Soul Food

When you're starving -- for help, for attention, for food -- everything's kosher.

But the food-bank business is not all Horatio Alger. According to Rob Sawyer, a core group of disabled clients are not too proud to call when they need something -- and they may well need something forever.

"Yeah, I just got a list," Rob says. "This guy needs toilet paper, coffee, any food I can spare, and I try to drive over there every other week. I think of them as the poorest Jews in town. Two brothers and a sister, in their fifties, living in the projects, and all three of them are developmentally disabled. They will never be independent, and it's not a fun thing to go to their home. It's dirty, it stinks, they all smoke and there's no air, and she screeches at me, and it's never gonna change. But so? I don't have to like someone to serve them, and I do like most of these people a lot."

So much so that it occasionally raises the question of who's serving whom.

"Phil and I were amazed at how much we have in common," Rob says of the fiftyish man with long white hair who is currently talking to a young couple with an infant and a simple request: Can they have some food? "Yeah, food stamps," Phil says derisively. "It's as if you don't matter and have no way to take care of yourself."

"It turned out we were both in Vietnam at the same time," Rob says. "We had done the same kind of thing."

"CIA and all that good stuff," Phil says, taking up the story. "Claire and I were living in her car when we came in here for food, and we didn't seem to fit into most people's programs. I'm Catholic, but Catholic Charities made me feel...well, like the VA did when I went down and told them I had leukemia and thought I'd been exposed to Agent Orange. They looked me up and told me I had died in Vietnam. Needless to say, I'm still fighting for my benefits. At Jewish Family Services, they just helped. So when we got on our feet, we started coming in to do that kind of work."

And they're not alone. A young man who left Moscow eight years ago, who was diagnosed with Hodgkin's disease and allowed to bring just one parent to this country, has also landed on his feet. Before he graduated from college, he worked part-time unloading potatoes at the Pantry, until funding ran out.

"But he doesn't need it anymore," Rob says. "He works with computers and makes twice as much money as I do. He used to come in for food for his grandmother, but today he brought food back. Oil and mayonnaise, he brought us. He knew."

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