Finding Friendship Under the Freeway

by Leah Mendelson

My mother, my friend Sofia, and I decide to spend a weekend feeding the houseless of my home community, Oakland. We want to host Free Food Oakland!

We choose enchiladas, simple, gooey, delicious, loved by all, paired with refried beans, rice, red tomatoes, limes, and a cookie.

We arrange them with delight in their boxes.

We drive around looking for people to give our food to, finding people here and there. Then we have the idea to go under the freeway. Snaking back and forth through the streets under the freeway, we discover whole communities of trailers, parked cars acting as shelters, and tents.

We meet amazing people. Samantha, Legendary, Taiwan, Cornbread, just to name a few. Despite being in the shadowed darkness of the overpass, they shine brightly, with lots of love. Samantha’s femininity and beauty is so strong and confident that it’s not until I come back to have Sofia capture her beauty in a photo that I realized she is transgender. But she is all woman, her feminine lighting up this underpass as she applies her Chanel lip gloss to ready herself for the camera.

I wonder if I was in such circumstances would I be able to find that much joy. With little resources, no living space, feeling unsafe, would I embrace my femininity and joie de vivre like this woman? Even in my comfortable life, it can be hard to do that.

It would have been fun to stay longer and hang out with Samantha, her white cisgendered boyfriend (she is Black), and her irresistible pit bull puppy, but there is more love to give out, so we keep going.

I try to tell them thank you, and I hope they hear me, because I want them to know they are saving me. Saving me from an afternoon otherwise that likely would have been boring, navel-gazing, or mildly anxious. Or the familiar, droll thoughts of “Am I living out my life’s purpose?” “What am I doing with my life?” or even the hilarious “does my life mean anything if I’m not famous?”

When I’m pouring out my love, none of those thoughts exist. They are replaced with the desire to keep giving and connecting. I’m brought out of my head and into my body. And my joy lives in my body.

I approach two men sitting at a folding table in the middle of a dry, unkempt park. One of them smiles at me, and I’m taken aback by the gold gleam of his grill shining onto me, making his smile look like pure sunshine. I get to enter their world — one that otherwise I could only look at from the outside — and say hello because I have dinners to offer them.

Later, I interrupt what may be a covert meeting of some kind — a table of five people — as I raise bags in my hands 20 feet away and say, “You guys want dinner?!” with as much innocent joy as I can. Their suspiciousness turns into welcoming glee. They approach me ready to eat, and grateful for the delicious food. Food really is an equalizer.

My mother and I pose for a photo with Legendary. I get to see my mother shyly offer meals to the homeless. She has a mix of fear and delight. I feel like I am getting to know her better, outside of the controlled, comfortable environment of her house.

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