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Both Sides Of The Food Line
an article published in News Notes, January 1996
By Greg Lay
The Catholic Worker operates its kitchen and dining room from the St. Vincent de Paul/Paul Mirabile Center, which lies across the street from the St. Vincent de Paul/Joan Kroc Center on 15th and Imperial. Old warehouses flank the Mirabile center on the north; trolley tracks run down Commercial Street on the south. Two towers, one set back from the front and four stories high, the other shorter and standing in front, dominate the middle of the three-story center; the base is tan. Milky-tomato-soup-colored steps lead up toward the front tower, kelly-green window frames and handrails punctuate the facade, red tiles make up the roof, and square green slate lines the bottom of the building. Two streetlights, looking as if they've been imported from the Gaslamp Quarter, stand guard at opposite sides of double doors. Five young palm trees spread flimsy arms at measured intervals.

Until 1990 the local Catholic Worker was a soup caravan. Volunteers started serving meals in San Diego by 1979; a USD student named Julia Doughty had been making meals and taking them downtown to homeless. She approached Father Jim Rude of Christ the King, who had worked with Dorothy Day in New York, to ask if she could use the parish kitchen. Father Rude said that Altar Society ladies ran the kitchen.

So Doughty asked Alice Smith, who still helps out at the Catholic Worker as kitchen coordinator. She ran the kitchen at Christ the King and recalls, "I questioned Julia and asked 'Who are the homeless?' and she said, 'The street people.' I said, 'Who are the street people?' She told me, 'These people who live downtown.' I'd never heard of street people. I'm from the South, I was born in Louisiana, and at that time they called them hobos. I didn't know that we had that kind of situation here in San Diego." Alice Smith brought it up to the board, and it agreed to Doughty's proposition. Smith asked Doughty how old she was. Doughty told her 20. Smith told her, "Well, let me tell you, honey, anybody 20 years old and trying to do something for someone else, I'm 100 percent for it."

Jane Emerson [was] the current president of the local Catholic Worker. "I have to communicate with the various people who run the kitchen, who get printing done for us, I sort of have to supervise it and be sure that everything is working. And so sometimes I have a week where it's a 40-hour week, and then I have a couple of days off. It's wonderful. I wouldn't pass it up for anything." She heard Dorothy Day give a talk at College of St. Catherine in St. Paul, Minnesota, when Emerson was 19. She mentions that Dorothy Day came out to visit San Diego where Emerson has lived since 1944. Day never thought of starting a Worker in San Diego in those days. The city didn't need it, unlike New York, Chicago, Atlanta, and Los Angeles.

Doughty sent out postcards to everybody that she knew received the New York Catholic Worker paper and announced that she was going to have this meeting. Emerson went to the meeting. They cooked at Christ the King and served at Sixth and Market at Episcopal Community Services. The first time they served lunch they had 75 people. Emerson recounts, "Then the next time it was 80, and then there was 90, and it just went up until we were serving several hundred. It just mushroomed."

Alice LaBarre who met Dorothy Day through a friend who taught at what is now SDSU in 1942 calls to mind the beginning. "We had big pots of soup, ten gallons. We transported them by car. It was really crazy. We could have gotten scalded but nobody ever did." The Catholic Worker didn't have their food donated then. Alice Smith remembers how the pots would gradually get filled. "A lot of times we didn't know what we were going to serve the next day. We would just meet there at the kitchen and finally somebody would come and we'd have our pots and whatever we had, with bones boiling, and as Dorothy Day said then it was what she called 'stone-soup.' So everybody came and put something in the pot."

From cooking their meals at Christ the King they have moved to St. Joseph's Cathedral, the Church of the Brethren, the El Cortez Motor Lodge, Our Lady of the Rosary, the Presbyterian Young Peoples Group at State College. They moved back to St. Joseph's Cathedral and Our Lady of the Rosary for second runs. They even cooked at an auto parts store on 16th Street for a while. They served the meals at Eighth and J at a warehouse which they rented from the Salvation Army. On the constant moving Emerson comments, "Naturally, any place that we serve the food, there will be lines of people, and the neighboring businessmen or residents would become upset. And of course if we were established we wouldn't have to move but it just happened that somebody would buy the building right out from under us. The building at Sixth and Market is still vacant after ten years. That's crazy. Well, you have to understand those people. They have a living to earn. America's finest city is not America's most loving city."

Tired of transporting cooked food seven or eight miles, they asked Bishop Maher if he could find them a permanent place with a kitchen and a dining room together. St. Vincent de Paul was beginning to go ahead with its homeless shelter and kitchen. So in 1990 the Catholic Worker shared a kitchen with St. Vincent de Paul at the Joan Kroc Center. St. Vincent de Paul cooked breakfast and dinner. The Catholic Worker cooked lunch. The two were sandwiched together.

The Paul Mirabile Center opened two years ago, and the Catholic Worker permanently employs three men to help run the kitchen. Rocky Messina, who looks like Chicago Bulls basketball coach Phil Jackson but with dark straight hair combed back, is called the food service manager. He's not a cook, but he gets to the kitchen at about 5:30 a.m. to receive the food and get things ready. St. Vincent's pays for the cook, Dante Pajarillo. Harold Roberts is the dishwasher who goes by the name Kenny. Chuck Bridge is in charge of the dining room.

At 10:30 the volunteers have a chance to eat and sample Pajarillo's cooking. On some days he makes fajitas with strips of beef, onions and bell peppers. He combines this with a separate serving of rice. Other days he prepares stew made with beef, peas, potatoes, carrots, and onions. He serves this with rice also. He makes ravioli with ground beef and tomato sauce. I could discern all the ingredients which in large kitchens tend to blend into one food heap. The food was neither spicy nor bland.

The Catholic Worker decided about eight years ago to declare nonprofit or 501(c)(3) status. Alice Smith explains, "Any time the government gets involved it gets too political as far as I'm concerned. We have to have a secretary, a president, and a bookkeeper. That's for the nonprofit status. Otherwise we could do like we were doing before we took the 501(c)(3). Like my husband said, if Dorothy Day were living now she would take it too, because we need that Department of Agriculture food and to have that you had to be nonprofit."

As I drive to the automatic security door at the back of the building, I see dental chairs and large file cabinets containing medical records through the windows. I park next to a play house for children painted in bright primary colors. In this rear parking lot is the back entrance into the kitchen.

Inside the back door two huge cooking vats stand out, though there is a table standing between them and the entrance. To the left is the kitchen office. On the door of the kitchen office is an icon of Dorothy Day done by an iconographer who has painted Thomas Merton, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Mahatma Gandhi, and Archbishop Romero. The Greek letters on the icon spell out "Hagia Dorothea," "Holy Dorothy." The icon depicts her holding a copy of the Catholic Worker and at the bottom her title is "Dorothy Day of New York." A wall with two large openings through which food is served separates kitchen from dining area. On the kitchen side, bays from which the food is served line the openings. Behind the openings, cooking vats resembling large pressure cookers take their place. A wall in the middle of the kitchen behind the vats divides the kitchen.

I had worked in fast-food restaurants, and I know how it turns people into drones; here I encountered something else. Grace and Marla I met first. They were in the back corner of the kitchen opposite the office door cutting mushrooms and tearing lettuce. Marla was grinding up some greens so the salad would be fresher.

Past the kitchen is the dining room where Chuck Bridge has his domain. The dining room encompasses roughly 5000 square feet. Nineteen tables, each with 12 seats, make rows on the south and north ends of the room. At the south end a railing guides the needy to serving windows.

Those who help operate the kitchen include kitchen coordinators, such as Alice Smith and Jane Emerson, the three employees and cook, and volunteers. The volunteers either live at St. Vincent de Paul and are giving back or they come from the outside and merely want to serve.

Bob lives in Hillcrest on general relief. As part of receiving benefits, he has to volunteer at the Catholic Worker, since he is not working. He receives $294 a month which helps him pay $300 rent. He says it is better than living out on the streets. He attends Alcoholics Anonymous meetings twice a week at 6:30 a.m. He says he does not drink but attends for spiritual support. For food he collects food stamps. When he runs out of them, he searches trash bins for food.

Rosco and James are two black men working the food line with me one day. I see Rosco on other days taking his meal from the other side of the line. Today is his turn to give back. James used to help out with the food at the VA hospital. He shouts out from time to time "fine line, fine line," something he and his fellow workers chant to help quicken the day. To serve on the line we must wear plastic gloves. Rosco puts a plastic fork and a napkin on the tray and slides it to me. I put fruit salad and then James puts rice on it. James encourages me to be more generous with fruit salad. He recognizes some of those in line. He inquires how things are going and tells them to hang in there. Others he asks if they would like their plate a little more filled out.

Andy is a Chicano who tells me about the living quarters upstairs. The women live on the third floor. Men from the second floor cannot get on the third floor and vice versa. The center furnishes residents with a big-screen TV with cable. The tenants watch mostly sports. Some annoy the others by hollering during the games. Andy tells me he thinks that some are not poor but live there to save money. They sleep in bunk beds which are located in cubicles.

Karla is a freshman biochemistry major at USD from Santa Maria. She is part of the campus ministry program. She provides a ride every Thursday for those students who need community service hours for their fraternity's, sorority's, or club's requirements. Though she is taking 17 units, she volunteers her time.

Bennie is a Guamanian woman who puts on a fiesta at St. Jude's. Her friends know her as "Girl." The fiesta is an annual affair and in its eleventh year. She invites me to go, but I am unable. Two thousand people attended. The Guamanians from St. Jude donated the statue of Santa Marian Camarin which stands in St. Joesph's cathedral on the left side of the nave as you face the altar. Near Camarin in Guam two fishermen noticed a statue of a beautiful lady. They tried to catch hold of it in their nets, but the statue would back away. The fishermen realized they weren't wearing shirts, so they put them on and tried again. This time the statue let them catch her. Bennie serves the salad every Thursday. She tells me to take the cookies which are crowded in a bin and lay them out in rows on a metal sheet, so they'll appear fresher and more edible.

Alice calls herself the "bagel queen," because she hands out bagels. She comes from St. Pius parish. She tells about a man who comes through the food line who is handsome enough to have been an actor. One day I finally see him.

Archie is a black volunteer in the kitchen. The day I was serving fruit salad, as I was running out, I turned around to yell out that I needed some more. Archie was already holding the container right behind me. He cleans the large cooking pots when the meal has been served and cleans the floors. After about two weeks, Archie notices that I still call him by his name, "You still remember my name?"

Mike is a volunteer who does any kind of work he's instructed to do. He reminds me from time to time to praise God. At the end of the day he cleans floors with Archie. They call the process "throwing water." After Archie finishes cleaning large cooking pots, he runs hot water through them. They throw soapy water (which they get from the dishwashing room) and scrub the floor with hard, bristly brooms. Next they take hot water from the clean cooking pots and rinse the floors. After a run-over with a squeegee the floors look good. One day a man comes into the kitchen after serving lunch. He is wearing jeans that Mike compliments him on. Mike asks what size they are. The man tells him his size; there is talk of a trade. The man tells Mike that he cannot make the trade on account of the size difference, but he takes Mike's name and promises to bring a pair that will fit Mike.

The majority of the homeless are black, most middle age or in their twenties. They laugh at corny comments I make while I'm serving them. One fellow wears a purple shirt which is the same hue as one I'm wearing. I say, "Nice shirt!" and point to mine. He breaks out in a laugh. Two days after Halloween a food donor gives the kitchen orange-and-black-colored tortilla chips. Alice asks if I want to distribute them. Many ask me what they are. I say, "Tortilla chips. Happy Halloween!" Some take the chips. Others joke back, "What I don't recognize, I don't eat."

Billy is a handsome black baby boy. His mother says that he is a year and two days old. He receives a lot of attention from the volunteers before the meal begins. He seems intrigued by the odd looking plastic-webby things they wear on their hands. One black man also in his 60s, with his eyes closed, moves his head back and forth. A black man in his 70s eats his lunch in a wheelchair. One of his legs has been amputated. Unlike the 60-year-old, this man has family there to take care of him. A couple of men on my first day are wearing slacks, tie, dress shorts and jackets. I asked Bob why they were dressed that way. He told me they were looking for jobs.

All of the poor must receive a meal ticket before they get in line for their meal. These are handed out outside before the Worker opens its doors at 11:00. The kitchen is open for lunch from 11:30 to 12:30. Towards the end of meal many head for a second or third helping.

Before lunch the volunteers enter the dining area and join hands. Some of the poor join in. We all look at each other to see who the brave soul is to offer thanks to God. Someone commences a prayer and lunch can begin.

* * *

The Catholic Worker serves about 700 to 1000 people a day. Jane Emerson says, "I would like the Catholic Worker in San Diego to be able to get out this mass feeding, because, as far as is possible, we relate to our guests and we try to visit, smile, be courteous, and patient and listen, but it isn't like what a Catholic Worker Community ordinarily has. [It should have] a large residence where half a dozen people live in community and invite the indigent in to eat and if they have room, they put homeless people up."

The Worker did have a house where homeless stayed, but the Worker members never used it as a community base. Recently they sold it. It was a halfway house for men. Last year small and large shelters were not fully used in San Diego, which was strange because the people were out there. Emerson says, "They evidently found other ways that they preferred."

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San Diego Catholic Worker is a
501 (c)(3) non-profit organization and is part of the Catholic Worker Movement.