by Courtenay Lapovsky
I spent the day preparing food that would be delivered the next day to people on the streets of the Tenderloin. I made the toppings for 150 apple crisps, crumbling the butter with the flour, oats, and sugar between my fingers while my friends chopped the apples. We counted out our pie tins and filled each one, first with the apples dusted in cinnamon and then pressed the crisp topping down on top. So much joy and love went into each crisp. We prepared the rest of the meal while we smelled the crisps baking in the oven, that feeling of home-cooked love filled each item we prepared. At the end of the day, I was satisfied with the 150 meals we made, feeling as though I had done a good deed, contributed to the next day’s event, done my part. This feeling of a loving home that I knew, embodied by these sweet apples being baked, would go out tomorrow to people on the streets in a totally different environment.
Someone asked me — would you like to come with us to the Tenderloin tomorrow, be our driver? The two organizers don’t drive and therefore needed someone to drive them and the food, the three hours to the delivery spot.
The excuses poured out of me — that’s not my part, I’m the behind-the-scenes person, I don’t do the delivery, I don’t interact with the people. And for the past nearly two years that I had been volunteering with Love to Table (now called Free Food), this had been true. I always helped with the cooking, and more than that the organizing. I made sure we got enough volunteers to cook the meal. I helped the organizers figure out the schedule of the day of preparation and the schedule of the delivery day. I helped with supply lists, making sure they brought what they needed to do a pop-up restaurant in the Tenderloin or to deliver food bags on the street, including the napkins, cleaning towels, serving utensils, and aprons. The list went on, I could create one with little effort, and I could do it all while staying safely separated from the people we were preparing the meals for. I could love from a distance. Yet, was that really fully loving? Loving from a kitchen, without interacting with the people who were getting the food, refusing to interact with them out of fear?
I don’t love going to the Tenderloin, an area of San Francisco with a large homeless population, heavy drug use, and known for violent crime. People seem out of control and unpredictable, falling over in the middle of the day, talking out loud to themselves, yelling at each other. I see things I can’t unsee and they stay with me deeply.
I don’t know the stories of the people I see in the Tenderloin. I make a lot of assumptions about what their lives are like. I imagine myself where they are. It is likely very arrogant of me, knowing nothing about it and not being willing to go inside of it. I get overtaken with fear. I can’t even explain it. I don’t know if I am scared I will be hurt. Or if it is just a general fear of things that seem out of control. How do I explain what has me look the other way or cross the street to avoid someone laying on the sidewalk? Or how I will completely freeze when someone is loud or shaking or falling over or talking to themselves or yelling at someone.
I said yes to the request to be the driver, with the caveat that I may only drive, not actually participate.
The day was going along smoothly. I drove us to our first destination, telling jokes so my whole car was laughing. So different from a past version of me that would be so aware of the seriousness of our mission that I would not allow joy to be involved, a somberness used to almost seep out of me to cover up my lightheartedness.
We continued along, stopping for breakfast then off to the kitchen to do the final food preparations — an assembly line where we boxed up all the meals, placing the rice in a corner with carrots and greens next to it, a chicken thigh on top of the greens, an Okanumiyaki (Japanese cabbage pancake) on top of the rice, some pickled vegetables on the side, and a flower. We prepared pear flavored ice water in compostable cups and then we loaded up and headed into the Tenderloin. I pulled over in front of the restaurant, in a red zone. We unloaded the car. After the unload was complete, I stood there, unsure of what to do next, hoping I could just stay by the car for the rest of the time, close enough to the crew of volunteers, but not really having to engage. Word came back that I should park the car and join them.
My heart sped up a bit. Park the car and join them. Those seemed like easy instructions but with no spot available on the street with the restaurant, it would mean walking alone from wherever I parked the car back to the team. I got in the car, full of anger and fear. Mad that no one had thought to come with me to park the car and that I was suddenly left to do this thing I hated all alone. I probably could have asked someone to come with me to park, but I hadn’t wanted to pull from the rest of the event so I didn’t, and would rather silently stew in my anger at them.
So I pulled away from the curb, heart pounding, anger and fear coursing through me. I turned the corner and stopped at a red light. A woman was falling over on top of a man with a dog. I couldn’t tell if they were together, if he was trying to help her, or if she just happened to have fallen on them. He disentangled himself and crossed the street, and she continued to sway and almost fall. She kept trying to step into the street, into the oncoming traffic. Another woman reached for her, grabbed her and pulled her back out of the way of the oncoming traffic, over and over. The light changed and both women crossed the street. They caught up to the man with the dog. I pulled forward and continued driving. I drove about half a block away and a man was walking backwards, sort of dancing, into the middle of the street. He was on the other side of the street from me; however I stopped, having no idea which direction he would choose next or how fast he might make a move. I waited as he continued moving all over the place yet always backwards, in the street. He eventually saw me and waved, and then continued his backwards motion. He made it to the other side of the street, and I pulled forward when he was safely on the sidewalk.
I drove another block, and a woman waiting for a light was falling over. Cones in the street by the crosswalk that she kept catching herself on prevented her from face planting on the road into the oncoming traffic. The light changed again, and I moved on. I found a parking spot around the corner from the restaurant. It was a bit of a rowdy street, however I pulled into the spot anyway. I stayed in my car for a good long while, trying to catch my breath and contemplate my next move. I distracted myself on my phone, catching up on text messages.
After a few minutes, I looked up from my phone, looked out the car windows, looked at the life happening around me. I was in front of a Salvation Army. A bunch of men in suits came out and loaded up into a van. There were two men sitting on the sidewalk next to where I parked. There was a bus stop with a bunch of people. I couldn’t tell if they were talking to each other or just all talking, dancing or falling over, joyful or fighting. So much was happening, and I was hiding in my car from all of it.
I worked up some courage and got out of the car. I locked it and then compulsively hit the button a few more times, just to make sure. I hiked my backpack up on my back. I couldn’t decide if I was better off holding my phone in my hand or putting it in my pocket. I was grateful for the face mask I was wearing, that it blocked out some of the smells and so I could breathe out of my mouth without flies landing in it. The colors and light and sounds were enough for me. I couldn’t quite handle having to smell it all as well. Also, the mask hid some of my fear, and offered an extra separation between me and the world of the Tenderloin. I crossed the street and tried to look normal, feel normal. I sighed with relief when I made it to the restaurant.
The volunteer team was busy packing the You Are Loved bags, which contained a box of food, cup of water, flower, napkin, and fork. I jumped in on the assembly. Pretty soon, all 150 bags were ready to go. Everyone grabbed a few bags and headed out. I stayed behind at the restaurant, holding down the fort. The volunteers gave out their bags and came back in for another round. I stayed there, tidying up. Breaking down boxes, gathering up supplies. A friend came in to get her next round, and I told her I’d like to go out, but not on my own. I realized I had a lot of love in me wanting to get out, but that I didn’t want to do it on my own and that I didn’t need to do it on my own, that is the thing with love — there doesn’t need to be any separation inside of it.
We waited for someone else to come in to restock and asked if he would stay inside while we went out. We grabbed some bags and walked around the corner. We went less than half a block away when some women came up and asked for food. They each took two bags, so we gave out almost all of our food on our first encounter. I felt caught off guard by their insistence that they each needed more than one bag, unsure if I was breaking some rule by giving them more than one, yet unable to say no.
We walked the rest of the block and turned the corner and came across a rowdy group of men and women at a bus stop, who made a lot of noise, their hands and bodies moving as they talked — a group I usually would have avoided. One man was staring out at us, leaning against the side of the bus stop, still and silent. We asked if he would like some food. No response. I realized he’s not staring at us, so much as just staring out at nothing, and we happened to have stepped in front of him. The rest of the bunch came out of the bus stop and took us up on our offer of food, each reaching for a bag. The silent man eventually, in a slow-motion sort of way, reached for a bag as well. We had given out what we were carrying when another woman popped out of the bus stop. We told her we would come back with another bag. She said no problem, and that she was okay. The slow-motion, silent man, who I had been sure was aware of none of what was happening, saw that she hadn’t gotten any, and passed his bag to her.
We walked back to the restaurant to grab some more bags. We took the remaining few and headed back out, to make sure that our bus stop crew had all gotten food. Immediately a woman came and insisted I give her three bags. Again, I wasn’t sure if I was breaking the rules, but by this point I was beginning to think maybe there weren’t rules around this sort of thing — passing out bags of farm-to-table, lovingly prepared food to anyone on the street in this neighborhood I was terrified of. When we got to the bus stop, that crew had gone. There were two new people there. We had only one bag left. I felt the fear rise in me, unsure of how to offer one bag to two people. I don’t know what this fear is — is it that I will disappoint someone, that she will yell at me, or hurt me? This was the fear that I had wanted to avoid by saying no to this whole day, but that I had faced over and over again. The fear that I wouldn’t be able to love everyone, that I would close in response and not be able to feel people receiving this love. We asked, “Would you like some food?” One woman said yes, and one woman said no. It had worked out perfectly.
I don’t know quite what to make of the experience. Will that fear go away now? I had a successful day, doing something that was so scary for me, and all had gone smoothly. No one had hurt me or yelled at me. Nothing bad had happened. My heart had stayed open. I had passed out these bags of love, in person, with no separation.