October 06, 2015
Right away, when we first moved to Portland, I noticed the large numbers of homeless and mentally ill and drug-addicted and hardscrabble people on the streets. Walking Dingo through our new neighborhood, I saw a lot of strung-out-looking people talking to themselves with unselfconscious intensity as they took refundable bottles from recycling bins, and couples screeching at each other, enraged and incoherent, often many feet apart on the sidewalk. Every time we drove to buy groceries, passing by a series of homeless shelters on and near Preble Street, I’d look out the window of our warm car at the faces of the people standing there, huddled groups of down-and-out men and women, a few black but mostly white, hunched in wool pea coats and hats with earflaps, or watch caps and down jackets, rubbing hands together, kibitzing and standing around waiting for the soup kitchen to open and exhaling cigarette smoke as if it had warming properties.
I thought about my own good fortune, my unexpected happiness here in this small seaside city. I was in my secondhand but hardy Subaru, on my way to buy (reusable, cloth) bags full of groceries and wine at Whole Foods, that bastion of elitist consumption; meanwhile, I was eating well in the local excellent restaurants. I had a job I loved, writing books and essays and reviews, teaching and giving readings and talks, which sustained this way of life, at least for now. And I was healthy, at least for now. I knew that I was very, very lucky to have this life of happiness and luxury and well-being and pleasure. I didn’t take any of it for granted, I was constantly, deeply grateful for all of it, but that didn’t feel like enough.
Maine has always been a place of poverty and hardship. During the country’s current economic downturn and recession, Portland has fared worse than a lot of the rest of the country. People who were already struggling tipped into a state of real emergency. Whole families became displaced and homeless. New immigrants, many of them parents with children, couldn’t find jobs and found themselves on the streets and in the shelter system.
But, unlike New York City, whose relationship with its homeless is both historically and at present a complexly harsh one, involving cruelly draconian bureaucracy, bad conditions, and a catch-22 of contradictory, whimsical rules, Portland is unusually generous with its homeless population. In 1987, when a homeless encampment arose at City Hall in protest of a shelter’s closing, Portland implemented a policy, which still holds, of not turning away anyone seeking shelter. It’s worth noting, it seems to me, that shortly after I moved to New York in 1989, then-mayor Rudy Giuliani became notorious for closing homeless camps, most notably the one in Tompkins Square Park in the East Village, and busing countless numbers of homeless people elsewhere. No doubt a certain number of them ended up in Portland, Maine, because of its reputation for being homeless-friendly. In New England, people take care of their own, even when they have little themselves. It’s a long, honorable tradition.
Recently, because of this policy and the recent economic hardships, Portland’s shelters have been strained to their breaking point. In an article in the Portland Press Herald, published in October 2013, when the city’s homeless population hit an all-time high of as many as five hundred people seeking shelter a night, Randy Billings wrote, “Only 272 beds, cots and sleeping mats are available each night in the six shelters run by the city and nonprofit groups. When the shelters are full, 75 additional mats are placed in the Preble Street Resource Center to handle the overflow. When that is full, an additional 17 mats are placed in the city’s general assistance office. And when that is full, people in need must sit in chairs in the city’s refugee services office.” The city also rents motel rooms for the overflow, particularly families: “The number of families seeking emergency shelter in Portland increased 19 percent this year from a year ago, and a tight rental market is forcing people to stay longer and overflow the city’s family shelter. Portland spent more than $61,174 on motel rooms for homeless families during the past year, more than triple what it spent in fiscal 2012.”
For another article in November of 2013, Billings interviewed a Coast Guard veteran named Chris Wagner who had been living in a tent in the woods on the outskirts of the city for two years after he’d lost his apartment. He and his partner had just found an apartment downtown. As Wagner told Billings, “Portland is known as a place where the homeless can find services such as shelter and health care, as well as help restoring their independence. If you want to help yourself, you will get help.”
And so, on one particularly cold day in winter, as we drove by the Preble Street shelter for the umpteenth time, I looked out the window at the orderly but desperate-looking crowd smoking outside and decided to volunteer in a soup kitchen. That night, I filled out the online application. When it was accepted, and I was assigned to Thursday lunches at the women’s shelter kitchen, I felt oddly thrilled, as if I’d been deemed worthy of service. I had few illusions about my reasons for doing this; I knew that volunteering would benefit me far more than it would any of the homeless women I served. Giving always feels better than receiving. Volunteering was a luxury I could afford, and I was the lucky one, not them.
On my first day, Brendan dropped me off at Florence House, a women-only shelter down on Valley Street at the bottom of the Western Prom. I was fifteen minutes early. I went in at 10:15, nervous but glad to be there. I told the women at the front desk who I was and what I was there for. A staff member led me back through the dining room, which had floor-to-ceiling windows leading out to a big deck. We went into a clean, large kitchen with an enormous gas range, stainless-steel shelves and countertops, and a roll-down window by the service area. As I signed my name in the register in the little office, I heard Nick Drake on the CD player (“Three miles from sundown, Jeremy flies”), saw a Julia Child quote on a banner (“You don’t have to cook fancy or complicated masterpieces—just good food from fresh ingredients”), and smelled something good cooking on the stove.
I was meant to be here. I was suddenly in tears.
I wiped them away and introduced myself to Monica, the kitchen supervisor. She was only twenty-six, fresh-faced, with an ebullient, easygoing, laughing nature I would come to love and admire. She had been a chef at one of the most popular restaurants in town. When she realized that she wanted to make a difference in the world rather than pursue a career as a chef, she applied for the job running the Florence House kitchen, and got it. She was from an old Maine family, but her parents were peripatetic; she and her brother had grown up all over the country before her family returned to Maine.
She was also an amazing cook; I was almost twice her age, but during the year or so I worked my Thursday lunch shift at the Florence House, I learned a lot from her about both cooking and life.
She put me to work right away. I assembled about sixty cheese sandwiches and toasted them in butter on the grill and set the container into the steam table, loosely covered, to await lunch service. Then I peeled and diced a box of carrots and stored them in the refrigerator in a “fish tub.” I learned that local supermarkets had donated almost all the ingredients in the kitchen—Hannaford, Trader Joe’s, and Whole Foods. Much of the produce was organic, and it all looked fresh.
From twelve to one p.m., I stood by the steam table and served two kinds of soup, both made from scratch (broccoli cheddar and tomato basil), along with the sandwiches I’d made, while Kim, my fellow new volunteer, served the salad she’d made, and Monica started the prep work for that night’s dinner.
Kim and I talked while we served. I learned that she was a Jersey girl, a former heroin addict and rock guitarist. She’d moved to Portland after rehab to live in a halfway house with several other female recovering addicts and start a new life, far from her old druggie friends and copping places. She seemed raw and vulnerable, not quite sure what to make of this northern seaside town where she found herself alone and sober. She was funny and quick-witted and warm, and I rooted for her to succeed here. I never found out what happened to her; after that shift, she had a job interview. She must have gotten the job, because I never saw her again. She was the first of several recovering addicts I worked with at Florence House. Volunteering was clearly curative for us all. My suspicion that it did us more good than them was confirmed over and over.
During that first lunch, Monica told us that the other volunteer on that day’s shift, Diane, had just been given the Volunteer of the Year award; it was not hard to guess why she’d been awarded the honor. Diane spent the entire shift washing dishes in the corner. Every time I needed more, there she was, restocking soup bowls and sandwich plates by my elbow. She did this with immense cheer, unobtrusively.
I stood in my apron and dished up lunch for all the women who came shuffling up to the service window. Some of them didn’t make eye contact. Many of them looked as if they had been through terrible things, formidable struggles. A few of them had black eyes, bruised mouths. Several were obviously strung-out or tweaking. Some limped badly, sat in wheelchairs, used canes. Others hunched in their coats, huddled into themselves, almost catatonic.
Even so, they knew what they wanted in their lunch, and they were not shy about demanding it. One of them said, “Not that sandwich; give me one that’s not so burned.” (None of the sandwiches, it must be said in my own defense, was burned, but possibly some were a bit more well-done than others.) Several of them asked for seconds, even thirds. They all loved the broccoli cheddar soup.
At the end of lunch service, Monica went out and made the rounds, sitting at each table, talking and laughing and lending a sympathetic ear. They all clearly loved her.
The Preble Street shelter system, I learned from Monica, had a strong ethic of service, or “mission,” as they called it, that wasn’t religious or didactic but was humble, without ego or judgment. One of the rules of the place that I agreed to observe when I volunteered was not to reveal identifying details about anyone there. This is not a writer’s favorite promise to make, especially because the singular details and specificity of people are a novelist’s bread and butter. Even so, I could see the usefulness of protecting the anonymity of women in a shelter. But as I stood there dishing up their lunches, I was dying to know all their stories, their histories. I would be lying if I pretended otherwise. But they didn’t owe me that, or anything.
KATE CHRISTENSEN is the author of Blue Plate Special: An Autobiography of My Appetites as well as six previous novels, including The Epicure’s Lament and The Great Man, which won the 2008 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction. She writes about food, drink, sex, life, and books for numerous publications, most recently The New York Times Book Review, Bookforum, Elle, Cherry Bombe, Vogue, Food & Wine, The Wall Street Journal, and several anthologies, including Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed, edited by Meghan Daum. Christensen lives in Portland, Maine, and the White Mountains, and is currently at work on a new novel, The Last Cruise. Her second memoir, How To Cook A Moose: A Culinary Memoir, was recently published by Islandport Press.