|Photo courtesy of LMU: Magazine of Loyola Marymount University|
Gehenna: a valley below Jerusalem where children were sacrificed in fire to the Ammonite god, Moloch; a place or state of pain and torment.
At dawn, the temp is already in the high 70s with equal humidity as the Skid Row ghosts begin to stir. This is grit-blasted Los Angeles. The lost and forsaken crawl from dirty sleeping bags, cardboard boxes, portable toilets, cracks in the sidewalk, every alley and doorway. Take 6th Street down from the 110 and watch the landscape shift from old masonry buildings to dead brown blight, and there the ghosts come out. They shuffle into the street, they ignore traffic lights, they mumble their prayers, they search for food or smack or a bottle. Seven a.m. is never too early to get fucked up on Skid Row.
There is a circuit, a grand master plan for most of the people on the street in that fifty square block hell in the middle of the city of angels: find relief, even if it’s temporary. The human inhabitants know which soup kitchen is serving today. They know where to find alcohol and drugs. They have their haunts and their fixes, and as the heat and humidity climb, the misery can only be relieved in small increments.
The Catholic Worker Hospitality Kitchen, or Hippy Kitchen, as it is sometimes called, sits on the corner of Gladys and 6th. I had to circle the block twice because I kept missing it. There are trees and fresh paint on the walls; therefore, the place looks more like an oasis in a desert, but I was too distracted by the people roaming around with their carts and detritus. I had to avoid inadvertently running someone over, because they did not care that a car was coming. On my second go-round, I pulled to the curb outside a nursery school. A nursery school!—who would leave their children here? People were lined up like logs on the sidewalk, most of them unconscious, although a few were rubbing their eyes and staring at me. I walked a half block back and crossed Gladys. A woman was washing down the courtyard outside the kitchen. “Hey,” I called out to her. “Where’s the entrance to the Catholic Worker?”
“Down there by the open gate,” she said, gesturing down Gladys. Two black guys with their carts blocked the sidewalk between me and the open chain-link gate.
“Hey, dude,” one of them called out to me. “You gotta go in there.” He pointed toward the same opening. I thanked him and tried to squeeze between the two carts loaded with bedding and junk.
Once inside, I met up with Mike who was handing out assignments for the day. When he noticed me, I stuck out my hand and told him my name. “Yeah, I need you to start buttering some bread,” he said. I noticed he had hearing aids. The other volunteers had already started chopping onions, and large pots were lined up on the stove. Mike took me to the prep area of the kitchen and showed me boxes and bags of bread. It looked like the bread restaurants serve on their tables. Now I knew what happened to whatever the customers did not eat. Other bags contained whole loaves. Mike handed me off to a woman named Anne who explained the process. She set up my workstation with a brick of room-temperature margarine, a dull knife, and a laundry basket. Bread gets buttered and then stacked in the basket. When the basket is jammed to the top, put a plastic bag over it and tie it up. Wear a hair net and a set of gloves made of Saran wrap. I donned my gear and began slathering.
Almost immediately, my back started raising hell. I saw a wooden stool nearby and pulled it over to sit. I’ve never had any problem buttering bread, but the heat was rising and the margarine smelled like rancid fat. My shirt was already greasy with margarine, coated with crumbs, and soaked with sweat. My Saran Wrap fingers poked holes through the thin sheeting, so I had to keep re-gloving. The margarine and the plastic also made my hands slippery, so I could not get a grip on the knife. The other volunteers around me seemed to move about their business effortlessly, with the finely honed skills of people who did this three times a week. I felt like a lightweight with my aching back and my useless, clumsy fingers. However, in quick time my workmates and I had three laundry baskets full of bread, and we had utilized five bricks of margarine. I also noticed the other volunteers ate constantly, grabbing a piece of buttered bread here, or a meatball from a tray over against the wall. I had no appetite whatsoever, but the regulars seemed to relish eating. They encouraged one another to try one dish or spoon from a pot. They sampled like family members gathered in a kitchen at Thanksgiving, while I tried to fight the flip-flops in my stomach.
The bread was stored on a wire shelf to await distribution. Next came the bell peppers, great trays of them, which I had to dice up with one of the most profoundly dull knives I have ever used. And the peppers were rotted, for the most part. Mike told me to cut off the bad bits and salvage what I could, then dice what I had left and transfer the pieces to another large tray. I kept cutting my gloves, requiring frequent re-gloving. My fingers were safe; I could not have cut skin if I wanted to. The rot on the outside of the peppers often extended into the flesh of the interior, and some of it looked like pus. I’d cut into the bad and a white-green oily fluid would seep out. I tried to seed them as well, but the tiny grains kept sticking to my plastic-wrapped fingers. The woman next to me hacked her way through several trays of zucchinis, which were rubbery and covered in dark spots. These vegetables were the throwaways from supermarket produce sections. There was enough good vegetable material to feed an army, but with the rotted parts, no paying customer would buy produce in this condition.
Mike called all of us to put down our knives and utensils and gather around the table in the main kitchen area. We formed a circle and held hands, praying aloud for the homeless we would soon be serving, for justice in the world and on the streets, for changes in government policy to remedy the suffering and misery of so many people. Mike asked the volunteers for petitions, and a big, bearded man shouted out, “How about for Gary Kasparov.” His request threw me for a minute. “He got hauled in for questioning by the Russian police.” I realized he meant the chess player. I found out later that the petitioner was a big chess fan and often played matches with some of the homeless diners out on the patio once serving was done for the day.
“And let’s not forget the Pussy Riot girls,” Jeff, the leader of the organization shouted. Again, it took me a minute to realize he was referring to the arrests of a protesting punk rock group in Russia for criticizing the Putin government. We closed with the Lord’s Prayer and returned to our kitchen jobs.
Back chopping my vegetables, I heard volunteers around me talk about “actions,” as in, “We have an action scheduled for next week at the nuclear power plant.” The goal of these actions was to get arrested. That, for the volunteers, was the Holy Grail, and a source of pride. Jeff Dietrich, both in print and in public, speaks of getting arrested and going to prison as a badge of honor. He rails against LAPD violence and brutality on the streets of Skid Row. Jeff does not like authority. Listening to the other volunteers talk about getting arrested or dragged away to a holding cell, it was evident that rebellion and even anarchy are goals considered admirable in the Catholic Worker world. Over the years, Jeff and his band have chained themselves to bulldozers to protest the new cathedral built by the L.A. Archdiocese; they have encroached on the grounds of nuclear testing sites; and they have poured blood and oil on the steps of the federal building in Westwood while praying the rosary. Feeding the poor and offering them medical and other assistance are a necessary part of Catholic Worker action, but protesting against all forms of human abuse and degradation, including war, violence, and weaponry, is also high on the volunteers’ priority list.
With the cooking nearly complete, we gathered once more around the main kitchen table for prayer and serving assignments. Today’s main course was tuna noodles. The smell of onions was still so overpowering in the kitchen that my eyes were burning, even with fans running to blow out the fumes. I was assigned to “water the tables,” which meant drawing pitchers of water from large trash barrels. Big bowling ball-sized chunks of ice floated in the water. The heat and humidity required that we keep up the hydration of the clients, since they could become sick from their day on the streets. After everyone had an assignment, the doors were opened to the line that stretched down the block. I had only a second to glance at the shambling ghosts waiting patiently for their bread and noodles. They were people of color, mainly, and they had the faraway stares of soldiers who had been in the theater of war too long with death and destruction. The words from Allen Ginsberg fire-flashed in my mind: “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix.” Many looked down and away, but in the eyes of the ones who stared back at me, I saw bleak emptiness, “with the absolute heart of the poem of life butchered out of their own bodies…”
I grabbed my pitcher and a stack of paper cups and began to “water the tables.”
Gehenna (Part II) will be posted here soon and will deal with the rest of the day at the Catholic Worker Hospitality Kitchen on Skid Row, Los Angeles.