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Wednesday, January 30, 2008

From the Trenches: Primary Experience.

by Gilbert Wesley Purdy

The Palanca Food Pantry shares its digs with Florida’s 3048th and 3056th precincts on election days. It’s quite an effort to resituate the Tuesday programs for the homeless, & etc., to the west side of the church so that voters may trickle comfortably into the doors on the east side.

As always, the pantry proper, during which we provide a box of food to take home (for the homeless, generally a camp in the woods), had been rescheduled. On this occasion, however, the word got out too late for many of the patrons to be informed of the change. My bad. I’d lost track of which Tuesday was primary day. As a result, Rosa, Cecilia and I spent the morning handing bags of food out of the kitchen door and loading deliveries into it; that and brewing continuous pots of coffee for ourselves and the dozen or so precinct volunteers.

I did actually have the presence of mind to call the Health District group, the day before, to tell them that the pantry would not be opening on the usual day. Under normal circumstances we set up a table for them the fourth Tuesday of every month. Tara was away from her desk so I left a voice mail. They arrived anyway. She has been out sick.

Dave, the new supervisor of 3056, had come to the church last Friday, during the community meal, to see if he could talk us into giving him a key to the building. He is apparently of Indian (as in the subcontinent) extraction with just a slight accent. His children were with him: a boy and a girl, very quiet and well behaved, with sparkling eyes. They looked like they had stepped out of a 21st century version of a Norman Rockwell painting.

The teams arrive at 6:00 AM. Maggie, the supervisor of 3048, already had a key, but I was more than happy to provide another in hopes that a knock would not come at my door at such an ungodly hour.

So then, I was able to sleep until the almost godly hour of 8:00 AM at which time I heard the bustle of the pantry patrons passing my door. I arrived in the kitchen to find the touch-screen voting machines, which had been delivered on Thursday, all on their stands, in the hall adjacent, and the volunteers all at their tables. The “Election Deputies” were posted outside the door to each precinct in their tired orange vests.

After the impromptu pantry, the St. Rita’s group showed up to serve lunch. The crowd was even larger than usual, but, apart from a bit of pushing and shoving, things went well enough. As everyone waited for their food I held mail call. (One of the many difficulties the homeless face is the lack of a mailing address.) One of the Sheriff’s Deputies who were covering the “feed” noticed my backwards Green Bay Packer cap and we analyzed our team’s season-ending loss to the Giants to death.

Clearing the property of meal patrons, after the feed, was more problematical. A----- (being a patron, his name will remain anonymous) has recently been kicked out of his parents’ home. He is a mild mannered young guy in his early twenties and lacks all but the simplest interpersonal and job skills. The currents of life carry him along wherever they will. His thought processes are profoundly confused, obsessive, magical.

The pantry being one of the few remaining places where he may be received with a kind word, A----- wants to remain now and be taken care of full time. He neither wants to seek a job nor has he any reason to believe that he can maintain one should he find one. All of his opportunities lie on the far side of years of intensive therapy and skills training none of which is available to him.

We did convince him to apply for jobs last summer and he did find one flipping burgers. His boss called him “stupid,” with some regularity, and in front of the other employees, though, and I spent many hours trying to advise him how he might handle the situation. A good deal of the time was spent explaining why punching the boss was the worst possible idea.

He’d run into "demons" before, A----- informed me. He "can see them." This one was trying to steal his spirit. He held on for several months. It is not clear whether he quit or was fired.

His situation having become still more desperate, now that he has no place to stay, A----- wandered over to the voters’ side of the building and huddled beneath the level of the shrubbery. When I came upon him and told him that it was time to clear the property he faintly nodded “okay”. As he dawdled, back on the pantry side, and was told again that it was time to leave, he asked to use the Port-o-Let, outside of which I stood, after some ten minutes had passed, calling him to come out. When he did eventually do so he slowly walked toward the road mumbling "’T’s a church, yuh son-of-a-bitch."

A----- has fathered two children.

By 3:00 PM it was just me and the precinct volunteers. There was not a voter to be seen. I put on another pot of coffee, as one of the volunteers cleaned her uppers in the kitchen, and announced the fact (of the coffee, of course) to cheers. The various snacks they’d left on a counter in the kitchen had largely survived the occasional wandering pantry patron.

As I emerged from the church office, having checked the Share Your Voting Experience opened thread, at the Palm Beach Post’s Florida Politics Blog, Maggie jumped up to play a few bars from a Beethoven concerto on the upright that we’ve been trying to get rid of forever. It was well played, actually, and the after-work rush of voters had failed to materialize. As supervisor, it was surely her responsibility to keep her people alert. She received a healthy round of applause.

I launched into a description of my relationship to the pantry in reply to a question from Carmen, the voting key-card validater, with whom I’ve shared the polling place experience for some years now. Fifteen minutes later I figured he’d had enough and released him from the results of his foolish mistake. How he kept a smile going for that long I don’t know.

The first few paragraphs of this piece were waiting for me back in the office toward which I retired. The hour of 7:00 PM was soon upon us and the voting machines being loaded back into their plastic cases. In less than a half hour the cases were secured onto the two carriers on which they had arrived (where they await the Division of Elections panel truck) and good byes being said. I was left with a sweatshirt, that I was to consider a “donation” if the volunteer who owned it did not return for it, and a gratifyingly quiet evening.

This article first appeared, on January 30, 2008, in the Talking Points Memo Café but was lost due to technical problems during a changeover of servers at that site.

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