Next to me was a gas stove with four burners, each with a large pot of soup cooking away. On the other side of it, a table was covered with celery, carrots, onions, tomatoes, and whole chickens. A volunteer with a large knife was chopping and dicing with a vengeance. Two more volunteers manned the stove. Several hauled the food to the serving tables. For the moment, I was the only sandwich man.
"We need more peanut butter sandwiches," Mordecai announced as he returned to the kitchen. He reached under the table and grabbed a two-gallon jug of generic peanut butter. "Can you handle it?"
"I'm an expert," I said.
He watched me work. The line was momentarily short; he wanted to talk.
"I thought you were a lawyer," I said, spreading peanut butter.
"I'm a human first, then a lawyer. It's possible to be both--not quite so much on the spread there. We have to be efficient."
"Where does the food come from?"
"Food bank. It's all donated. Tonight we're lucky because we have chicken. That's a delicacy. Usually it's just vegetables."
"This bread is not too fresh."
"Yes, but it's free. Comes from a large bakery, their day-old stuff. You can have a sandwich if you like."
"Thanks. I just had one. Do you eat here?"
"Rarely." From the looks of his girth, Mordecai had not maintained a diet of vegetable soup and apples. He sat on the edge of the table and studied the crowd. "Is this your first trip to a shelter?"
"What's the first word that comes to mind?"
"That's predictable. But you'll get over it."
"How many people live here?"
"None. This is just an emergency shelter. The kitchen is open every day for lunch and dinner, but it's not technically a shelter. The church is kind enough to open its doors when the weather is bad."
I tried to understand this. "Then where do these people live?"
"Some are squatters. They live in abandoned buildings, and they're the lucky ones. Some live on the streets; some in parks; some in bus stations; some under bridges. They can survive there as long as the weather is tolerable. Tonight they would freeze."
"Then where are the shelters?"
"Scattered about. There are about twenty--half privately funded, the other half run by the city, which, thanks to the new budget, will soon close two of them."
"How many beds?"
"Five thousand, give or take."
"How many homeless?"
"That's always a good question because they're not the easiest group to count. Ten thousand is a good guess."
"Yep, and that's just the people on the street. There are probably another twenty thousand living with families and friends, a month or two away from homelessness."
"So there are at least five thousand people on the streets?" I said, my disbelief obvious. "At least."
A volunteer asked for sandwiches. Mordecai helped me, and we made another dozen. Then we stopped and watched the crowd again. The door opened, and a young mother entered slowly, holding a baby and followed by three small children, one of whom wore a pair of shorts and mismatched socks, no shoes. A towel was draped over its shoulders. The other two at least had shoes, but little clothing. The baby appeared to be asleep.
The mother seemed dazed, and once inside the basement was uncertain where to go next. There was not a spot at a table. She led her family toward the food, and two smiling volunteers stepped forward to help. One parked them in a corner near the kitchen and began serving them food, while the other covered them with blankets.
Mordecai and I watched the scene develop. I tried not to stare, but who cared?
"What happens to her when the storm is over?" I asked.
"Who knows? Why don't you ask her?"
That put me on the spot. I was not ready to get my hands dirty.
"Are you active in the D.C. bar association?" he asked.
"Just curious. The bar does a lot of pro bono work with the homeless."
He was fishing, and I wasn't about to get caught. "I work on death penalty cases," I said proudly, and somewhat truthfully. Four years earlier, I had helped one of our partners write a brief for an inmate in Texas. My firm preached pro bono to all its associates, but the free work had damned well better not interfere with the billings.
We kept watching the mother and her four children. The two toddlers ate their cookies first while the soup was cooling. The mother was either stoned or in shock.
"Is there a place she can go to right now and live?" I asked.
"Probably not," Mordecai answered nonchalantly, his large feet swinging from the edge of the table. "As of yesterday, the waiting list for emergency shelter had five hundred names on it."
"For emergency shelter?"
"Yep. There's one hypothermia shelter the city graciously opens when the temperature drops below freezing. That might be her only chance, but I'm sure it's packed tonight. The city is then kind enough to close the shelter when things thaw."
The sous-chef had to leave, and since I was the nearest volunteer who wasn't busy at the moment, I was pressed into duty. While Mordecai made sandwiches, I chopped celery, carrots, and onions for an hour, all under the careful eye of Miss Dolly, one of the founding members of the church, who'd been in charge of feeding the homeless for eleven years now. It was her kitchen. I was honored to be in it, and I was told at one point that my chunks of celery were too large. They quickly became smaller. Her apron was white and spotless, and she took enormous pride in her work.
"Do you ever get used to seeing these people?" I asked her at one point. We were standing in front of the stove, distracted by an argument in the back somewhere. Mordecai and the minister intervened and peace prevailed.
"Never, honey," she said, wiping her hands on a towel. "It still breaks my heart. But in Proverbs it says, 'Happy is the man who feeds the poor.' That keeps me going."
She turned and gently stirred the soup. "Chicken's ready," she said in my direction.
"What does that mean?"
"Means you take the chicken off the stove, pour the broth into that pot, let the chicken cool, then bone it."
There was an art to boning, especially using Miss Dolly's method. My fingers were hot and practically blistered when I finished.
Mordecai led me up a dark stairway to the foyer. "Watch your step," he said, almost in a whisper, as we pushed through a set of swinging doors into the sanctuary. It was dim, because people were trying to sleep everywhere. They were sprawled on the pews, snoring. They were squirming under the pews, mothers trying to make children be still. They were huddled in the aisles, leaving a narrow path for us as we worked our way toward the pulpit. The choir loft was filled with them too.
"Not many churches will do this," he whispered as we stood near the altar table and surveyed the rows of pews.
I could understand their reluctance. "What happens Sunday?" I whispered back.
"Depends on the weather. The Reverend is one of us. He has, on occasion, canceled worship instead of running them out."
I was not sure what "one of us" meant, but I didn't feel like a member of the club. I heard the ceiling creak, and realized that there was a U-shaped balcony above us. I squinted and slowly focused on another mass of humanity layered in the rows of seats up there. Mordecai was looking too.