The worst thing about arriving at the food coalition's kitchen was getting one of the other volunteers to come downstairs and let me in. It was on the second floor of a church on a busy corner of Pico Boulevard, and even though the kitchen windows were usually open, the other volunteers were all in their seventies and eighties, so I often had to yell to get someone to hear me. They were the reliable ones who were never late and who never took a Saturday afternoon off. I was in my twenties, and although I was generally reliable, I was often late, and when I was, I'd get the cold shoulder from Doris, a no-nonsense woman who'd lived her entire life in south LA and who clearly had no interest in my middle-class white-boy apologies or excuses.
When I arrived, Herman was typically seated on his stool, wearing the same stained apron and squinting through his smeared, Coke-bottle glasses as he cut the rot off of different fruits and vegetables. He'd look up and offer a matter-of-fact "hello," as if I were a family member who wandered in from the other room. After volunteering for two years, I realized that Herman still had no idea what my name was. Gabriella, on the other hand, upon my arrival would take a break from her singing and soup-making to raise her arms, or make some equally grand gesture, accompanied with some proclamation in her German accent to convince me that they really did want me.
"A strong young man. Just what we need! So much to do."
She was petite but wiry, always wore pants and a smock, and never stopped fluttering about the kitchen doing ten things at once.
New to LA, and somewhat shy, I seldom spoke but often listened. The conversations weren't profound, but they were somehow memorable, like when Gabriella playfully confronted Doris. "Oh, now, Doris, you won't speak because you're mad at me. But I can't put those green beans in the soup when they're still so fresh; we'll use them tomorrow for the salad, I promise you."
Or Herman, as he laid out the hundreds of pieces of bread onto the stainless steel table to make ham sandwiches. "I'll tell you what kind of Jew I am," he said, chuckling to himself. "There's nothing I love more than a ham sandwich."
Livia had a deep, booming voice, a thick Italian accent, and half-glasses that she never took off. When she learned I was going to Italy for the first time, she was very excited until I told her where, exactly. Born and raised in Rome and Naples, she shook her head in disgust before saying, "Venice, Venice, everybody go to Venice."
Whoever arrived first was the one to orchestrate, so I made sure I never arrived first. We sniffed meat, squeezed fruit, inspected bread, and performed similar tasks with other ingredients to make sure that everything was edible. It wasn't uncommon to have to throw something away because of mold or rot or fermentation, but in general, we trimmed the bruises, pinched the mold, and did our best to salvage as much as we could to make a decent dinner for the people who lined up on the street corner every afternoon at five.
One Saturday about a month after I'd begun volunteering, Gabriella asked me to come with her to a couple of restaurants that were donating food deemed unfit to serve to paying customers. She knew which alleyways in Hollywood provided access to which kitchen doors, and we'd go bumping over the potholes and broken pavement in her little matte-gray car—she didn't drive like an old lady—looking for the stacks of crated food that had been placed behind the restaurant. Even while driving, she hummed, sang, and chatted, which wasn't at all irritating, but actually kind of fun. We headed out of the first alley, the car trunk now half filled with softening peaches, wilting lettuce, and a couple of cracked pies. As her bony hands cranked the wheel of what was obviously not power steering, the sleeve of her shirt slipped up her forearm, displaying the row of tattooed numbers. Once we turned onto the boulevard, her arms straightened out, her sleeve fell back into place, and we headed to our next stop.
The image of those tattooed numbers challenged my thinking for days. I'd had a stereotype-inspired image of lovable little Gabriella as a girl in Germany, wearing a dirndl and braids, sweet and happy, leading a charmed life that would preserve her kindness, her patience, her optimism. I'd wrongly assumed that her family escaped before she was exposed to the ugly realities of the time.
Then I started to think about the other volunteers, about what they'd endured and what they'd survived. I'd always assumed that they were there because they had an excess of time and needed to feel productive. That might have been part of it, but there was something else.
Those people were willing to do the "invisible" work that needed to get done. They understood struggle, and unlike so many people of my generation, they understood needless waste. They never talked about their good deed; they just did it. There was imperfect food, there were hungry people, and there was work to be done.
Title image "Surplus" Copyright © The Summerset Review 2018. This piece initially appeared in The Penman Review.