Quite an Experience

Kathryn Bartling

Featured In Print Edition

It was fixin’ to be a sultry day. My knees had been retired with 5 months of physical therapy, and I was hungry. I needed to access the food bank. I didn’t have cab fare, a car or a ride from a friend, but with knee braces and a bus pass, I could manage to get within respectable walking distance from the food bank in Murray. I unfolded my collapsible food cart and placed inside two smaller suitcases, one inside the other. I strapped on my Velcro braces, along with a brace on my back, and I trotted out to the stop in front of my house to wait for the bus. I was feeling heavy-hearted this day with the added disappointment of a faultily functioning physique.

When the bus pulled up, I asked the driver to “kneel,” which is code for him to lower the chassis and allow me to step on without lifting much weight or stepping too high. He was pretending to ignore my request and I repeated myself: “Please kneel.” I was thinking that maybe he couldn’t hear what I said, so I asked him to genuflect. The driver greeted me with a sly little smile and lowered the bus. I entered.

Leaving the bus with my cargo in tow, I wished I could walk as the crow flies through this neighborhood, which used to be luscious green farmland for miles and is now a concrete-jungle mix of mason-block walls and shops with high fences. The walk would be longer, but I was cheered on by the smile from my driver. Getting to the site, I could see a 30-person line outside an hour before they opened. It would be a wait. Seems like everybody else was hungry, too.

I settled in on the lawn to wait my turn. Someone popped the top on a soda can and it made me thirsty for bubbles. I know what food bank food is generally like and had a basic idea of what I would be receiving: milk, eggs—if they had them—boxed cereal, canned goods, frozen chicken or hotdogs, probably something sweet. I was a bit concerned about food sustainability in the heat, but to be outside on a day in the sun with a cloudless sky felt very freeing in its own tiny way. I’d been confined for so long.

When my turn came to be interviewed, I really wanted to know if they had cat food that day. The person in charge left me in her office while she left to go have a cigarette break for 15 minutes, and I felt my heavy heart returning. I was truly hungry now, not looking forward to the long trip home. This food bank only answers questions in the interview room. After that, you go around the backside of the building, and a volunteer pushes out a grocery cart filled with items that you then barter away with others loading up their fare. Don’t eat pork? I’ll trade my chocolate milk for that. This is the business of connecting with other hungry people in the community.

Expecting to be rushed around the corner and having a basket pushed toward me, I saw the most incredible sight. Next to the garage door where the baskets exit and beside the dumpster were cases upon cases of freshly picked blueberries. So very beautiful and so financially out of reach for me; I envisioned steaming bowls of oats topped with berries; saw muffins I would make coming from my oven steaming much the same. I was drooling. The smells kicked in, and I noticed flats of Utah peaches lying about; dumpster perfumes so fragrant; fruit just happy to be eaten. I reached for one and bit into the body, feeling fuzz upon my face with a river of sticky juice making a beeline down my cheek onto my clean white T-shirt. I chomped this peach with such gusto it enveloped the entirety of my jaw and my now very juicy hands. God, help me, this is heaven.

For some unknown reason, farmers had placed this over-abundance of produce in the back, leaving the bank completely unaware. There were also melons—cantaloupe, honeydew—and apples, too. Orange and green and red.

I loaded my two suitcases and my cart without even checking to see what I’d been allotted in my grocery basket. Fantastic surprise! Today there was goat cheese, lox and a 5lb bag of Starbuck’s dark roast coffee beans. My imagination could not keep up the visual of the treats I would be making for myself nor organize the symmetry of smells I knew were coming my way.

I began to giggle like a schoolgirl and decided to risk knocking on the garage door, which is taboo in food bank etiquette. “Could I please exchange everything in my basket for more coffee, lox and goat cheese?”

“Oh, sure” said the staff person. “We can’t get rid of that stuff anyway”.

Unbelievable. So there it was – my poverty feast, my smorgasbord of delight.

The factual knowledge that the farmer simply needed to unload extra fruit meant nothing to me. The mixture of perfumed smells; the magic colors of whole food; I knew that on this sultry day, this pain day, this beauty was meant for me.

I was leaving to walk back as I heard a volunteer call out, “Did you remember your cat food?”