Sunday, October 23, 2011

Meals on Wheels

On Saturday I volunteered for City Meals on Wheels. I arrived at the Actors Church on 49th Street at 8:30 am. Early, I walked to Food Emporium but came up empty on breakfast food options that didn't involve sausage or bacon glued on to sandwiches with cheese.  I got by snacking on coconut water and a muffin. I went back and sat in the basement of the Church with only one other volunteer. The cold snap was keeping people away, or at least that's what the volunteer coordinator suspected as the reason for a low turn-out. Due to a lack of volunteers I would have my own cart and have to handle the entire route by myself.

City Meals on Wheels provides homebound people with food for the week. On the weekend, we usually deliver a hot meal, a frozen meal, and a cold pack of fruits/juices, milks. I grabbed my 3-tier cart and wheeled over to 11th avenue where all my drop-off points were listed.

The first building was over 20 floors of rusted iron and poverty. I didn't have to look inside to know this was public housing and low-income subsidized. Blacks and Latino overwhelmingly. I walked in and the doorman was screaming at residents stuck behind a jammed elevator door, "PUSH THE BUTTON." On his side, the doorman was trying to peel the door back with his chubby fingers. I guessed this exercise had been going on for more than a few minutes. The magnet that connects the inside elevator door with the floor-door had become de-magnetized. This meant that the lobby elevator barrier was open but the elevator door itself had not been triggered and magnetized to the opening. The elevator door was stuck with two residents inside.

HOLD ON. I'M GONNA CALL THE FIRE DEPARTMENT. The tone of doorman's words suggested this was a typical inconvenience of his job. I offered to help so I wedged my body in the tiny elevator crack that was opening up. The doorman yelled at the residents to keep pressing the button. I flexed and bent my knee by squatting, drawing upon the full-strength of my lower body to jack the door. Even though I was moving myself in between the wedge, the door's pistons were absorbing most of the push.

I went into meditation on this moment. I stopped trying to 'force myself' against a mechanical device that probably was built to withstand several thousand pounds of pressure. Then I let go, stood up and un-wedged myself. A second later the elevator door effortlessly popped open. The doorman thank'ed me profusely along with the formerly-trapped residents. I assured them that I didn't do anything. In fact, it was only when I stopped forcing it and acknowledged what I couldn't do that the door slid open.

The residents and I took to the other elevator while the doorman vowed to have the broken elevator shut down. I rode up to a linoleum lined floor that felt both sterile and depressing. I handed my 3 meals to a few of the listed residents and then left the building. I noticed the crowbar marks on the elevator doors on different floors that bore witness to an elevator, building, and people that were in a state of decay.

My last building was privately-owned glass tower. I could tell because it had well-dressed security, brightly lit hallways, and perfectly-tuned elevators that hummed reverentially when they zipped up and down the 30 floors. I began at the top floor and worked my way down.

The first apartment had J in it (I'll refrain from using people's names). The door was already open in expectation of the visit. J was an elderly man standing in the kitchen in a white bathrobe with the logo for Trump Towers threaded in gold on his chest. He looked confused and tired. I asked him how he was doing and he admitted in a deep, hoarse voice "not too well." He described the pains of his body and his doctor visits. The inability to sleep, the inconvenience, the dizziness, trouble walking, ease at falling, the lack of appetite. I placed the hot, frozen, and cold packs on his pristinely unused stove top as I nodded along in commiseration.  My view was that he could try acupuncture and J brightened up at the word. Acupuncture had really helped him. J enjoyed it, the treatments made him feel better, but his insurance didn't cover it. But sometimes paying out of pocket is worth it, if it saves your life or improves the quality of the one you're living. He nodded along as he continued to look down at the kitchen floor in anguished contemplation.

J invited further into the kitchen to read a number magnetized to the refrigerator door. I stepped in further and noticed a brown bakery box with a half-eaten cherry pie. Many senior citizens lose their appetite and only snack, but then keep pies and cookies around as their only sustenance when they want something. This causes the body havoc. I suggested that him picking at a cherry pie for two days isn't the best way to treat his ailments. He nodded but said that he was told cherries were good for him. Yes, but you're eating a pie I reminded him. You can just go buy some cherries or get a healthier alternative than stewed and sweetened cherries under a thick buttery pie crust. He told me to take it then and give it to others. I sliced the pie up into nice slices and he gave me a paper plate.

Down the hall, a note was left on the door to leave the food on the kitchen counter. I walked in and and saw a man laying on the couch looking at TV. After leaving the meals for him and I quietly closed the door and headed to the lower floors.

On another floor I met "F," a female painter in an apartment overflowing with art. We spoke for a bit about life and art. She too noted the inconvenience of a new pains she was experiencing in her body. I found myself crying by the end of our discussion. I wished her well and went down to a lower floor.

At the next apartment, E opened the door and smiled. E is a small, petite woman with doll eyes. I placed the meals on another pristine stove top and she smiled and began whispering to me about her legs. She fell and broke her leg. It's taken her 6 month to heal. E said her daughter was stopping by in a while. That reminded me of J, who said his son was supposed to stop by later. Many of these residents seemed to live in a state of waiting for their children to arrive. E. told me how she met her husband who had a identical twin. The two brothers were tall, lean, blond Gods. Women adored them and chased after them. She often mistook one brother for the other, who looked exactly alike except for a slight dental difference in teeth gaps, which was totally unnoticeable unless both were smiling brightly. E. couldn't tell the difference between the brothers until she fell in love. By then she could distinguish the two by how her heartbeat in her chest for her boyfriend and not for the other. They married but her husband passed away after 9 years. E noted that she's been a widow for over 50 years. She is a survivor and has had the morose misfortune of burying her siblings and parents. Now she's stuck here alone in this high-rise condo against her wishes. Her sister passed away a few years ago in bed. E said she went to go shake her sister and felt the draining warmth of the recently expired.

I cried all the way down the tower. All these different residents living by themselves in their old age. All of them with severe pains and aches, disappointment, and the disease no one wants to talk about: loneliness. The incredible loneliness. None of them lacked food, clothing, shelter. But all had a sadness in their eyes, at the corner of their smiles.

I exited the glass tower with a half-eaten cherry pie and an empty cart. I walked down the street looking for someone to give the pie to but, alas, there wasn't anyone out on this cold New York afternoon.

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