Bank of Foods, they call it. Open every month. First Saturday.
Get the shopping cart and grocery bags. Button your collar! That parking lot gets icy. Windy too.
They open up at nine, so we’ll save our spot at quarter to eight. If we show up at nine for nine, maybe the queue gets in ahead of us and they’ll run out and then what? No food, is what.
Here comes the church ladies in their cars.
Tell them “We come in please NOW.” Tell them we’ll just stand there and watch them unpack.
What’s that they said? No? Well, we’ll ask again next time.
No reason they can’t let us stand there early and pick up things and just have a look.
Okay, they’re opening up. About time. Watch your step on that floormat.
Take off your hat or you won’t feel the benefit when you go back outside.
There they are, all smiles. Bank ladies and Little Father in black with his apron on, waving from the kitchen counter, turning on the kettles for coffee and tea.
We can just point and nod. They’ll bag it up.
This table here is canned tuna and hash. That one’s the jars: green beans, little onions, pepper slices, apple sauce. That there is cans of milk and juice. Then cookies and candy. Then toilet paper and soaps. That last table is your spaghetti and porridge. And stashed away in boxes they have real cereal too, with vitamins built right in.
Got everything? Take more of that butterfly pasta. Tie it to your walker with my scarf.
Don’t trip on that floormat. Button your collar. Look both ways; okay, we can cross.
Got your Senior Home key? Wait wait, here’s mine. I’ll get the door.
Here we are. Don’t let the cat out. Pile it all on the table; I’ll stack it on the pantry shelf behind the ironing board. Line up all the labels facing out so the little pictures and names match up.
I got us some headless fish in cans with twisty keys. Oh, you got these olives with bright pimiento eyes, and canned peaches with syrup and no pits. Here’s chewing gum and the crackers with herbs on top.
It’s all good for something fancy when people drop by. But it’s mainly for the grandkids when they stop in after school. The kids want their English television, and they won’t sit around waiting for a hot meal; they want to help themselves to snacks from the same packages that they see on TV commercials with their favorite shows. Food that looks like TV — that’s what matters.
That’s how we let them know how much we wait for them to visit, and how we wish we could talk to them and understand a word they say.
And for that, standing in a parking lot is no trouble at all.
The whole caper sounded doubtful from the start.
But the church lady squadron worked me over for weeks, with “Come on down you’ll love it,” and “We have such fun.”
Finally I promised them I’d stop by once before Thanksgiving.
They gave me the whole rendezvous MO: Front door, not back. Don’t let them see you.
Down in the parish hall HQ, it was all hands on deck.
Lolly proudly hung up her new food-handler certificate. Bett and Ellie set up tables. Nan fixed the doormat so the guests could drag their carts in without tripping. Tizzie brought warm socks and mittens as gift surprises for everybody’s shopping bags. Father waved hello from the open kitchen in Tizzie’s polka-dotty apron over his long black cassock and cross. He was heating cocoa and cinnamon buns for the team before heading upstairs to vacuum the church for Vespers.
“Finally!” the volunteers hailed me. “The ladies will hear a welcome in their OWN language! And you are gonna love our babushkas. Dearest lil’ sweethearts. So appreciative. When you talk to them, we all want to watch their cute faces light up.”
Oh-nine-hundred hours minute zero. Show time.
Lolly manned the doors.
Clients fell in across the threshold gripping shopping carts, wiping their feet, casting an anxious but practiced eye at our selection.
I was Table 6, Porridge Groat Gruel Central, with classic down-home favorites on display for them to snap up. My welcome speech was practiced and polished with the right agricultural terms memorized for all the goods. To deliver my lines, I called to mind our professors and lecturers from college days; their diction and intonation and phrasing, and how well they could work a podium. “Zdráaavstvuyte, uvazháemye gósti!” I sang out. “Hello, respected Guests!”
The women froze in their tracks in a jaw-dropped collective double take.
“Today,” I declaimed onward, “in our Breakfast Food department we have an assortment…”
“A kto zhe ETO vpustíl? Who let THAT in?” one woman gasped.
“Does she think she’s running the place now?”
“In OUR bank of foods?” cried another.
The volunteers beamed at me and at the clients, waiting for the magic to kick in.
“Say Honey?” Tizzie whispered a hopeful hint. “That is Russian you’re talkin’ to ’em. Right?”
I stopped, looked around, and tried again. “Here we have rolled oats, whole oats, Scotch steel-cut oats, corn meal, rye porridge, brown rice cereal, pearled barley, farina —“
“Girl! What did you do with it?” one woman challenged me.
“Where’s our food?” chimed in another.
“The REAL cereal!” one demanded, rapping her cane on the floor. “Go. Fetch it now.”
“Dear Friends?? It’s all here,” I assured them. “All the cereal we have is out on the tables. Look!” I waved it trophy-high — buckwheat, the very Tsarina of all grains.
They squared their shoulders, hands on hips.
“Listen to that one go on. ‘Buckwheat,’ she tells us. So brazen. Right in our faces.”
“Palming off old food that real Americans don’t want,” said another.
“Deceiving senior citizens,” cried one.
“Shame!” they shouted. “Discrimination. Elder abuse!”
“Hiding the real cereal.” One neighbor shook her head. “Cheating us with this cattle fodder.”
“Probably took it for herself, and sells it on the side.”
“Feeds it to her own kids.”
“Ha. She wouldn’t know from feeding a child. Probably never had any.”
“We want the GOOD cereal,” they agreed. “With extra vitamins. Made from fresh fruits in all the different fruit colors: Yellow moons, green leaves, orange stars, pink hearts.”
I turned to the church ladies.
“Hey Tiz?” I asked her. “They want yellow moons and pink hearts. Is that Lucky Charms??”
“Sure, Hon. We had Lucky Charms for a couple months. Just tell the ladies we’re all out.”
The Lucky Charm deficit news did not go over well.
“‘All out,’ it’s called? That’s one word for it.” They glared at me. “As if!”
“You expect us to dish up this village stuff to our grandchildren?” the babushkas challenged me. “If we do, our kids WILL NEVER COME AND SEE US ANY MORE.”
With that battle cry of anguish, frail-looking neighbors stormed the barricades.
For the next sixty seconds, we volunteers flung our upper bodies flat on the tables to keep bottles and jars from cascading to the floor. One patron nosedived for a milk crate under a plastic tablecloth; she surfaced with a cry of victory, waving a packet: “I found it! Real cereal!”
“That’s not cereal!” I tried to tell her. “It’s confectioners’ sugar morsels, to sprinkle on cakes.”
The women were done listening to me. They grabbed for dear life, seizing armfuls of everything in reach: birthday candle holders, tartar sauce, pork rinds, candy corn. One shoved aside a table and seized Bett’s shoulder bag, making off with a lemon Bundt cake and a bottle of sparkling cider as Bett cried “Stop! Please! I need that today for my niece’s wedding shower!”
Bett and Ellie threw my coat around me, and with thanks for my help rushed me outside.
I stood there blinking while the parish hall doors boomed closed. I picked my way up the icy drive, across the street, past Senior Home, along the dumpster-lined alleyway, and up four flights to my studio room. I pried off my boots, hung up the coat, wrapped up in a blankie, and settled in the rocking chair to look out the window.
The chair rocked along, swinging the view in peaceful little arcs.
Panes and frosted glass. Everyday convoy of base-thumping cars in the alley with the usual resourceful businessmen banging dumpster after dumpster with crowbars to shoo away the rats and hook out sellable items. Sootish yellow brick outlines of Senior Home on the corner. Across the street, the church with its main onion dome, its topmost cross, the little upper windows shaped like high risen loaves of bread. It was a lovely sight on clear evenings, when a westering sun flashed east and lit the cross gold; but today it all looked weary under the blank noon sky.
Maybe I should have known better.
Our patrons came from purges and wars, collectivization and blockades, labor camps and famine. In the lifetime and memory of the food bank patrons, Leningraders under siege made tea from handfuls of topsoil dug from under a bombed sugar factory, or pancakes out of glue fried in crankcase oil, or boiled leather cut from boot tongues. Even in the 1980s there were shortages; a cashier at a grocery had the power to hide the best stuff behind the counter and pass it out the back door to her friends. Now on top of all that, here was some American with nice intentions and language homework, showing up trying to help and just getting in the way.
But the real problem was, I wasn’t supposed to let it get to me.
Father called these discouraged interludes of mine my Terrible Mantle of Self-Consciousness (in gentle fun he would say it with a droll Buster Keaton face, clutching the collar of his cassock as if its sheer weight were dragging him down). At Food Bank that day, Father was upstairs beating carpets on the balcony; otherwise he would have sailed right in to the fray. With a firm cheerful word he would have charmed our patrons and calmed things down. Then once everybody was in a good mood and on their best behavior, he would have put me right back to work.
After all, work was what Father did all the time himself. The church had four services a week, and more at feast days. Father came early and stayed late, usually with his lovely wife and kids, and they’d bustle around with hedge trimmer or vacuum or bread-baking mitts or the citrus oil-&-scraper for polishing the beeswax off the candle stands. Whenever I lingered in the church to pray or just to sit and think, Father would sing out his greeting for me: “Quo vadis? Where are you going — to The Kingdom?” He turned workaday tasks into spiritual lessons. For every person who stopped by, he gave them a chore to tackle, and a special story told just for them.
One day while washing the windows, Father gave a special story to me.
It was all about Elder Macarius the Great of Egypt, one of the early 4th Century Desert Fathers. One time Elder Macarius sent a young disciple to the cemetery, to spend the whole night cursing the deceased who lay there in repose. Then in the morning, when the weary and bewildered follower returned, Abba Macarius sent him back for another night, this time to loudly sing the praises of the townspeople laid to rest. After that, Abba asked his exhausted disciple, “What was the effect of your harshest reprimands, or highest praises? Did your strong words make the dead more dead than before, or bring them back to life? Be as they are! Abide in peace with others, whatever they may say of you.” Ending the story, heading off that day with his bucket and squeegee, Father encouraged me to “Go and do likewise!”
Today’s whole pratfall was one more proof that I wasn’t cemetery-ready just yet.
No wonder Father had prayed over the question and decided early on, to hold off on my interest in ever being baptized Orthodox. “In this case, we will make haste slowly,” he smiled. Then he paid careful attention to see how well I merged in with the rest of the congregation. But even with eight years of Liturgical services I didn’t seem to merge in, and church functions generally found me backed into a corner, peering anxiously and trying to follow the thread of multiple interactions. “You are so terribly determined to not be hurt any more,” Father said gently. “But the kind of safety that you look for? It’s in The Kingdom. And you’re not there yet. And neither am I, or any of us. And church is not a pleasant escape; it’s an arena.” The only solution, as he kept urging me, was to plunge in to the living Body of Christ, that awkward and mess-ridden morass of human interactions, elbowing and jostling around with imperfect people and forgiving one another and ourselves.
I left the rocking chair and with a heavy heart fixed some millet kasha with rice milk, sweet butter, and raisins. Then munching on my kasha, I was finally able to smile: our food bankers were missing out on a nice lunch here, the signature staple grain of the Soviet Army (“Served every day for two years,” a veteran told me in Moscow; “but as a cold lump, with two flavors — lard, and grit.”). The ad team at General Mills missed out too. They would have loved to film today’s excitement for their next campaign: “Lucky Charms: Worth A Good Donnybrook.”
Six weeks after, on New Year’s Eve, Lolly called with another of her glowing business ideas.
Outside the parish hall, a local grocer had just dumped off a big box of half-pound tubs of fancy whitefish salad. The whitefish was perfectly good, but stamped with a sell-by of December 31. Somebody had to pass it out right away, and according to food bank regulations it had to happen before midnight. The church ladies all had family and festivities to fuss over; they needed a messenger now, to walk hundreds of dollars of windfall over to Senior Home. The ladies figured I could just knock from door to door, and tell the residents what this food was and who sent it and how they’d need to eat it right away.
I held the phone, twirling the little cord loops around my fingers, gaping dully as the window panes hissed with small but menacing crystals of precipitation. I’d been counting on a hot bath and flannel nightie, Bible study and early bedtime . “Now Lolly. If your babushkas panicked at having some spy show up at their food bank, how will they feel if the spy tracks them down to their own doorsteps? I’m not confident about putting my foot back in that culture bee’s nest.”
But, the bees were all in Lolly’s bonnet. There was no reasoning with the woman.
Finally to get this whole disaster over with, or at least prove that it couldn’t be done, I jotted down her list of two or three dozen names and apartment numbers. In the dark church parking lot I shoved the box step by step up the icy driveway. I considered dragging it to the dumpsters for the entrepreneurs in the car convoy; but finally I made it to the door of Senior Home. I hacked open the carton by scouring the corner against the brick edge of the building, stabbed open the sealing tape with my apartment key, and fought the whole caboodle on to the elevator. Then setting up the box in the middle of the hall I knocked on doors, holding up fish tub labels to the security peepholes and hollering in Russian “Food Bank sent me.”
Through each door crack, apprehensive faces peeked through security chains.
They took in my little speech, and blinked at the whitefish label. Then something dawned in their eyes. This was a role that they all recognized and cherished: the relative or friend who by some miracle hits upon a queue and snaps up a lifetime supply of gauze pads or bobbins or typewriter ribbon or #5 wire or support hose, and buys enough to deliver to everybody.
Fish salad, yet! Something nice to treat the kids when they stop by to ring in the new year!
Doors slammed. Chains fumbled open. I was in.
Some neighbors just stared at the whitefish with trembling lips. Some gripped their heads or covered their eyes. Some shed silent tears. Some threw their hands skyward or around my neck, stroked my hair, kissed my face and hands, tugging at me to come inside. I promised them I’d come right back after the fish was delivered and safely in cold storage.
Finally the box was empty. After that the evening was a blur of doors, with neighbors in the hallway calling greetings back and forth, waving their fish salads overhead. And inside (don’t let the cat out!) it was studio after studio of photograph albums on doily-covered TVs tuned to classic seasonal American films, tiny blinking holiday trees, whistling kettles, knocking radiators, interested parakeets looking on, and of course authentic Food Bank treats — bagel crisps, Necco wafers, maraschino cherries. Naming me their Little Daughter, their Sweetness, their Goldilocks Angel, their Dovey-Dove, they saw me off at the elevator wafting goodbye kisses at the random fishwife who showed up out of nowhere, who nobody recognized at all.
At eleven going on midnight I minced my way over the slick pavement, hood pulled tight against the sleet. I tromped the box flat at an alley dumpster, and climbed the four flights to the rocking chair by the windows.
A rising wind lashed the bare trees and phone wires, cursing and praising the quick and the dead. Senior Home was all alight with family celebrations. Distant fireworks etched out hopeful skyscrapes in pink and green. At the church, a moment’s gleam of moon shone against the upper gold cross. The cupola and little breadloaf windows glowed with warmth and light. Over the onion dome, the copper storm clouds sped past. The cathedral sailed through the wild sky, both beacon and ship for the travelers who came for bread or for prayers, in fresh and ancient hopes of the journey to the Kingdom in a New Year.