The most rewarding part of working at Open Heart Kitchen for me, as well as the most challenging, was the defiant individuality of the seniors. I worked the first shifts under the impression that the residents who filled the dining hall were for my intents and purposes nearly homogenous. Old age had given them all the same grey hair and wrinkles. Their shared condition led them to repeat the same polite expressions of gratitude—quiet ‘pleases’ and ‘thank you’s’—as a kind acknowledgement of my presence before returning to their various conversations.
It wasn’t until a few days in that this neat image began to fracture. The first crack happened as I did my rounds serving dessert, taking meal tickets, and exchanging them for bowls of fruit or pudding. I offered to take a meal ticket from a sweet looking lady in a flower print dress. She smiled at me and said that I needn’t take her meal ticket, that another volunteer had already taken it from her and I could just bring her the pudding. Taking her explanation at face value, I did as I was told. One she finished that first bowl, she handed me a ticket and I brought her another one. It was only later, as demand was slowing down and I chatted with the supervisor, that I realized that I had been duped.
For the rest of my service, newly privy to the various schemes the guests were almost constantly attempting, the job got quite a bit harder. As they got to know me, they didn’t hesitate to contribute to that difficulty in other ways. Pretty soon polite ‘pleases’ and ‘thank you’s’ were replaced with ‘you’re carrying too many plates at once’ and ‘move faster, my food is getting cold.’ Needless to say, my impression of the seniors changed drastically, and not necessarily for the worse.
This change also showed itself off in more overtly positive ways. During one of my shifts, I noticed a guest who I had seen many times before and remembered easily due to his using a motorized wheelchair and wearing an eyepatch. He was holding up pages from a mid-century era fitness magazine showing muscled male models posing in underwear. I brought him his soup and he motioned for me to stay. “Look,” he said, gesturing frailly at the worn pages, “that’s me!” I never saw him the same way again, and it made me wonder about the other guests. What storied pasts could they too hold?
I made it my mission during the rest of my service to learn about the people I served. I had the opportunity to talk with a woman who was one of the world’s first computer programmers, working at IBM during the dawn of the technology. I met a nice man with a prison tattoo signifying that he killed someone and his very, very sweet dog. This all proved to be by far the most rewarding part of my service, and one that will likely bring me back to the soup kitchen even now that my school-required hours are done.