Where in world...?

An old friend phoned the other day. He never phones. But this time he just had to know: "What are you doing living in Florence?"
He thought I was in Florence, Italy. I told him it was Florence, Massachusetts.
Here are some answers -- my occasional wanderings through Florence, MA and the surrounding Pioneer Valley.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

The Interfaith Emergency Cot Shelter and Brisket

Last night's excursion would not normally be considered a destination for most visitors, but the Interfaith Emergency Homeless Shelter (often referred to as the Cot Shelter) on 43 Center Street in downtown Northampton is one of a number of emergency shelters available to those in need. My visit last night was my second one where I helped provide the evening meal to the night's residents.

It's not a glamorous place, located in the basement of an office building next to the police station. Last night we had twenty diners for our meal of corned beef brisket, macaroni and cheese, fruit, cheese and crackers, salad, bread, dessert, accompanied by milk, water, or apple cider. The dinner can be a bit potluck because different individuals bring the different parts of the meal. To make things even more random for the diners, each night's meal is the responsibility of a different group's members. Last night I was working as part of the League of Women Voters-Northampton Area, responsible for one night out of the month. We'd be unable to add any more days because there are no more open nights for us to give a meal. The first time I looked at the sign-in cards, back in January, I was amazed to see how many people in the area are eager to help out.

This shelter takes in the overflow of clients who are seeking shelter and services at another local shelter, the Grove Street Inn. Those who cannot be accommodated at the Grove Street Inn, and then the Cot Shelter, are asked to stay at a  shelter in Easthampton, the next town over. With only twenty spaces available at the Cot Shelter, it is not unusual to have people asked to check another shelter nearby. The Cot Shelter is available from November to April, the colder months when most people will be seeking shelter and hot meals. The night's diners are also resident for the night. 

For me, it was a chance to play restaurant again, as I once did on occasion back in the past. To be able to feed people is a great pleasure, and I will readily admit that when some of the diners came back for seconds, saying the meal was delicious, I was more than happy to help serve more to them. Not having to deal with the exchange of cash really helped, too, though replacing the choice attached to the financial power of paying is the lack of real choice in the meal.

Baked Corned Beef Brisket Ala Kevin the BBQguru
The lack of choice in the meal did not stop some diners from making requests. Some didn't want salad; some didn't want brisket; some wanted bread without butter; some only wanted one piece of brisket. One man who approached the server was unsure about brisket, claiming that because he had been raised in the South, his mother always told him that white meat was better than red meat. To me the requests were generally run-of-the-mill, not signifying finicky behavior but rather the assertion of individuality that was threatened with annihilation in their current circumstances. 

For another member of our team last night, however, this was not the same view. We cook the meals at home, serve the meals, and then clean up in the kitchen. As we bused the trays, many of which were heartily cleaned off by hungry diners, one tray came back nearly uneaten. The team member in question criticized the unknown diner, talking about him/her as if he/she had been a naughty child refusing to eat what he/she had requested, in this case, in a somewhat more generous portion. Two of us stopped to let her know that we cannot know if someone didn't feel well, or if the meal didn't agree with him/her for whatever reason. "Everyone has a different preference," I asserted, to this team member's silence. She was unwilling to let go of her motherly bias, that this person was asking for a lot and then wasting it. But she was also unwilling to acknowledge that we're dealing with grown adults who may have had corned beef a number of times in the last week, because we had just celebrated Saint Patrick's Day. In fact, today at the Stop and Shop Supermarket, I saw an abundance of these corned beef briskets for sale, and was terribly tempted. But I know that I don't want to eat it all the time, either.

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