By: Beverly Graham
Let Your Heart Break
Every day I tried to have at least 400 lunches to hand out. It usually took me about 5 hours to put the meals together and a half of an hour to hand them out. I always took extra food just in case someone came up after all the full lunch bags were gone. One day I simply ran out of food. I turned and looked and there were still a least 100 people in what felt like a never ending line. I was all of a sudden overwhelmed and distraught. I put my head down for a moment and then, embarrassingly, burst into tears. Not quiet running down your face silent tears, but heart wrenching, noisy sobs. I couldn’t stop. It was too much. The grief, the hunger, and the courage it took every day for many of them just to breathe. And I failed them… I let them down…
All of a sudden I was surrounded by the people. They were saying, “who hurt you lunch lady”…” tell us who hurt you”…Their care of me and concern for me made me cry even harder. Finally I choked out that no one had hurt me…that I had run out of food. I blubbered that I was sorry I let them down. And then arms went around me, and people were patting my back, squeezing my shoulders and saying “you didn’t let us down”, and “we love you lunch lady” and “you just can’t feed the whole world”… and I was surrounded in a cocoon of grace. That was the day my heart broke…wide open.
Besides handing out sleeping bags I also handed out new warm blankets. Blanket day was always stressful and the crowds around my van were very desperate. They would line up around the corner to get a blanket. Sometimes they would push and shove each other and I would get dinged. I am 4’11” and weigh 100 lbs. A crowd of 300 pushing people was a bit frightening so I would stand on the side step of my van in order to be seen and heard. I always had guardians around me that would say, “don’t worry Lunch Lady, as long as we are here, ain’t know one gonna hurt you!” And so I did not worry.
After one grueling day of 400 lunches, hygiene supplies, socks, and blankets, an elder man around 75 tottered up to my van for a blanket. I had just given the last one to a young man around 20. The younger man stood there for a moment looking down at his blanket, and then he glanced up at the older man. He walked over to him and said “here old man, you need this more than I do” and he handed him the blanket…
…giving away the only think of value that you have…This is where I learned true generosity.
One day I was handing out lunches out of the back of my van at the Lazarus Day Center when it was on Occidental, a store owner walked out from their storefront and started yelling at me for feeding so many people. She called the police and all the homeless folks circled me to keep me from harm. A friend of mine, Chris Pence, who is an attorney, was in a meeting at the top of his office building at the Smith Towers and his partner looked out of the window. He was drawn to the crowd a few blocks away and wondered what was going on. He looked at Chris and said “is that Beverly down there?”… And so they hiked down the four blocks to where I was encircled by a human wall. Two three piece suits introduced themselves to the police officers as my “Attorneys”. The police left…The store owner went back into her store. I gave everyone a lunch and the drama, that day, was over!
However, the Seattle police harassed me a lot in the early days of the program; 1989 to 1994. I was fined, cited, detained… One time on a very icy cold day, I walked across the street to give a lunch to a double amputee who couldn’t cross over the ice. I was given a ticket for Jay Walking. It was getting to be a battle of wills. The newspaper did a story about aggressive panhandlers and the editorial cartoon in the paper had a homeless man yelling at a tourist, “GIVE ME YOUR SPARE CHANGE”, as he grabbed him by the shirt collar. Behind him was a little short woman, looking suspiciously like me, reaching out with a lunch in her hand saying timidly “would you like a lunch?” The editorial suggested we should ship all the homeless people out of Seattle and get rid of all the “do gooders”… I had never thought of myself as a “do gooder”… The caption on the story was “Garbage in the Park”… I started bringing big black garbage bags with me and the guys would walk around the sidewalks picking up all the garbage they could find.
One particularly hard day with lots of people, lots of cops, and me; a white van squealed down the street and parked illegally across from where I was standing in the throng. A man jumped out of the van with a camera crew. He jay walked in front of the cops and walked over to me; his crew filming him all the while. He reached down and picked me up and held me in an enormous bear hug. This gallant knight in a beat-up news van was Ken Schram… Unbeknown to me he was a fan of my music…still is… and was following my unpopularity with the Seattle police and the merchants. That night Ken did an editorial that talked about Seattle’s inhumanity… The police stopped harassing me after that for a while, and I began a slow evolution towards understanding the view from the watchtower… I have had many hero’s!
Back in the early 1990’s many of the people who waited for me to arrive with food were a bit older; 35ish to 80. Most of them were men, some elderly women, a lot of them were veterans. There was a young man who showed up one day, he was around 20ish and very angry. He was big, mean, and wore gang colors. He stood to the side of the line screaming at me, calling me names. He screamed “these people don’t need your food bitch, they need a fucking job! Can you get them a fucking job?” He scared me a bit and he terrified the folks standing in line. On the third day I was so angry that I slammed down the back of my van and marched my 4 foot 11 inch self over to him…I looked up and up and said “I get it, you’re mad. But it is not OK to be mad at me… I am here to help. I don’t think I am better… I think we are all the same. You are scaring the people and they want me here. If you can’t do anything positive and useful, go away.” I marched back to my van, shaking, and finished handing out the food. He stopped yelling.
The next day I didn’t see him and I began handing out the lunches in peace. I had handed out 100 or so and looked up as I was handing the next one… The angry young man took the lunch from me. He shoved the lunch into his zipped up coat, stood there for a minute and then asked me, “do you need help?”… I looked at him for a moment, nodded my head and said “Yes I do”… He taught me how to let go of pride…