Soul Food

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

Glendale is a desert, and the man in battered denim is a wandering Jew, identifiable by the fringes hanging below his T-shirt. "I've spent a couple thousand hours studying Torah," he confirms. "It keeps me focused on something other than this pain of mine. Don't use my name."

His hair is prematurely white, his eyes are bloodshot, and he scratches himself constantly, a side effect of the morphine addiction he acquired after he was injured in a truck accident three years ago. Now, after living on the street for two years, he has finally secured a room and a car that runs. Every Wednesday, he drives that car to the Kosher Food Pantry, where he picks up whatever he can carry out.

"It's a little family here," he says of the small storefront on Louisiana Avenue. "These are the people who virtually kept me alive when my real family abandoned me. Not only do I get food, but I get a place where I can sit down and talk and have a ginger ale or whatever. If the world was full of people like Rob, the guy who runs this place, we wouldn't need social services at all."

Today, talk over ginger ale will range from near-paranoid delusion -- Why won't this man's family stop him from "living like an animal"? Where are his three ex-wives when he needs them? -- to the volatile state of the economy, to Talmudic analysis.

"For instance, I used to be kosher, but I found I couldn't get enough food to stay alive that way," the wandering Jew reveals. "Last week my kid said, 'Why don't you keep kosher anymore?' And I told him, 'When you're starving, everything's kosher.'"

This is a true statement, judging from an informal survey of the room's other occupants: the elderly woman who fled the Soviet Union and is now stacking boxes of day-old coffee cake alongside the canned goods, containers of Advil, frozen turkeys and Bisetti's New York Cheesecakes just a little past their prime; the client-turned-volunteer who was once ordained a Jesuit priest. You can look it up, they say: The God of Moses likes you better alive and un-kosher than dead and observant.

Everyone's looking forward to the next discussion topic, even if it repeats from one week to the next or turns out to be the inevitable deconstruction of the Cold War. But the conversation can't really start without Arnold, who is 85 and still drives himself to the Pantry for weekly infusions of food.

"Although you should see that car," someone points out. "He scares us to death every time he drives down here."

Once out of the car, Arnold perambulates with the aid of a wheeled walker, moving so slowly down the sidewalk that he may well seem like a mirage to the Hooters girls arriving for work fifty yards away. When he finally reaches the door, ten of his closest friends rush to open it.

"Look," he says to Rob Sawyer, the Pantry's director. "I got an impacted bowel today, so I don't know what you got for me that I can eat."

"For you, I got some gefilte fish," Rob replies, using phrasing that he learned in here, as opposed to in his Christian youth in Westchester County. "Also, tomato juice. How's that?"

"It'll work," Arnold says, looking pleased -- but not feeling well enough to stick around for the usual discussion.

"Too bad," Rob says. "He's pretty frail, but he's definitely still got a mind." A shmooze with Arnold is always satisfying, he adds: Not only does it provide intellectual stimulation, but also day-to-day predicaments that aren't impossible to fix.

"We like to do that around here," Rob muses. "Solve the emergency. Not send them anywhere else, not wait for them to fill out paperwork -- just simply do what needs to be done. It's what we call a 'non-welfare model.'" And he should know, having worked for state social services agencies for almost two decades before coming to Jewish Family Services, the organization that runs the Pantry and is based two blocks away.

Arnold's wife died two years ago, leaving him alone in their house, with his tenuous health and a mortgage payment that is $160 more than he receives from Social Security each month. "But all his books are at his house, and he's a very self-sufficient guy," Rob says. "Basically, he thinks he'd die if he had to give up his home." Fortunately, Arnold never had to: Rob marshaled a force of volunteer carpenters to remodel Arnold's basement, found a tenant to rent it for enough cash to cover the mortgage, then paid the cost of a housecleaning service out of his own pocket. In the process, nary a bureaucratic t was crossed nor an i dotted.

Despite the implication of the Jewish Family Services name -- not to mention the Pantry's "kosher" label -- clients, employees and volunteers are not necessarily Jewish, or even religious. In fact, Rob says, although the Pantry initially was envisioned as a stopgap measure for impoverished senior citizens, most of them observant Jews from the U.S. and Russia, it quickly outgrew that mission.

"We've been here seven, eight years, and it was supposed to be completely kosher," he explains, "but it's a bit of a mislead. We have some kosher food available, and we try not to have pork or shellfish, but we also try not to restrict it, because we need to feed as many people as we can. What we try to provide is nutritional food for seniors -- a lot of whom just immigrated here, say, and are short of money. And these are people who are proud: It would be hard for them not to pay the electrical bill, but if they don't eat, no one notices. Hunger is something you can hide if you're proud."

The Pantry is open only on Wednesdays. The rest of the time, Rob can be found operating his one-man safety net at Jewish Family Services: administering the distribution of $45,000 in emergency funds, food, rent assistance and transportation each year; listening to the hard-luck stories that he insists are increasingly common, despite the recent economic boom.

"These are the working poor we're talking about," he says. "This past year, I helped out nearly 100 percent more single-parent families than I did the year before. It's the increase in rent and living expenses. You have to earn $11 or $12 per hour to make it in this town, and these are people -- say, a woman abandoned by a skilled worker -- in the $7-to-$10 bracket. It doesn't take much to slip into a crisis -- an illness, or your car breaks down. If you earn $7.50 per hour, you don't get assistance, and if you're also dealing with a deadbeat dad, you're in trouble. As for the seniors, the old-age pension in Colorado is $546 per month. Even five years ago, that would be enough to make rent -- when rent was $400 to $450. In Glendale these days, it's up around $675."

The discouraging math is compounded by the fact that many Russian immigrants sign a voluntary waiver of Social Security and food-stamp benefits as a way of making themselves seem less of a burden in the eyes of immigration officials. And a burden is the last thing that the Russian immigrants Rob knows would want to be.

"They take care of each other," he explains. "We have a complex distribution of Russian seniors dividing up food and bringing it to other Russian seniors, who otherwise wouldn't know we exist. If anything's unfair, we hear about it. We even have Russian volunteers who make sure we're packing up food Russians will actually eat. They don't, for instance, understand why anyone would eat peanut butter. But they love oil, mayonnaise, cabbage, potatoes, onions..."

"Greasy, potato salad-y things," adds Dan Haykin, a nineteen-year-old volunteer whose parents immigrated from Belarus when he was two months old. "I unloaded 500 pounds of potatoes today, and I don't think you'll have any trouble getting rid of them. I'm in the physical condition to do that kind of stuff, and I like it."

Not that he has any choice in the matter: Dan is here performing the last of forty hours of community service he incurred after cooking a can of chili over an open fire during last summer's fire ban. "It was sheer stupidity," he admits, "and I also got a district attorney in a very bad mood. But I have to say, it strikes close to home for me, being here. At first they sent me over to shelve books at the library, and I was like, forget it, I want to see the people I help. I want to drive some pain-in-the-ass old guy back home with his groceries and speak Russian to him and the babushkas. It's what you do."

Although Dan is too young to remember eating food handouts, he came here many times to pick up supplies for elderly relatives who arrived at regular intervals from Russia. "I know we all lived in one room, and I remember being poor; I just don't remember it mattering," he recalls. "I have a set of grandparents who still come here for food once in a while -- they've been here only a few years, and one of them has real bad diabetes. I have another grandma and an aunt who live together. She has a lot of mental disease, and they barely get by. There was a time when my dad would come here to pick up food for them."

If that time has come and gone -- both Dan and his sister attend high-rent Eastern colleges -- it's because of their father's classic immigrant experience. "We kid him because he still speaks totally broken English," Dan says, "but at the same time he wasn't learning the American language, he became fascinated with American economics. In a socialist system, the government gives you something and you say thank you. Here, he realized, you could invest, and that's what he did, and he did exceptionally well. Finally, he gave up his job as an electrical engineer and went into business as an investment advisor for other immigrants. And it's a good thing, because someone always has to be available to drive these old relatives around to their doctor's appointments and make sure they have food."

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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