Give a little bit

Posted on 25 Sep 2009 at 12:08am
By HOWARD LEWIS RUSSELL | Contributing Writer lifestyle@dallasvoice.com

In the spirit of volunteerism, one writer finds satisfaction, and some hostility, working at Meals on Wheels


DELICIOUS! The packaged meals provide life-sustaining nourishment — not just for the recipient, but for the deliverer. (ARNOLD WAYNE JONES/ Dallas Voice)

President Obama would be so proud.

Last January, heeding his new call for volunteerism, a brave new spirit overcame me: To paraphrase the old adage, "For those whom much has been given, much is expected," I had been given much. I live a beautiful life, and there was no excuse for me to cling to the all-for-me-and-none-for-all dogma of our then-outgoing administration’s fear-mongering previous eight-year reign.

It was time for change.

I knew instantly which charitable organization I would volunteer for; Meals on Wheels was the perfect fit for me. I had been a struggling young writer during the ’80s in New York City, and knew first-hand only too well the experience of never having quite enough to eat. After all, one’s "disposable" income, after paying a Manhattan rent each month, didn’t leave much left over in the way of grocery dollars for keeping a fridge stocked.

Thankfully, Manhattan street food was a relative bargain. A hotdog loaded with "nourishing" relish, onions and sauerkraut cost only a buck then, and pushcarts of fresh fruit gleamed like rainbows from every corner. Several bananas could be had for a dollar bill — with change back, even; strawberries, plums, apples, grapes, mangos and peaches, too. Giant, salted hot pretzels and delicious potato knishes with mustard were cheap and filling.

Somehow, a 6’3" young starving artist in Manhattan could just scrape by just shy of actually starving. Nonetheless, the only real way I could enjoy a decent meal was to date; fortunately, when one is extremely young, tall, blond and gay in New York City, dating is no problem — I dated a lot. (Beauty-boy blonds rule Manhattan even today.)

Flash-forward 20-plus years — still blond, well-fed, maybe not so young anymore. Time to give back.

After a mere 90-minute training session — courtesy of the Visiting Nurses Association of Texas at their sparkling new West Mockingbird training center — I was off and running.

God Bless T. Boone Pickens, who underwrites all the Dallas chapter’s meals, prepared fresh every weekday morning and distributed from nine drop-off locations throughout the Metroplex. Each hot meal is sealed in a three-portioned tray consisting of a meat, a starch and a vegetable, accompanied by a pint of milk, a roll and a dessert cup/snack provided in a separate, cool container.

It’s the second grade lunch line all over again.

Until joining the MOW program, I had no clue people of such desperate straits lived among us in Uptown Dallas. I’m not necessarily referring to those in need of food, either, but some of my fellows behind the wheel.

My first mission of shining volunteerism began at 9:15 on a gorgeously balmy morning. I arrived at my assigned pick-up location (NorthPark Christian Church), greeted by the MOW food coolers (red for hot meals, blue for cold) and a woman who looked like Bea Arthur, circa Maude (replete with macramé vest). She wore the grim, rapacious benevolence of someone who’d been at the volunteerism game awhile.

"Hey, greenhorn," Maude grinned, hoisting a red cooler onto her beefy shoulders. "Don’t deny you’re a virgin. I can tell. I’ve been doin’ this 17 years. What the heck are you startin’ out on Friday deliveries, anyhow? Fridays are for seasoned veterans — people they trust."

Meals aren’t delivered on weekends, so Fridays often entail delivering triple meals. Maude seemed more than a trifle ticked off.

"So, why exactly you startin’ out on sunshine, Robert Redford? It took me five years to make it to Fridays."

"That’s what they assigned me, is all," I shrugged. "I said I was available any day; they gave me Fridays. I didn’t ask why."

"Well, listen up, Sundance, and listen hard: Hold onto your britches. The men on your list are gonna try to jump you and the women are gonna ask you to pull up a chair and chat with ‘em all day. You’ll be lucky to make it back here ‘fore dark to drop off your empty coolers."

"I’ll be back with my coolers before you will, Maude," I said. "Not a person on my route will be without a meal on his/her table before noon. If they’re looking to get laid, don’t worry — I’ll be sure to tell them you’re available."

I don’t think Maude had ever been rendered speechless before.

The 13 elderly people on my route could not have been nicer, more thankful or more gracious. Everybody my first day wore a welcoming smile when I arrived and waved goodbye appreciatively when I left. In the nine months since, volunteering for Meals on Wheels continues to be, hands down, the most rewarding experience of my life.

I love everyone on my route, all of whom I’ve bestowed pithy, private nicknames to: from Miss Jane Pittman (at age 104, Dallas’ second oldest living resident), to Mary Christmas (who invariably opens her door sporting her favorite holiday sweater featuring two white kittens in Santa caps with jingle bells around their necks — even in July). Mary Christmas’ trademark goodbye is, "Merry Christmas, Howard; thank you, and, sugar, you have just the best Christmas ever!" I always respond, "You, too, sweetie, and a happy New Year!"

There are no two finer words one can hear than "thank you" from people who sincerely mean it.

To volunteer several morning hours one day a week, twice a month for Meals on Wheels call 214-689-2639 or visit VNATexas.org.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition September 24, 2009.

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