As I lowered myself down into the ground, the thick, humid, musty air encased my mother and me as we exchanged edgy glances. Going down the stairs, a death-like smell enveloped me. I swallowed hard but could not dislodge the lump in my throat. Only four steps left –my abdomen roiled and my heart rushed. I saw layers of mismatched clothes worn by an unkempt grey-haired woman. She shoveled food into her mouth from a heaping plate of eggs and sausages. Secretly my mother and I wished to turn around and join the shoppers on the overpriced street above us.
Underneath Newbury Street, in the basement of the Church of the Covenant, I completed two weeks of volunteer work at Women’s Lunch Place (WLP). This women’s day shelter is an entirely different world compared to the high-end shopping above. Businesswomen brunch at Café Bella, while homeless women stand in line to heap congealed eggs onto chipped plates. The faceless women descend from a world of Jessica McClintock and Giorgio Armani. The free medical checkups and pro bono legal advice are their equivalents to a visit to Newbury Day Spa. The free toiletries are grimy compared to the fine lotions and perfumes at Sephora. Waiters cheer and sing at a T.G.I. Friday’s celebration while a ten-dollar bill and a new hairdryer from WLP’s donation closet are handed out for a birthday.
Six hours a day, four days a week, during my last two weeks of high school, I had to fulfill a senior year project to volunteer and make a presentation of my experience. While most of my fellow classmates went to elementary schools or hospitals, I chose something different. My father is a doctor, so I know what the halls of a hospital feel like. Also, I am the oldest of six children and already had experience volunteering in their schools. I had avidly volunteered coaching swimming and participating in fundraisers, so I searched for a place where I could make a difference, differently.
My mother found the shelter and offered my volunteer services. She came for moral support and spent some extra time with me before I graduated and moved to college. Every morning we worked out back in the kitchen with a core group of volunteers who ran Women’s Lunch Place. After slipping into a stained apron, I counted the fine china to make sure there was enough for the 200 guests who came to lunch daily. I took pride in creatively writing the day’s menu on the chalkboard. I trademarked choosing coordinating colors and putting stars over the i’s. The supervisor often allowed me to work with her in the pantry passing out donations. I could barely speak as I retrieved bars of soap, cans of shaving cream, and tubes of toothpaste. I learned some of the women’s names and faces and they transformed from heaps of hand-me-down clothes to real people and I expected to become introduced to the details of their lives.
By the third day at the shelter I was comfortable looking at people without feeling like I was at a circus sideshow. One woman particularly caught my eye. I saw her walking over to a table on the left side of the room. Her black high heels clicked with her every step. Her dark mini skirt sat on her tiny waist. She wore a fuchsia top with boxed shoulders and ruffled sleeves. I noticed her 80’s style pocketbook, jeweled on the front with a gold link chain as a strap. Her bright blue eye shadow and hot pink lipstick were abominable according to any fashion magazine. She stood out because she was the best-groomed person in the room. Her name was Brianna and she was a man.
I ran into the kitchen.
“Mom, uh, can you come here, please?” I was grateful my mother could verify my discovery. “Is he…she…allowed to be here?” I needed to know how to treat this cross-dresser. Was she a man? Was he a woman? Many questions and concerns raced through my sheltered mind.
“Yes, Sarah, he is a woman,” my mother chuckled at me as she walked back into the kitchen.
I turned around and realized I was eye level with a heavily padded bra.
“Hi, doll! What is the vegetarian option today?” Brianna smiled down upon me.
“Ummm…. turkey burgers. It’s a picnic theme this afternoon,” I awkwardly answered.
“Thanks, sweetie pie!”
I had survived my first full conversation with a guest.
Eight hundred meals later I had enough confidence to sit down and talk with a guest. The English woman, as I referred to her, had a grandmotherly charisma and warmth that drew me to her as I sat for nearly an hour listening to her fantastical tales.
“Where do you live?” I mustered up enough courage to ask.
“On one of the little islands in the harbor,” she replied matter-of-factly. “I take the ferry here every morning to pick up food for my friends.”
“Oh, I see,” I responded, not having the slightest idea who she referred to.
“Why, yes,” she continued on in her high British accent. “I have raccoons. I’ve tamed them, ya’no, so when I hold out my hand they come over to me with their little fingers. They do have five little digits that they use, just like you. And the other day….”
A steaming plate of chicken, rice, and carrots was placed in front of the English woman, interrupting her story. I was anxiously anticipating the end as I tried to imagine making friends with raccoons.
“And the other day they got quite friendly and came quite close. Then, the largest one stood up and right there you could see his little whistle!” She burst into a smile, laughing proudly at her own story.
I arrived the next morning and saw the English woman across the room holding her Lord and Taylor shopping bag. I walked over, smiled and said good morning, hoping for more stories from the island. Instead, I received a gruff hello and lack of recognition that I never expected. How could I connect with anyone at the shelter when I could not find a woman who was not mentally ill? I was distressed because I knew these women needed more than hot meals; many desperately needed medical help and families to take care of them. Their needs were greater than what I could give. Receiving meals at a shelter from arbitrary volunteers does not replace the love and compassion of family and friends. I thought that maybe the idea of a homeless shelter is useless and a waste of time, but I still had service hours to complete.
When the supervisor asked me to work at the arts and crafts table that day, I was overjoyed to be doing something different. Today we were quilting and I had the important task of separating the blue string from the red. To my right, under a mess of graying hair, sat a petite, serious woman, busy looping the string around her large silver needle. Meticulously she was creating a small colorful circle. I was baffled at how this was to become a quilt.
“Well, we take these small circles and connect them together to form a big square. Our large square is then connected to the other large squares we have already created over the past year. Women’s Lunch Place holds a charity dinner before the holidays and there our quilt is auctioned off to raise money for the shelter. It is a way the women can give back to this establishment that aids them daily,” she responded to my question in highly intelligent speech that I found extraordinary. From that moment on I referred to her as the Professor; she was a teacher to me.
I watched her continue to create her circle of fabric and then stop to fix her plastic glasses. She raised them up to clean them and I noticed that one side was completely missing. I wear glasses so I know that it is not comfortable to wear a broken pair. Looking at her ill-fitting clothes and famished face, I realized the glasses were the least of her worries.
It was 7 a.m. and I pulled my sweatshirt over my tangled brown hair, ready for another day of playing restaurant. Our 45-minute train ride on the orange and green lines was no different than it had been the whole last week. Unlike any other day, today I was excited to go to the shelter.
“Mom, how does she get them filled?” I asked as I shifted on the ripped plastic subway seat.
“They do that for the women at the shelter when the optometrist visits,” she replied, looking up from the latest issue of People magazine. “Don’t worry, she’ll appreciate them.”
We crossed the street in front of Burberry, dodging morning traffic. Passing piles of bodies on the church steps under wool blankets despite the seventy-degree weather, we marched down the wide street towards the resounding sound of church-bells. The wave of stale air was not as shocking this time down the stairs. There I saw her, alone at the end of a table, as I reached into my mother’s black Prada bag to retrieve my present.
“Excuse me, I couldn’t help but notice your glasses the other day,” I said trying not to let my voice crack. “I don’t even know if these are going to fit, or you like them, but I really want to give them to you,” I tried to explain my intentions as I handed the Professor an old pair of glasses.
The frames were thin like the woman’s physique. The lenses were medium sized, not big enough for the 80’s but not small enough to be chic. She took them out of a conveniently sized black cloth case. The clear, flexible nosepieces sat evenly on her upturned nose. This pair completed her collegiate appearance.
“Thank you very much,” the Professor looked me right in the eyes and I saw my youthful face reflected in these old glasses. “I will get lenses for them next week.”
I cannot remember what I replied, or if I said anything at all.
A week before I moved into B.U., I stood on a corner of Boylston Street, waiting for the walk sign to illuminate. I shifted the heavy bags of back-to-school purchases and glanced at the neon Seven Eleven sign across the two lanes of traffic. I recognized the figure wearing a purple scrunchi and teal socks overlapping black stretchy-pants. This was the woman who sat, every day, at the head of the center table at Women’s Lunch Place. The stress of getting prepared for college had put my volunteer hours out of my mind. However, the sight of this woman brought back the memories of stale air mixed with homemade cooking embracing me as I served her meatloaf and peas on a white china plate with gold trim. Even if she had seen me there, I probably would have seemed to be just another pedestrian. Even though we had never spoken, I knew she represented my volunteer experience, in a bustling church-basement kitchen, that I recognize as a complexity of emotions, but a satisfying meal.