The small cafeteria style room was packed with the homeless and needy, and it seemed as if they were all conversing at once. The scene before her had an appearance of chaos. Katherine felt the urge to run back to her car. She took a deep breath to calm her nerves and immediately wrinkled her nose at the pungent smells consisting of unwashed bodies and what could only be described as garbage.
“First time volunteer, huh?” The voice belonged to a smiling Hispanic woman who was wearing a name tag that identified her as Lucinda.
Katherine began to remove her scarf and shrug out of her coat. “How could you tell?”
“The look on your face says it all. Put those in the back office or trust me, they will walk off. Once you get your apron and a nametag on, I’ll show you around.”
Katherine stepped carefully through a crowded hallway full of donated boxes of food and bags of used clothing. The small office was situated at the end. She had made the decision to leave her purse in her locked car and keep her keys inside her jeans pocket. She tried to rise above thinking this way, but she could not help her preconceived notions regarding the homeless.
In the office she found aprons, hairnets and stick on names tags. She stared down at them and tugged on her bottom lip. When she had seen the colorful flyer hanging up in the dry-cleaners a few weeks ago asking for volunteers for Thanksgiving, she had thought this would be a great way for her to remove herself from the usual hubbub and commercialism of the holidays and make an actual contribution. Since both her children were now in school, she was finding herself more and more looking for something to fill her time. Her husband agreed that volunteering would be good for her. He had taken the kids to his parents’ house for a traditional dinner and Katherine had come to give what it seemed she had plenty of lately; time.
She wrote her first name on one of the name tags and attached it to the front of her t-shirt with renewed determination. I can do this, she thought to herself. She pulled her hairnet in place and went in search of Lucinda for orientation.
“Treat them exactly as you like to be treated and you will get along just fine. Don’t let anybody bully you. A few will ask, but no second servings until everyone has been through the line.” Lucinda showed Katherine to her station in the food line. “We will serve about two thousand here today, so keep ‘em moving through the line pretty fast. When you need more food, you got to holler to Bobby back there and he’ll run it to ya.”
“Oh - Okay, great.” Katherine couldn’t hide the hesitation in her voice.
“You’ll be fine.” Lucinda patted her on the back and gave her a big toothy grin that Katherine couldn’t help but reciprocate. “They’re just people.”
Once the line started moving and the serving began, Katherine didn’t have time to think about anything other than handing out spoonfuls of steaming green beans. There were men, women and children of all ages coming though the line. They all had weary, but grateful expressions on their faces. One of the volunteers came into the dining hall dressed up in a Santa Claus costume and the younger kids squealed with delight. Katherine couldn’t help but laugh at their excitement and in that moment she knew volunteering had been the right decision. The line was moving along and coming to an end when Katherine looked up and recognized a familiar face waiting to be served.
“Mr. Carlton is that you?” The man’s face was worn and weather-beaten and his clothes were old and dirty, but Katherine knew she was looking into the face of her twelfth grade English teacher.
“That’s not me.” The man answered as he looked down at the floor.
“Oh, well, you sure look like Mr. Carlton.” Katherine continued certain that she was not mistaken.
“You don’t know me!” The man skipped her station and continued to move down the line without even a glance backwards.
“My mistake.” Katherine said softly to no one in particular.
After the last person was served and the volunteers had finished cleaning up the serving stations, Katherine went in search of the man who looked like her former teacher. She did not know why he would lie about who he was. Perhaps she had embarrassed him, she thought. Katherine searched through the tables of people eating, but she couldn’t find him.
On the drive home Katherine thought back to her last year of high school. It was not until she took Mr. Carlton’s class that she knew she wanted to be a writer. Every time she had handed in a paper Mr. Carlton had handed it back with a note that said “do better.” Some papers she re-wrote three or four times. Once she got it right, he would hand her back an A. One day she stayed after class to question his methods.
“You have raw talent Katherine. I am only helping you to cultivate it into something less raw and more polished.”
Mr. Carlton had been the reason Katherine had majored in English Literature with a minor in Creative Writing in college. Since life usually gets in the way of dreams, she never began a career as a writer as was her original plan. She married right out of college and immediately became pregnant. It had been a joint decision that she stay at home with the children and one she didn’t regret. The only writing she did now was grocery and to do lists. Katherine sighed and tried to think of something else, but she couldn’t get the face of the man she saw in the soup kitchen out of her mind. If it was indeed Mr. Carlton, then it was a real shame he was not inspiring other kids the way he had inspired her. He didn’t seem like the kind of person who belonged in a soup kitchen.
After dropping off her kids the following Monday morning, Katherine put off her errands and made her way over to the high school she had attended. The school had not changed much since her graduation. The front office still boasted the same motivational posters and outdated wallpaper. Sitting behind the u-shaped desk in the outer office area was an older woman who wore bright red lipstick and smelled like a perfume shop. Her black, grey streaked hair was pulled back tightly into a bun that made her look stern and unapproachable. Katherine knew better.
“Hello Ms. Lewis.” Katherine greeted the older woman.
“Tsk. Tsk. I remember the face, but not the name dear.” Ms. Lewis smiled at her warmly. “You used to help me do some filing in here during your free period, did you not?”
“Yes ma’am. It’s Katherine, and I feel a little silly for asking, but I was wondering if you could give me some information?”
“I will do my best.” Ms. Lewis put down the paperwork she was holding and gave Katherine her full attention. Katherine dove right in. “I think I saw Mr. Carlton in a soup kitchen on Thanksgiving. Please tell me it wasn’t him and that he still teaches here.”
“Oh dear me, that is such a sad, sad story.” She began before a group of teenagers filed into the office. She cleared her throat and started again. “I would love to catch up with you Katherine, why don’t you come back at noon and take me to lunch.”
Katherine took the hint and returned for Ms. Lewis at noon. They only exchanged pleasantries about the weather, kids and grandkids on the way to the diner Ms. Lewis had chosen for lunch. Once they were seated and their orders given to the waitress, Ms. Lewis began to tell Katherine the story.
“Just so you know, I ain’t supposed to talk about employees past or present. Against school policy and some other HR rules, I’m sure. But I can see the concern on your face, and since it is all stuff you can find on the internet anyway, I figure I’ll tell you what happened and get myself a free lunch while I’m at it.” She chuckled over the last part as if it were some private joke Katherine was not privy to.
“Mr. Carlton and his wife won the state lottery about four years ago. They got a ton of money. He immediately quit his job here and they began to travel the world. He sent me and some others postcards and little knickknacks from all over. I still got them at home.” She stopped to take a long sip of her iced tea. Katherine could tell that Ms. Lewis was enjoying being the center of attention and decided to be patient and let her tell the story without interruption. “Anyway, it was a few months after they got back that tragedy struck. Mrs. Carlton was killed in a car accident. Mr. Carlton had been at the wheel driving one of those fancy, foreign little cars and they were hit by a semi-truck. She didn’t have a chance in that little piece of scrap metal. Not even sure how Mr. Carlton survived.” She leaned forward a little as if to share a secret. “That is why I drive a Buick. It may be old, but it’s like a tank.” She sat back with a self-satisfied grin.
Katherine had to nudge her on a little. “Well, what happened next?”
“Poor Mr. Carlton, he felt so much guilt even though the accident wasn’t his fault. Oprah calls it survivor’s remorse, or something like that. So he gave it all away.”
Suddenly, the waitress appeared with their orders and Katherine let out her breath in a whoosh. She hadn’t realized she’d been holding it. They thanked the waitress and declined when asked the usual question of “anything else I can get you?” Ms. Lewis dove right to her lunch as Katherine continued to stare at her.
“Wait, what do you mean he gave it all away? The money?” Katherine’s eyes were wide with disbelief.
“Mmm, hmmm.” Ms. Lewis finished chewing and started speaking again. “They didn’t have any children and after the funeral, Mr. Carlton said he didn’t have any need for all that money if he didn’t have his wife to share it with. So he sold off everything and gave it all to charity. The school offered him his old job back, but he didn’t take it. He told Principal Harris he just couldn’t stand to be around people anymore. That was the last we heard of him and that was about two years ago.” Ms. Lewis shook her head, shrugged her shoulders and resumed eating her lunch. Katherine had lost her appetite and asked their waitress for a to-go box.
For the next two weeks that story was all Katherine could think about. She couldn’t understand why someone would choose to be homeless. Looking at her family she realized how much she took for granted on a daily basis and with that in mind she decided to pay a visit to the soup kitchen and see if Mr. Carlton would speak with her.
Katherine found Mr. Carlton sitting at a long table inside the church’s soup kitchen just after the daily six p.m. serving.
“Do you mind if I sit down?” She didn’t wait for an invitation and sat down in a seat across the table from him.
“I knew you’d be back. Tenacious little thing, aren’t you? Always were.” He grumbled as he focused on the tray of food in front of him.
“I heard your story, and I wanted to tell you how sorry I am for your loss.”
“What do you do now?” He growled at her. He stopped eating and gave her his full attention.
Katherine was a little taken back by his question. “Um, I’m a stay at home mom.”
“Now, that’s a loss. With your tenacity and research ability, you would have made an excellent writer.”
Katherine understood that he was trying to change the subject. She refused to let him off the hook that easy. “That’s funny, with your ability to inspire and with the patience worthy of a saint; you would have made a great teacher.”
Mr. Carlton blew out a long sigh and steepled his fingers in front of him. “Fair enough.”
“I came to invite you to Christmas dinner at my house.”
“Sure, I can see that going over like a screaming baby in church. Thanks, but no thanks. I am quite comfortable eating here.” As if the discussion were over, he resumed eating his meal.
Katherine wasn’t ready to give up yet. “I feel like there is something I should do. I don’t think that you deserve to be homeless.”
“You really want to do something?” He leaned forward and pointed across the room to another table with his plastic spork. “You see Bob over there in the black trash bag coat; he lost sight in one of his eyes, so he got laid off. Wife sent him packing when he couldn’t provide for the family. Crazy Sue over there in the bright pink scarf, well I’m not too sure what her story is, but with that name, I’m sure she’s got a good one. There are a lot of people here who’ve got stories sadder than mine and to me it seems they don’t deserve to be here either. Yet here we are. Sometimes life just takes a turn like that. Now, their stories didn’t make front page news, but are just as deserving of being told.”
“I don’t understand.”
“I want you to take all that wonderful knowledge I put inside your head so many years ago and use it. You claim I inspired you to be a writer - well prove it. Take the abundance of stories filling up this room and tell them to people who, due to their prejudices, will never willingly step foot inside a place like this. That is what you can do.”
Katherine smiled and rose to leave. “Thank you Mr. Carlton. It was very nice seeing you again.” She took a minute to look at the faces filling up the soup kitchen. For the first time she saw them as individuals and not just the “homeless.”
Katherine spent the next six months interviewing those who passed through the double doors of the soup kitchen, homeless and volunteer alike. There were actually a few stories that made her laugh, but most made her want to cry, and as it turned out, Crazy Sue was just that, crazy and off her meds. Mr. Carlton had moved on to another part of the city and Katherine had to respect the fact that he just wanted to be left alone.
Two years later her book was published– Tales from the Grace Baptist Soup Kitchen. It didn’t make any best-sellers list, but Katherine was happy with the outcome just the same. The inside of the front cover had a letter to readers calling for all to put aside their prejudices and volunteer their time. She claimed it would change their lives. It had changed hers.
The dedication read: This is for my family for whom I am most grateful and for Mr. Carlton for helping me find inspiration where I least expected it.