I walked along a side street in the downtown neighborhood known as Skid Row. Tents and lean-tos lined the sidewalk, so as much as possible, I kept to the middle of the street. I was grateful for the lack of traffic because I was scared to get too close to the tents. I was on my way to the Hippie Kitchen, a soup kitchen that has served the area since 1970. I had an appointment to conduct an interview, or so I thought.
Perhaps because I had been focused on not looking toward the tents, I got myself turned around. Soon I realized I had no clue how to get to the kitchen or even back to my car. As I walked, my apprehension grew. Finally, I had to make a choice. I could either keep walking aimlessly, or I could ask someone for help. This wasn’t an easy decision.
Around me, tents bobbed and swayed, indicating that people inside were awake. A woman, wearing dirty sweatpants and a formerly pink bathrobe, emerged from under a black tarp. Her pit bull followed. He ran straight toward me, wagging his whole behind and smiling from cheek-to-cheek. I couldn’t help but greet his grin with one of my own, and without hesitation, I kneeled to welcome him.
The woman approached more cautiously.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “Get over here,” she commanded.
“What’s his name?” I asked.
“Saunders,” she said. “He’s a little spoiled.”
My eyes shot to hers. I glanced at their makeshift tent and then back at Saunders. His tan and white fur glistened, his eyes were bright, and his weight was good.
I finally found my manners.
“Well, you’re lucky to have each other,” I said, standing.
The woman looked at Saunders, her eyes radiating love.
Finally, I asked for directions, and with her help, went on my way, keeping to the middle of the street.
Ahead of me, a tall man stood in my path. He wore baggy pants, a pajama shirt, and a too-small pinstripe jacket. He nodded his graying head, as if he liked what he saw.
“Pretty lady! How’s your morning?” His expression was playful.
“Just fine,” I said. “How about yours?”
“The Lord provides. Where you goin’?”
“The Hippie Kitchen,” I said.
“They’s good people.”
“That’s what I’ve heard.”
“You wanna get married?”
Perhaps because of the merriment in his eyes, or maybe because he had the style to wear a pinstripe jacket, I laughed. Not at him but because I knew he was having fun with me.
He laughed, too.
“I can’t today,” I said. “I have an appointment.”
“Okay, you can’t blame me for tryin’,” he said.
“I surely don’t.”
Paying less attention to where I walked, I found the Hippie Kitchen anyway, and was shown into the serving area, where volunteers greeted people while scooping beans and salad.
“Are you Kait?” a young woman asked. “Come on back. Put your stuff in the closet and then you can take over here.”
That was it. I was part of the crew. For several hours, men and women filed by with plates, bowls, and even bucket-sized containers. Some wanted just a little, others asked for more until their plates overflowed. Some requested the vegetarian option, most preferred their salad piled on top of the beans. Almost everyone smiled and engaged in small talk with the volunteers. A few kept their eyes averted, speaking little, if at all.
I asked the guy next to me what he did besides serve beans.
“I’m an actor,” he said.
Looking more closely, I recognized him. “Why are you here?”
He stopped scooping for a moment. “I do it to change me,” he said. “They’re okay. I need to work on me,” and went back to serving.
That’s what love does. It changes us, makes us more. It allows us to recognize that a pit bull and a pinstripe jacket and an enormous plate of beans all say, “I love you.”
That day, I went to Skid Row for an interview. But I ended up falling in love.