New York soup kitchen

Extract from Naked in Budapest: travels with a Passionate Nomad (Available on Amazon)

Posting this as, in a month, after 19 years since this happened, and contact via Facebook, one of the women (in this story) and I, hope to meet for a coffee in Australia – and it won’t be snowing!

Teh tarik and my notebook - Malaysia
Teh tarik and my notebook – Malaysia

“An intriguing notice on the board in the lobby catches my eye. Help needed at the University Soup Kitchen. Meet Saturday 9am here in foyer, if you can give us some time. Thinking of the man under the bridge I offer my labour and next morning join two Australians and we’re taken by underground to the venue.

‘Welcome to the University Soup Kitchen,’ a conservatively dressed woman addresses us: we can hear capital letters stressed in her speech. ‘We are commonly called the Meat-Loaf Kitchen because that is what we Cook Every Week. We’re only open on Saturday and Produce a Good Meal, well Balanced and Tasty. We are only Open on one Day and for many of these People it’s the only Decent Meal they get All Week. Others are open Every day but we Pride ourselves on Quality. We also Treat people like Human Beings and Expect all Volunteers to do the Same. People are Here because they are Down on their Luck and it does not Reflect on them. So You Will Treat them Well or Leave, Right Now.’

She looks around the room of helpers, eyeballing us, daring us to show any prejudice against her customers. No one dares to leave so jobs are assigned: I’m to set tables then, with another woman, will serve coffee. The boss-lady adds a postscript, ‘People are allowed Second Helpings Only after All have been Served. They can have as much Coffee as they want. We Pour coffee for people At the Tables. You would Expect that if You were in a Restaurant and They are to Get the Same Good Service.’ Her voice fills the large hall here at the back of the church and the Aussies and I exchange raised eyebrows.

‘Hurry, hurry, we Open on Time.’ Her voice is everywhere and at last everything is ready and we gather around the boss again.

‘As I said earlier, we make a Tasty and Healthy meal here and to Show that to our Guests we Also Eat here, so go get your meal and sit down.’

I’m amazed; we are going to eat while the recipients of this ‘healthy meal’ are already lined up inside the room. Surely it would be better to feed them first and the staff could eat any that’s left – if they wanted it.

Her voice is even louder as she describes the Wonderful Work she and her band of Regular Volunteers do. The Aussies and I continue our eyebrow talk. ‘We don’t Ask Questions as to Why they are on the streets and we Don’t make them sit through a Religious Talk, like Some places, before they get their meal. We are Non Judgmental. They have a Need and We Provide it.’

I sit, eating the meal in an uncomfortable silence, under the gaze of the waiting people then, ordeal over, it’s time to work – the meatloaf sitting heavily in my usually vegetarian stomach.

I carry two coffee-pots to the first table. ‘Hi guys, coffee anyone?’ Silently they all indicate yes and I pour out six mugs, before going to the next table. ‘Hi everyone, coffee all around?’ This table is more vocal and we talk about the weather.

‘It’s going to snow some more,’ a man tells me.

‘Do you have somewhere warm to stay?’ I ask. He tells me yes, he doesn’t live on the streets, but comes here for a regular meal each week. The pots are empty and I replenish them and continue on my rounds. At the next table, a man produces a screw-top jar that he wants filled and a few have thermos flasks to take away the hot drink.

It sounds like a regular café and with everyone eating and drinking I can slow down and talk to some of the people, mainly men, who are here. I want to ask questions but restrain myself and we talk in general terms. They want to know where I come from, tell me I have a ‘cute accent’ and the constant theme is that ‘it’s going to snow some more.’

For two hours I’m in and out of the kitchen refilling the coffee-pots as well as responding to cries for more sugar or another plate of bread. While stragglers remain over the last of their meal I help sweep the floor and tidy up.

She-who-must-be-obeyed runs a tight ship and all goes smoothly – by three o’clock we are finished and with the Aussies, go to a local pub to talk about our experience: the three of us have Social Work qualifications. ‘It seemed as though the talk she gave us was really for the people waiting for food.’

‘I hated eating in front of everyone waiting for a meal.’

‘God keep me from being like that woman!’

Our common consensus is the day has been a good example of cultural differences and the type of social work we don’t want to do. As we find our way back to the hostel snow falls – the forecasters in the soup kitchen were right.”

Extract from the chapter ‘Meatloaf and Frozen Eyeballs’

Facebook page for Naked in Budapest.