“Where’d ya put my food?”
Her voice is gravelly and hot, rising an octave at the end. She stares at both of us in turn. I shake my head slightly, unsure of what to say. Allison, the other volunteer, is more confident.
“I’m not sure what happened to it. Maybe you should ask Emily.”
“No. I told you two. I told you I was comin’ back for that food.” She steps further into the kitchen, her presence imposing. I can feel her panic as her chest rises and falls rapidly and her eyes get larger.
I stare down at the lettuce I’m prepping for the salad. Too old to sell in the supermarket, they’ve donated it. Its wilted, brown ends stick to my fingers as I try to find pieces worth serving. It’s my first volunteer shift and I’m not sure if we’re supposed to err on the side of getting as much food on the table as possible or on the side of respecting the women by not serving them food that most people wouldn’t eat.
“I’m not sure, ma’am, we’ve been in here the whole time.” Allison is still talking, thank god, and I feel pathetic for making her handle this.
The woman steps up to the counter now, just a couple feet from us.
“I told you!”
She slams her hands down on the counter and for a moment, I feel afraid. Most of these women are dealing with substance abuse and mental health problems, and I know that makes it hard to act reasonably. I will myself to look at her and smile slightly, infusing my face with understanding and empathy.
Just then, Emily comes in. She takes the woman aside and the incident seems to be over.
Allison and I look at each other and laugh nervously. “I remember they warned us about that in orientation,” I say, still embarrassed that I wasn’t more helpful. Allison nods.
I finish the salad and Allison starts cooking the burgers. Soon we’ll serve lunch to the 28 women who live here, trying to break the cycle of homelessness.
But before we do, the woman comes back in.
“I’m sorry,” she says. She looks us both in the eyes. “Sometimes I just get a little panicked. And I don’t like to waste food.”
We smile – big, cheery smiles – and assure her that it’s no problem.
And I marvel at the apology. I know how hard it is. I know how an apology can sit in your throat for days, making it hard to say anything else. I don’t care if Emily made her say it, I’m still impressed. This woman has lived god knows how much of her life not knowing when or how she would eat. Now that she has some food, she wants to keep it.
Suddenly I feel even more excited about my shifts here. I know these women will test me and push me. But now I see clearly that they will also inspire me.