The weather is warm, oppressive as the relentless sun, brightly beats down on the pavement. White smoke billows from an outdoor tent; the mist stings my eyes. I squint in the blinding light, my eyes focused on the grills, filled with charred burgers and hot dogs. The scent of smoke and meat wafts through the air. I am dangerously close; the blast of heat from the billowing smoke blasts on my skin and my face. Attuned by an inner drive, by instinct, just as the animal in its habitat, awaiting its next meal, I keep a watchful eye, nonetheless.
I'm a volunteer, stationed at the volunteer table, imprisoned; shackled by a sense of duty, stamping people's hands as they approach the bright red welcome tent. They come in droves for food- long lines, like the bread lines of the depression, awaiting a free meal. The only cost of admission; a small donation to the local food bank; a small can of tuna, a dented can of tomato soup, a dollar; even a quarter; a small token.... anything, even the lint in your pocket. Next to the tent, an older, plump middle aged woman in a print dress pulls out her cell phone- to call her brood to come down for the cheap meal, "you can eat all you want for a can of ravioli or bring a dollar", she bellows in a loud, animated voice, as she brags into the earpiece. One could imagine her full grown, able- bodied son as he packs up his wife, and brood of kids, and cousins to come out for all you can eat burgers, hot dogs, chips and soda. A cheap, quick and easy meal thanks to reliable, old grand mom- the same old frizzy, white haired lady with bright coral colored lips, who is always seen at garage sales every weekend and clearance racks.
There was no question, no hesitation whatsoever, as I accepted the volunteer assignment..... in exchange for a free meal. But of course I did not tell a soul that I was doing it for the free meal. I continuously glance out of the corner of my eye, watchful, waiting. Ironically, my need is the same, if not greater, as those who this event is purportedly to serve. I look at the cans of food, carelessly tossed into the bin. I look at the discarded cans of beef stew, vegetable medley, and corned beef hash and consider the feast, the food would represent. I imagine myself eating a can of that stew for dinner or cooking up a sizzling pan of hash. My pantry is bare, save for a stray can of tuna and a faded can of cranberry sauce left intact from Thanksgiving. With mounting shame I glance away from the cans of food, lest my eyes betray my need. It was only three weeks ago I went to the pawn shop with some gold jewelry, a watch and my computer and came out with enough money for two hundred dollars worth of groceries. It was a feast! It's amazing how quickly a family can go through two hundred dollars worth of groceries. Its a shame, in fact.
This will be my only warm meal I will eat for the next week or so. It will be my only chance to get some meat. Meat is something I rarely eat. It's just too expensive. All I can think of is eating my fill, of getting a burger or two. I glance casually, lest my eyes betray my want.
And then in a blur and a rush, from out of nowhere, blackened charred burgers in soft white buns appear. My adrenalin mobilizes as my sole existence focuses on those burgers and hot dogs which suddenly appear from the white billows of smoke. Sweaty men in aprons and caps work feverishly to feed the greedy sandal clad crowds. A self - important middle aged woman in full cafeteria attire- with her hair tied up in a net, apron and clear plastic gloves on her hands, the gatekeeper of the food, quickly sorts the buns and the burgers. Piles of hot dogs dangerously teeter atop flimsy paper plates. Greedy men, women and children stack burger upon burger, onto a plate as they snatch handfuls of small bags of chips. All the while I silently plot and I plan for a way to inconspicuously get myself a single plate of food. I haven't eaten breakfast, as my stomach relentlessly growls to remind me. The hot sun beats down and I feel my lips and mouth dry and parched. All I can think about is a burger and a soda as nameless faces approach the welcome table, without end. A woman, with two burgers and a hot dog atop her plate, wanders to the tent in an attempt get some shade and to assuage her conscious, explaining in a half hearted attempt to convince me of her selfless sacrifice of donating two dollars "so that the poor families can use the money buy fresh bread and fruit. Her anecdote drones on and on. Meanwhile from the corner of my eye, I'm focused like a lazar beam, with mounting concern. Mounting anger and humiliation grew as I watched others stuff there faces, as I remain imprisoned in this volunteer table, unable to eat. I begin to wonder what makes these people better than I am. What makes them more deserving, more entitled to a meal, than I. I feel like a second class servant, a second class human being. I wonder why I don't deserve a meal. Am I an indentured servant? Am I enslaved in servitude? I could feel the tears stinging my eyes as I silently watched and glanced downward. I should have stayed home, and been satisfied with my usual fare of white bread, peanut butter and rice. It was a mistake to venture out; I let my want for a meal get the best of me by volunteering my time. And I did not even get anything to eat, yet I had to watch everyone else eat. Not knowing why I subjected myself to this, I feel foolish and empty; it was a waste of a precious day and a crushing blow to my self worth.
The irony? The BBQ event cost more to prepare than the food or donations it generated. Each of the attendees stuffed down more burgers, hot dogs and chips, and drank more cans of soda and bottled water than a needy family would consume in a week. And there was probably nothing more than a token's worth of awareness for the plight of the hungry and the poor, as people stuffed their faces on all you can eat burgers, hot dogs, chips and soda. This event wasn't fun, nor did it really contribute to any good cause. The BBQ was a mockery. The day is done, the soot covered grills cool down as the sun sets. The last of the smoke wafts into the distance as I stoop to collect crumpled, empty bags of chips, and empty cans of soda from the blacktop in servile fashion. Trash cans filled to the brim with discarded refuse, as the crumpled paper plates and napkins stir in the wind, only serve to mock me in my lack. My stomach still grumbles- no different from any other day. I return home empty and hungry, filled with only a dose of shame and humiliation.