By: Janet Brown
I was standing by the entrance to the dining area of St. John’s Mission when an old disheveled guy came waltzing in slowly, with a “far away” look in his eyes, trance-like, smelling like old sweat and grease. You get a feel for people, and even though I had only been a volunteer at the mission for a week, I knew this guy was trouble. But the mission had a policy – let everyone in for a meal unless they were visibly intoxicated or stoned. This guy wasn’t too far from being either, but I didn’t stop him, even though as the official greeter at the door, I probably should have.
He sat down at one of the tables by the window, looking restless and irritable. I watched him as he pulled out a dirty hanky from his back pocket, folding and unfolding it on the table. His face was long and lean with dark circles under the eyes. I guess he was in his mid-sixties, although his life probably made him look older than he really was. Flaps of loose skin from his neck rested on the yellowed and frayed collar of his shirt. He blew his nose and stuffed the hanky into his back pocket.
Some of the younger volunteers, mostly the sophomore girls from over at Little Flower High School, walked up and down the aisles with trays. One of the girls timidly placed a plate of food in front of him. The old guy eyed it with suspicion, picking up the baked potato and turning it around for inspection. Then he shot an angry scowl over at me and slammed the potato down on the table. He looked back over at me again, this time cocking his head and laughing to himself. I stared back but didn’t say anything. My job was to make sure everyone was seated, not to make sure everyone was happy with the food. But I kept an eye on the potential troublemaker because I knew something was brewing. One of the volunteers read the prayer from a card; Sister Eileen was back in the kitchen instructing the volunteers to get more trays ready. We were off to a good start.
“These potatoes are hard!” the old guy suddenly yelled hoarsely, holding one up high in the air.
Instantly the room became silent as all eyes now focused on the disgruntled old man. “These potatoes are hard!” the old man yelled again slowly, barking out each word for emphasis.
Sister Eileen came running out. “What’s going on here?” she asked, looking at me.
“I think one of our guests has a complaint about the food,” I said, pointing over toward the window where he was sitting.
“Oh, it’s him,” she sighed, wiping her hands on her apron.
“Who is he?”
“Let’s just say he’s a thorn in my side. What in the world could be wrong this time?” she asked herself out loud, not expecting an answer.
I was also a sort of security guy too because I was the biggest and tallest volunteer, next to Sister. She had me beat by at least twenty pounds — firm muscle, no fat. I always wanted to ask her if she worked out in a gym somewhere – maybe some place private where nuns and priests go to stay fit. Just the thought of Sister lifting weights made me laugh out loud. I envisioned Sister Eileen grabbing the guy by the collar and roughing him up. That’s just the kind of nun she was. She was just under six feet and built like a football player. Everyone in the mission, including me, heard her say on more than one occasion, “I’ll hurt you now and repent later.” I followed her as she walked over toward him.
With a big grin on her face, she put her arm around his shoulder. “Is there something wrong Joe?” She liked to touch during the intimidation.
A foul stench from his clothes filled the air. Joe sat rigid in the chair and wouldn’t answer. Sister leaned closer and looked him in the eyes.
This time more slowly, “Is there a problem here?”
Suddenly, he looked up at Sister Eileen with a crooked grin as if finally recognizing she was standing there.
“Sister! How ya doin’?” he chuckled.
Sister Eileen put her hands on her hips and stepped back.
“Joe, what’s going on here?” She shot him a scowl as he leaned forward in his chair.
“Are you causing more problems today? Because if you are, I’m going to have to ask you to leave.” Her eyes were fixated on him and she never blinked.
“Ah, come on Sister, you wouldn’t do that to me would ya?” He stabbed the potato with his fork and held it up close to Sister’s face.
“Put the potato down! I can see it! Now what’s all this about?”
“I’ve been on this earth sixty years and I know a thing or two about a thing or two,” Joe said. “Sister, these are the hardest potatoes that I’ve ever been expected to eat!”
“Keep it down Joe! If you’re not happy with the food then you don’t have to eat it. Now are you going to be quiet or do I have to ask you to leave?”
“Who’s gonna ask me to leave? You or the big guy here?” he asked sarcastically, pointing at me.
I looked at Sister to see if she wanted me to do anything, but she was looking at Joe instead. I then turned and looked back at Joe.
He shot another scowl over at me. “Don’t worry boy, I’m not gonna give ya a hard time. You don’t have to stand here watching me. Sister and I go back a long ways.”
“Just eat your food quietly and then leave!” After saying that Sister turned and headed out of the dining area.
Joe chuckled and looked around the room. “She thinks she can tell me what to do!”
I stood by the table a little longer to make sure there wouldn’t be any more trouble. Charlie the cook walked over to where I was standing and put his hand on my shoulder.
“Come on Sam, nothing is going to happen. Let Joe eat his food in peace.”
Joe laughed. “That’s right. It would do you some good to listen to your elders. Let me eat my food without being disturbed.”
“But he’s the one…”
Charlie interrupted, “Joe’s got a lot of mouth, but he won’t hurt anyone. He’s one of our regulars, so you might as well get used to him.”
Charlie walked with me back to my post.
“Maybe I should keep an eye on him.”
Charlie laughed, “Aw, don’t worry about him. I think he’s done for one night” and then he disappeared into the kitchen.
I stood there looking at Joe while he gobbled up his hard potato. For a second I wished I had some butter or sour cream to give him.