My friend Tonia and I volunteer at the Food Closet at an Episcopal Church in Palo Alto. Tonia is a better person than me, so she goes every Friday. I am on the substitute list so I only volunteer about once a month.
But that has been enough time for me to absorb the frozen-in-time quality of the neighborhood Food Closet. It has been an institution for at least 35 years, and its rules and strictures are odd, unchanging, and completely accepted by both the volunteers and the clients.
The facility is a small room on the side of the church that is divided by a counter. If you want a bag of food, you must follow these steps:
Step One: Go to the back door and pick up a foam triangle with a Sharpie number written on it from a pronged dispenser.
Step Two: Go to the front door and wait outside until your number is called, at which time you write your name in the sacred spiral notebook so that a volunteer can either look up or create an id for you in the ancient FilePro program on the ancient PC.
Step Three: Approach the counter, where a volunteer waits to let you select one item from each shelf in the back.
The food available varies widely from day to day, as it is donated by a variety of corporations and individuals in the neighborhood. There is usually a combination of canned goods, the previous day’s unsold prepared meals from the grocery store, day-old bread and cookies from the bakery, extra produce from neighbor’s gardens, and a random assortment of things people found in their pantries and decided to bring over. And, of course, bricks of government cheese.
Step Three can take anywhere from a few minutes to half an hour, as the clients ruminate over their options, expostulate on conspiracy theories, share their dietary quirks, give you unsolicited advice, try to distract you into giving them two cans of Spam, or just sort of stare off vacantly into the middle distance.
Every day of the week there is a different set of volunteers. I am a Friday volunteer, so I may not work Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday – ONLY FRIDAY. So, for all I know, there is a completely different arbitrary procedure every other day of the week. The two ladies who run the Friday volunteer crew are lovely and have been at this for 35 years. There’s not much they haven’t seen.
Each client can come to the Food Closet twice a week, but there are a whole bunch of regular Friday clients, which gives the place the feel of an old-timey sitcom. It is a wild and wacky place, and I love it.
Would you like a cling-wrapped chunk of government cheese?