april 3, 2020—food shelf shift

Driving to the food shelf to volunteer for a shift yesterday—wait, was it this morning?—last year?—maybe I’m making this story up, who knows anything any more? Anyway, on my way to the food shelf, I’m stopped at a red light, when the car behind me pauses a moment, then decides that red lights are complete bullshit and swerves into the next lane over that, pre-pandemic, served oncoming traffic, hooks a left against the red, speeding off merrily (I’m guessing, I know I would be), confirming what I already suspect: we now live in a lawless land. I gotta remember that slick maneuver at the next red light/left turn combo I encounter.

I show up at the food shelf looking more like an amateur bank robber than a volunteer; as I said, we’re living in a land where laws are so 2019, so they let me in anyhow. I would win the unofficial Socially-Distant-Overachiever Award of the Day, if there was one—boxes of disposable gloves and hand sanitizer by the gallons on hand, which I immediately begin using and continue to use liberally throughout my shift, noting the only one (out of four, maybe five total, volunteers and staff) with a bandana strapped across her face is me. I’m aware that my makeshift mask will likely not filter out any possible virus microbes, but I’m of the camp that something is better than nothing. I huddle in my corner, minding my own biz mostly, spending more time than I probably should creating enticing combinations for the fresh fruit and veggie bags I’m in charge of assembling, in hopes that the recipients can make a real meal with the goods, rather than open up the bag and wonder what the hell to do with 3 apples, 2 potatoes, a packet of basil, a papaya and some English cucumbers (though my mom, resilient survivor that she was, would have conjured a helluva goulashy-salady-thingy from those ingredients) and communicating with my eyes while simultaneously backing up in horror, should anyone burst into my Les Nessman invisible office unannounced (google it, kids) and strike up a conversation; maybe, I concede, they’re desperate for connecting, like me, but are having a hard time comprehending this fucked up “new normal” that is anything but. I get it; like when I start chit-chatting with people at the dog park before I remember it’s Pandemic2020, and abruptly cut myself mid-sentence and move along.

My shift goes fast as my produce bags grow in numbers. Very few people stop in to use the food shelf in spite of the abundance of generous donations (from individuals and organizations). I learn from the woman running the subdued show that their numbers are drastically down, though they know there is a drastic need expressed; a lot of people in need are elderly and multigenerational families living under one roof, who lack transportation and/or are fearful, understandably, of going out in public. The food shelves are going to great lengths to keep their doors open, sorely understaffed, while complying with the rules of this no-rules world: shoppers are now separate from the goods/volunteers, allowing only one person at a time to come in for pre-assembled food/personal care bags (people used to be allowed to come in and do their own “shopping” through the facility), constantly disinfecting surfaces, etc.

At the end of the shift, I take one last load of cardboard out to recycling, sweep the aisles, and bid my crew mates adieu with a smile that I hope shows up in my eyes, in spite of my outlaw bandana covering the rest of my face.

If you or someone you know is in need of emergency food service, please check out Keystone Community Services (or other emergency food shelves in your area).

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