During Barack Obama’s presidential campaign, the seed of obligation to serve one’s community had been deftly planted in my mind. The community service site he advocated relentlessly in his speeches was heavily trafficked in my Internet meanderings. I wanted to be a contributing member of that coveted realm of societal do-gooders he spoke about, but was reluctant to commit my time. While my excuses mounted (I work and socialize too much!), so too, did my guilt. The years passed.
Six months ago, I decided to stop making excuses, find an organization that could use my skills, permit a background check, and offer five hours a week of my time. I now have a once a week obligation to act as “gatekeeper” for clients seeking to shop the aisles of my local food bank. After handing me the colored, numbered ticket many of them have stood in line for two hours or more to procure, they pass through my wooden gate, check in with the gal at the computer, proceed to the volunteer manning the cart corral then shop the makeshift “store.”
Commercial freezers teem with bulk meats of all varieties and delectable seafood. Refrigerators offer organic milk, tofu, and eggs. Metal shelves burst with canned goods, dry goods, and day-old bread. Just-browned floral bouquets nestle snugly in milk crates laden with water buckets in the corner of the room, next to the loose produce. This abundance of goods, donated from area grocery stores, is picked up by volunteer drivers five days a week.
I have volunteered 20 hours of my time every month — in snow, rain and gorgeous sunny weather — not because I was sentenced to what the justice system humorously calls “community service” and inflicts upon its citizens as punishment, but because I genuinely wanted to be there. Until recently.
In general, ninety percent of the clients are decent, gracious people that just happen to be short on funds, out of work, or disabled in some capacity — mental or otherwise. The other ten percent, most often the homeless male population, are assholes. I hate to be frank, but they are.
Black homeless men have called me a racist because they don’t like my strict protocol and time constraints for granting them access to the “no-cook” (designated for those with no appliances to heat food) section. In their mind, the line and our administrative actions do not progress fast enough to accommodate their seemingly busy schedules. I suspect that in society, their carelessly thrown race card gets them access to many things because people don’t want to argue with them or deal with their vitriol. I know I am not a racist and stand up for myself, but admit that their insults and accusations sting me and haunt me for days afterward.
Yesterday, I had a disconcerting conversation with a man that tried to argue with me when I sent a kid (a teenager) in front of him because the young man needed to catch a bus to his job. The kid had the wrong-colored ticket and had been waiting hours to shop in the general store section when it was discovered he was homeless and needed to be in the no-cook section. If he’d had the correct, white, no-cook ticket, he would have been granted access long before. The man watched, eyes narrow with suspicion as the kid shopped ahead of him a mere fifteen feet away. He stood on the other side of the wooden gate and commented to me, “Everyone is trying to scam.” I contradicted him and tried to explain to him the kid’s first-time, wrong-colored ticket faux pas. He shook his head and told me, “Life’s a scam.” I looked him dead in the eye and told him, “No. It’s not.” He saw my intensity and uncomfortably tried to backpedal, calling his comment “dry humor” to which I replied, “It’s not funny. That’s a shitty way to see life.”
I have been chewing on his statement for the past day, wondering if it’s this kind of mindset that perpetually keeps people like this homeless man in a dog-eat-dog, what can I scam out of life existence. I don’t believe life is a scam, but realize the sum of this man’s scattered experience might make him believe it is. Can anything be worthy of this pessimistic viewpoint of life? Is there “humor” in his proclamation that I am missing? Am I simply naive because thankfully, I have never had to scramble and claw out an existence living on the streets or paycheck to paycheck?
Life is not a scam. It’s a million little choices and subsequent decisions where one gambles, acting with their best intention and hoping the chips fall where they need to. Sometimes life deals us a cruddy hand, but I would rather hold that hand and my head high with a clear conscience than view life as the person with the best ruse wins.