my own set of values. Rubbing elbows with youthful students who have a world ahead of them to experience keeps me feeling young. At my age, I have as much hope, cheerfulness, and willingness to learn from my fellows as any man or woman in their early 20s. And some of these volunteers are actually wise beyond their years, as I hope to be as well.

Clybourn Station

Clybourn Station (Suzanne Hanney photo)

Today, I return to the Marquard Center’s Soup Kitchen and as I eat, two of the student volunteers come to me for a brief and lively discussion. Sarah, a dark brown-haired woman, whom I was told is studying English as her college major, says, “I have just started reading your piece about our Soup Kitchen. Isn’t it interesting that you mentioned eating pork chops in your true story and now, today, you’re eating pork chops?

“And last week, you had mentioned dreaming for a few days about having ice cream here for dessert. . .”

“And then I did have ice cream here for dessert!” I exclaimed with a laugh.

“Isn’t that really weird! I wonder,” Sarah said, “Could you possibly write about coming here and being served a thick, juicy steak? Then, maybe, we would be able to have steak. Or you could write about salmon and we could have salmon. Or write about filet mignon and we could have filet mignon, or…”

“Or possibly you could write about having lobster,” piped in Kelly, a reddish-brown haired student volunteer, with a laugh and a smile, “Maybe then it would come true and we would serve lobster!”

We all three laughed.

I then said, “I think I will write up this whole conversation and then, maybe . . .”
Maybe I can submit the whole story of going to the Marquard Center Soup Kitchen to a magazine that covers stories of social service agencies that serve communities like Wicker Park or Bucktown.

While I like specialty foods such as lobster and salmon, I always feel welcome and cared for when served the average fare that I receive regularly at the Soup Kitchen on LeMoyne and Paulina. The camaraderie of the staff and those whom they serve is well worth the visit.

Allen F. McNair
StreetWise Contributor


One Response to “Cover Story: Food for the (not so) homeless”

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