Community Service Date

—Saturday, May 5, 2012—

In most ways anyone could view it, this OHD project was all about me. I was the one benefitting, getting the credit, putting forth opinions and, hopefully, growing as a person. It seemed to make sense that I should at least have one date where the goal was to give back.

IMG_1997By the time we got around to it, this date had already been rescheduled once. We were originally supposed to help clean up Fort Tyron Park on Earth Day, which had been two Sundays prior, but the event was rained out. The cancellation wasn’t all bad though, as it had allowed me to spend a little more time with my Breakfast Date.

Gale and I found each other on OkCupid, having both rated each other highly, and she messaged me to say that she’d checked out the OHD site and would be up for a date. She had been enthusiastic and cooperative throughout the scheduling and rescheduling, so she seemed both congenial and understanding. I knew that she had her act together in some regard at least.

With our Earth Day park cleaning a wash, I had to find another community service event to take its place. Friends had provided me with various websites to check regarding service opportunities and I was able to get us a slot serving food at The Meatloaf Kitchen, a long-standing soup kitchen in the East Village.

We were meeting that day at 11:30 a.m, but I was a little slow getting out of bed and I could tell that I’d be a few minutes late, so I texted Gale to tell her this. Getting off the subway in the East Village, I received a text from Gale telling me that she would also be a few minutes late. Cool. This was good news. Then I got another text saying that she’d found the place. I was still a block away and I texted her this fact.

Arriving in front of the Cardinal Spellman Center, a community building that hosted the soup kitchen, I spotted Gale outside and she waved to me. “It’s nice to finally meet you,” she said with a friendly hug. I felt good about the vibe going forward, knowing that we were on hugging terms. I doubted either of us would be too reserved or shy.

Gale had already talked to someone in charge and informed me that we had to go inside to get our orders. What a helpful person, I thought.

We stepped inside and were instructed to put our belongings into a small office where they would be kept safe, but that we should keep valuables like phones and wallets on our person. Once that was taken care of, I asked Gale which part of Brooklyn she had come from, since I knew at least that much from her OkC profile. She said she was in Prospect Heights, which sounded cool. I hadn’t spent  much time there, but I knew it was a good area.

Our next instructions were to walk downstairs and look for Steve, who would be wearing a red hat, and he’d tell us what to do. It looked like there were already some patrons there, lined up and waiting to be fed. We located Steve in the back left corner of the cafeteria and we approached him to ask how we could help. He told us to get an apron, gloves, hair net (Or if we’d brought a hat) and a name tag. Once we were set with all of that, he informed us, we’d be preparing the cake. This was a soup kitchen that served homemade cake. It was amazing.

Gale and I got properly dressed for service and another enthusiastic volunteer — let’s call him “‘Craig’” because that was what his name tag said — asked us some questions as to whether or not we’d been to Meatloaf Kitchen before and then told us that he was a regular. He also told us that the good folks at Meatloaf Kitchen hadn’t missed a Saturday meal in 30 years. Wow. That fact was seriously impressive. Craig was incredibly talkative and it was initially helpful because he told us all about the place and helped us understand what we’d be doing.

I was self-conscious about the hair net, but it was all in the name of helping others, so fuck me, right? Still, I wished I had brought a hat. There was some slight confusion over exactly how we were supposed to prepare the cakes and though Craig had begun to guess, we spotted Steve again and he gave us the proper rundown.

The cakes were already baked and the order of operations for getting them fully prepared was as such: frosting on first, cut each tray into 36 pieces, plate each piece individually, collect plated cakes on baking sheets, place baking sheets into holding racks. Got it. Easy stuff.

There were roughy seven volunteers gathered to help with the cake preparation and we had eight cakes to get ready. We were initially divided amongst the various tasks, which had a few people frosting while Gale and I waited, prepared to slice up the frosted cakes. As the operation got underway, some people are frosting faster than others and Gale eventually stepped up to help another twenty-something year old woman with the process. Still waiting, I then jumped in with another twenty-something year old man. Like Gale and I, the two of them were there together and we talked to them as we frosted. Judging from his hat, I had guessed that the male part of the equation had gone to Notre Dame.

The woman working alongside Gale was quite talkative and asked Gale about herself, which was a great way to get out some of the initial information I might normally have to ask about on a date. I didn’t hear it all though, as I bounced around to check in with the other frosters on their progress, helping a little along the way.

When it came time to cutting the cakes, the young woman I’d been most recently hovering over asked if I could do it for her. Sure. No problem. Then Craig asked me to cut his cake. You got it, dude. It seemed like I was turning into a one-man cake-cutting station and before I knew it, I had multiple cakes placed it front of me. As soon as it became too busy though, Gale shifted over and helped me out. Rock and roll, baby. My own tendency to micromanage had come right back to bite me in the ass, but we were taking care of business. The female part of the couple equation then asked me about living in Boston, which she had overheard at some point, because she had gone to school at Boston College. BC and Notre Dame? What a couple.

Once the cakes were frosted and cut, Gale took over thr plating duties, and I left to check in on the other cake makers. This Craig guy was out of his mind. He just kept talking about the most inane shit. Soon enough, I had turned into this weird jack-of-all-trades worker and found myself running around to three different stations helping to plate cake, rack baking sheets, scrape cake pans and deliver said pans to the kitchen to be washed. By the end of it, I’d come incredibly close to telling a couple people what to do. WHOA DUDE.

I hadn’t had that kind of rush of assumed responsibility in quite a while, but it was most familiar to working with college groups. For better or for worse, I was often the one jerk who would say, “This is how we should do it,” and if I didn’t trust others to keep up their end of the bargain, “Never mind. I’ll do it myself.” It wasn’t the best quality to let loose during the first half-hour of a date, but I felt the gates beginning to open.

As the food preparation wound down, we were told that it was time for food service orientation. I hung back as people sat down and waited for Gale to return from the bathroom (At least, I thought that was where she’d gone) and then told her it was time to be orientated.

We grabbed a couple seats and Craig talked to us nonstop. He was a seemingly good human, volunteering his time regularly to the less fortunate, but as a conversationalist, this guy was brutal. I really hoped he and I would not have the same job during food service. I wasn’t sure that I could last the two hours without killing myself.

Steve told the group all about The Meatloaf Kitchen from its inception to the present. It had been in three different locations and was started by an NYU professor and grad student, who were now married. As Craig had previously told us, they hadn’t missed a single Saturday meal in 30 years. Meatloaf was the chosen dish because it was hearty and it was comfort food. The idea of providing comfort to its patrons was something that set The Meatloaf Kitchen apart from many other soup kitchens.

Their philosophy, and the way they operated, was fairly unique.

For one, the food we had just prepared would be the food we, the volunteers, would eat. We ate in the same cafeteria as everyone else, right before the patrons were invited to, in order to show them that the food was good enough for us too. The crowd of people already lined up in one corner of the cafeteria would be there to watch. Secondly, we would serve all guests at tables, just like a restaurant. There would be no shuffling through a serving line for them. And lastly, everyone who was in the line waiting, which was now surely outside and down the block, would get to eat that day. If they wanted seconds, they’d have to get in the back of the line, but they were welcome to come through again, so long as we had food left.

Perhaps most importantly, Steve reminded us that we were all there because we wanted to be there and that we should put our best foot forward because, as volunteers, this was something we believed in. Honestly, I was struck by how powerful the whole thing was and I felt a sense of purpose swell up inside of me.

He also pointed out that there were computers set up in one corner and social workers present, so that patrons could keep in touch with the world and have access to aid. “An email address is your address if you don’t have a home,” Steve said. That was pretty cool. I had never thought of how empowering an email address could be and how, even if you only could check it once a week, email was an important tool for meaningful communication and potential opportunity. 

Lastly, Steve told us that the first thing a person gave up on the streets was dignity but that their patrons retained all of their dignity when they came there. It was a powerful message. I really liked this guy.

The the manager for the afternoon, Uche, then took over. He gave a brief introduction and asked us to please do a really good job because it was his first time managing. This got a nice laugh from everyone. I don’t know if Gale was feeling so inspired, but I was resolute to do a good job after the whole orientation.

The meatloaf was served and we were told to get up and get our food. Gale and I both plated up with everything — salad, meatloaf, beans and vegetables. We returned to our seats and looked for the coffee. I poured myself a cup and then one for Gale.

With everything all set, we dove in. It was not a bad meal at all, especially considering how cheaply I’m sure it was made. It was definitely the least expensive meal I had eaten on any date thus far, and to be honest, the satisfaction to price ratio was higher than some of the restaurants I’d dined at. I felt confident that the food we’d be serving to the Meatloaf Kitchen guests was up to snuff.

Finally, after being in the same place for some time, Gale and I had a chance to talk to each other. She worked in medical research at the VA Hospital but didn’t really see a lot of tangible results. She was basically responsible for getting patients in the door and tested. Up until a few weeks earlier, Gale was preparing to go to medical school, but then decided against it. Asking her why, she just shook her head and said that she didn’t know. She wasn’t ready, she guessed, but did not seem totally satisfied with her decision.

In this conversation, Gale allowed herself to be a little self-deprecating, and it was endearing. She was cool with herself as much as she was unsure, which was a sense of self I could related to. The other volunteers at our table asked if we’d volunteered there before and we told them both that it was our first time. They also asked how we had found out about it and I told them that StreetProject.org had done the job.

Once we had all eaten, and service roles had been given out, Uche had the entire team bring our hands in on a cheer of “MEATLOAF.”

Fortunately, Gale and I were both put on food service, far from the ramblings of our friend Craig, who was helping with water and coffee that day. In fact, Gale and I were serving next to each other — me serving beans and she serving vegetables. This was very fortunate from a date perspective because we wouldn’t be split up for the next two hours. We’d already been separated a good deal over the course of our first hour or so there, and it was nice to know we’d be together going forward.

We were given serving directions by Christian, our team leader, and introduced to Andrew, who was another manager of sorts, as indicated by his running around and giving of orders. The trays would move down the line as we filled them for the servers. Claire was on meatloaf next to me, which seemed like the most important job, given the name of the place. On the other side of Gale was Regina, who added cake and a banana to each tray, and then handed them off to the servers.

OKAY. IT WAS GO TIME.

All in all, Gale and I were serving for an hour and a half. I struggled to keep the beans area clean. Gale and I worked in tandem often, calling to the kitchen for more food, getting more paper towels, keeping the trays in check, rotating plates for optimal positioning and generally helping each other get our jobs done, all while talking a bit here and there. Mostly though, we commented on the world around us and I thought that we made a really great team. If I could be overbearing in assuming responsibility, Gale took things on quietly and confidently, always doing more than what was asked of her.

There was some kind of controversy shortly after food service began when a woman got very mad for being greeted with “Yo. What’s up?” by one of the volunteers. She had found it disrespectful, though I am sure the volunteer had meant nothing by it. Only at a place this great was that complaint not only heard but responded to diligently. Steve had been right about the fact that Meatloaf Kitchen upheld its patrons’ dignity.

Craig stopped by a few times to check in with us, coffee pot in hand, which was both unnecessary and unsurprising. Towards the very end of service, as we neared running out of food, a family with two children came in. They were the only kids who had come in that day and everyone working immediately sought to make their experience the best it could be. I heard someone say that we had to find them the best pieces of cake and put together the best plates of food with what we had left. It was inspiring and loving, but tinged with the sadness of that family’s reality.

Food service ended, the line dried up and people that trickled in at the very end were offered to-go boxes. Some people came in demanding them, which made me think that they hadn’t wanted to wait in line, but knew that this was something The Meatloaf Kitchen did regularly. For one reason or another — I can’t remember — the to-go boxes weren’t for just anyone and when one man was told repeatedly that he could not have one, he just walked over and took it. No one fought to stop him though. It wasn’t that big of a deal and he was clearly desperate. It was an interesting thing to witness.

We made it through the food service pretty easily and then it was time to clean up. Gale and I double-teamed the counter we had been working at and it was soon spotless. I moved on to mopping and the whole place was cleaned very quickly. You know what they say: Many hands make light work.

The volunteers were de-briefed and thanked. There were a couple final tasks that needed to be done and Gale volunteered to sweep the kitchen while I finished some more mopping. We were amongst the last eight volunteers to leave.

During the de-briefing, everyone had been invited to grab a drink at a nearby bar where the volunteers usually went to socialize, and the two of us decided to tag along. A couple other volunteers walked over with us to The Edge, including Chee, the other guy who had been mopping with me. Gale asked me about the project a little and I sensed that she was definitely comfortable with it, which was cool. I mean, I had figured she was or else why would she have been there? You never knew though. It seemed to affect people differently.

There were only a couple volunteers present when we walked into the bar, but luckily our team leader Christian was one of them. We grabbed two seats at the corner of the bar and ordered beers. It was funny, sitting there and talking to Christian, because he was asking both of us a lot of questions about our lives and in the process, Gale and I were having this conversation for the first time. For instance, I learned that Gale had moved to NYC originally because her ex-boyfriend had a place and a job here. She showed up, crashed with him, found a job, moved out and started her own life in NYC. She wasn’t necessarily planning on being here — it had just happened.

It was funny, and somewhat awkward, when Christian asked us how long we’d known each other. “Actually, we just met today, for this,” I told him, looking to Gale for a nod of agreement. By this time, Chee had joined the conversation as well and they both looked pretty confused, but didn’t question our story. Only Gale and I knew that we were on a date. Christian apologized, saying that he had assumed we were together, but it was an easy mistake to make. I mean, who would do something like this normally?

The four of us talked for a beer and more. It was pretty fun. The bartender was playing a lot of Beastie Boys in the wake of Adam Yauch’s death the previous day, which we all agreed was a sad moment for New York. The whole thing was a good time, hanging out with the volunteer gang and being on an undercover date, but it eventually wound down. 

After a spell, I asked Gale if she was hungry, but she wasn’t, so then I asked if she maybe wanted to get another drink, a coffee or somehow otherwise continue our date. She wanted to do something along these lines and we decided on finding a cafe. Saying goodbye to our volunteer buddies, we found our next destination simply by walking over to 2nd Avenue and turning north.

Walking up 2nd Avenue, Gale asked me if there had been any women that I had really liked, and I told her to stop ruining the date. This was the same dumb joke I’d used with Radha two days earlier. It wasn’t super funny then, so I’m not sure why I gave it another go now. Anyway, Gale apologizes and I had to clarify that I was only joking. I spoke about dealing with such situations, where I might have liked a person, and also some other challenges that had come up.

By the time we found Cafe Mocha, it seemed like the topic of dating was fully open for exploration. We talked a lot about the project and dating in general. I asked Gale about her ex-boyfriend and she said that they shared a friend group and that she had only been single and dating since the Fall. She was already tired of it though and wanted to step back from dating for a bit.

We discussed the merits and demerits of OkCupid over our drinks. Gale ordered a mocha and I went with a Milky Way latte, which was essentially a caramel mocha. One thing that I was happy to hear was that, though she was tiring of dating, Gale had never had a horror story date. Neither had I, and I was starting to think I was crazy, so it felt good to know I wasn’t alone. Gale seemed like the kind of person who could get along with most anyone and I’m sure that helped.

It was all fun and mildly flirtatious, talking about all this dating stuff. I considered asking Gale about her views on casual sex. If she was tired of dating and wanted a break from it, what would she do about sex? However, I knew that I’d been somewhat indoctrinated by books and articles I’d read recently and that my comfort with the topic of sex was becoming a little too relaxed for most people, so I reeled it in and never asked.

Though she had initially planned to study for her graduate school class that day, which was something she did in addition to working, it didn’t look like that was going to happen any longer. Her friends’ band was playing at a bar in the area at 8 p.m. and I had a birthday party to attend at the same time, so I asked if she wanted to get dinner. It was a good way to kill some time and we both had to eat again. Gale agreed and we debated options.

“Where to?” I asked. Gale suggested Momofuku Noodle Bar, which was close by, and since I’d never been there, it sounded like an awesome choice. Of course, I’d heard of the Momofuku restaurants, but I’d never actually made it to one and I was excited to finally have it happen.

With no large sign outside, we walked right by the restaurant on our first pass, before realizing it and doubling back. A cook on break two doors down had thrown a used scratch ticket on the ground and I started rambling about how terrible and dirty we were as Americans. Maybe we wouldn’t have missed our destination if I hadn’t been on a liberal rant.

It was only a 25 minute wait, which we could totally live with, and so we creeped in a corner and talked. While we waited, we perused the menu and joked with each other. After roughly 25 minutes, we were seated at the bar for dinner. 

We discussed food and drink and Gale ordered the sake flight while I got a stout. We both ordered ramen for our main course, although mine was a soup and hers was not, and we began our meal with the all important pork buns. These things were heaven on Earth and, though they were different than the dim sum versions I’d had previously, they were still amazing.

The ramen was good too, although I wasn’t sure that it was worth the hype. Overall, the noodle bar seemed like the kind of place rich people went to feel “real” because they had to sit close to other folks and look unattractive while slurping down noodles. Yeah man, real gritty.

Gale attempted to find a dignified way to eat ramen but that was just not possible. I told her that she had to just go for it. I knew it wasn’t pretty, but I’d be joining her in looking unattractive. I finished well ahead of her and she eventually determined that her eyes had been larger than her stomach and gave up on finishing. We talked some more, drank, paid and boogied out of there.

The show that Gale was going to was over by Washington Square Park and I knew that I could catch a train over that way, so I walked across town with her. We took in the sights of an early Saturday night around NYU, which was always a bit of a spectacle, and talked about possibly meeting up later. I told her she’d be welcome at the birthday party and she said that I’d be welcome out with her friends. We agreed to stay in touch that night.

Finally, at the street corner which was to be our fork in the road, Gale and I hugged and thanked each other for a fun date. Giving back had never felt like such a personal gain.