50 Hours community service required

At age 15, I got myself into a little bit of trouble and was required to do some community service. My mom’s friend, Sue, happened to already have a route delivering Meals on Wheels each Sunday, and so my parents enlisted me to help her on the route.

We’d show up to this facility in Southeast Portland with an industrial kitchen where workers would prepare and package these hot meals that got slipped into paper to-go bags, loaded into a cooler, and distributed to people who needed them. There were bananas, apples, oranges, and little milks that were delivered with each meal.

The supervisor, Dennis, would hand Sue a piece of paper with her route and they’d have short discussions about any nuances of the day. If there was a recipient that needed extra help, or a temporary diet change because of a recent procedure, Dennis and Sue would talk through it and make sure we had the right stuff.
Then Sue took me out and we’d stop at each house and deliver the meals. She had some rapport with some of the older folks, and she’d brief me on them as we approached their driveways.

There was one woman who was in especially bad shape. She was around 80 at the time, and upon arriving at her house there was a strong smell of cat urine. Her home was a labyrinth of stacks. Stacks of newspapers. Stacks of trash. Stacks everywhere. Her home and her life and her humanity had been consumed by stacks.

There were little passages between the stacks in which she and her cats could maneuver. Sue and I would walk into her house, me clumsily banging into her stacks, and we’d do a kind of a citizens welfare check. Each week she’d say, “My son is coming over soon to help with all this.”
Sometimes we’d have someone who didn’t answer the door. “You never know,” Sue said. “They could be at church or brunch.” Sue was about 50 and had a bunch of tattoos. She taught occupational therapy students at Mt. Hood Community College and carried this cynical yet generous demeanor about her. She loved the Rolling Stones, had the mouth of a sailor, and to me, a young misfit, seemed really cool compared to my parents who were singing hymns as we delivered meals. She knocked on the person’s door for the third or fourth time.

“Or they could be dead,” she explained. I hadn’t thought of that. I drew my gaze toward her in amazement. “It happens,” Sue told me matter-of-factly.

Sue would go as far as seeing if the door was locked, and if it wasn’t, she’d let herself in. “Hello, it’s Sue with meals on wheels,” she’d announce as we crept further into complete stranger’s homes. Well, they weren’t complete strangers. She’d been delivering to most of the people for a long time and to Sue it felt totally normal. Helping people was just intuitive to her.

I remember one time the cat lady didn’t answer and Sue and I wandered back beyond the lady’s kitchen and eventually into her bedroom where she was alive, well, and topless.  Cat lady couldn’t get her blouse on, so I looked away as Sue helped her untangle and dress herself.

We chatted, delivered the meal, and on our way out, she reminded us, “My son is coming over soon to help with all of this.”

After a few weeks, I learned that delivering Meals-on-Wheels is about a lot more than getting hot food to needy elders. It’s about checking in on people. It’s about building community.

We’d chat with the chatty ones and keep things short with the embarrassed ones. In time, I inherited some of Sue’s rapport. Dennis signed my paperwork, but I continued delivering the meals with Sue as a way out of church.

The day I turned 16, I got my drivers license, and I was made aware that I could get out of church forever, if I took over Sue’s Meals-on-Wheels route. So that’s what I did.

I spent the next year meeting up with Dennis each Sunday morning, often enlisting a helper of my own, always a young woman I was fond of, and delivering meals throughout the deeper reaches of Southeast Portland. If I couldn’t make it, Sue would step in, or Dennis would find an alternative driver.

I built my own rapport with the recipients, and with a few of them got more friendly. An old man got in the habit of having me move and reach for things he couldn’t anymore. There were others who I’d chat with for five or 10 minutes.Then there was always the people who you just really, really worried about.
As time marched on, I started to develop a sense of purpose through Meals-on-Wheels. That was a pretty big deal for me. At the time it was about the only purpose I had outside of playing music. I was a troubled and misplaced 16-year-old somewhere between boyhood and manhood with no compass and no rudder. Delivering meals on this route became something that filled me up. I felt good when I finished, and I got the chance to help folks out and bring some joy and hope into their lives. For the first time in my life, I was on the right side of something. 

I forget what happened exactly, but I know in time I dropped the route. But the experience stuck with me. 

I learned that if you’re in trouble, or you’re feeling bad, or you find yourself without a compass or a rudder,  all you have to do to feel better is to give back, and that giving back isn’t really that hard. It’s a simple solution. It can even be fun. It’s not hard to deliver Meals-on-Wheels. I learned that service doesn’t just benefit the people being served. It benefits the person doing the service. It taught me that life is a reciprocal endeavor. The more you give, the more you get. 

That’s an important reminder as we look around observing an erosion of our humanity at so many levels. I notice the everyday things, like how so many strangers don’t respond when I say “goodmorning” on neighborhood walks. Other things, like how instead of parents watching their kids play in the pool, or playing with them, they look at their phones. Then there’s the big things, like being closer to a nuclear conflict than since the Bay of Pigs.

I ask myself, what’s missing? What’s going on here? What went wrong?
And I think back to that President who was at the helm during the Bay of Pigs and I am reminded of some words of his, to paraphrase: “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.” I have become persuaded that a big piece of what we are lacking is an impassioned call to service. 

Service is one of those things that if you are not inspired — or forced — to do, you may never learn how good it feels, and you may never get hooked. But at this point in our country’s narrative, I don’t think we have a choice other than to serve.

Our backs are against the wall here. We are divided by a gulf that is growing so wide that soon the mass will just separate and there won’t be a gulf, but a sea too big to get across. And it may feel like there is nothing you can do.

But you can. You can serve. You can deliver Meals-on-Wheels. You can volunteer in your local school district or run for office. You can enlist yourself in whatever cause you find worthy and give back. 
And if it turns out that the whole world is falling apart, at least you’ll know you were on the right side of things as it did. And that’s what it comes down to as we ponder the idea of service at this moment in the timeline of humanity: What side do you want to be on?

Will you be on the side that, as our humanity was fraying and faltering, said, “There’s nothing I can do.” Or will you be on the side that said, “I did everything I could.”

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