Short takes on science, business, health, agriculture and possibly the kitchen sink

Robert Wise   email  
Two Years on at the Soup Kitchen
It's nothing like those depression-era photographs

"What's the count, Mr. Bob?" Andy called out from the steam table.

"Seventy-eight," I replied, checking the pile of numbered wooden "tickets."

"Seventy-eight. Not bad at all, y'all!"

We had served meals to 78 patrons and several volunteers in the first hour of luncheon. The second hour would bring the total near 150.

Andy, a tall, youthful looking black man, filled plates with a cheese rollup and a hot dog each. Sally, a short black lady who started work here the same day I did, added green beans and pork'n'beans. Consuela, a very short Hispanic volunteer in her 70s, offered patrons their choice of salad or fruit cocktail. Standing to her right, I exchanged a glass of kool-aid for each ticket, and offered a choice of desserts from a dozen-plate tray.

I should have been shorter than Consuela to continue the trend, but instead I'm tall enough to have to adjust the pots on the overhead rack to keep from banging my head. I had worked as a volunteer Thursday mornings since February, 2015. I could recognize about a hundred of our regular patrons. I knew a few names and nicknames and a little of their backgrounds from conversation and hearsay, though not closely acquainted with any. (The names mentioned here are fictitious.)

We used to call the cheese rollups "lasagne rolls", and sometimes joked that they were lobster rolls, but the real name eventually won through. Though originally frozen, they were not bad; I've had similar pasta entrees in Italian restaurants. The kool-aid today was cherry, which for some reason is messier than any other flavor.

Consuela and I worked at a counter in front of a large pass-through window facing the inside dining room. Patrons entered from a covered porch outside, passing through a breezeway between the kitchen and stockroom. The porch doubled as an outdoor dining area with picnic table seating. Behind us, the radio was playing at a moderate volume, tuned to a station with a mix of rock, pop, blues and country.

"Sally, we got a lady in a wheelchair," Joe called from the kitchen door.

Joe was the head cook, a short black man with a deep, throaty voice and a southern accent stronger than mine. I couldn't always understand him, between his accent and my lousy hearing, but we managed to communicate. He had left Andy to manage the serving line, and was moving stock around, checking the dining areas and cleaning occasional spills.

Sally checked where the lady was sitting, then collected a plate, dessert, drink and plastic ware to carry out to her.

A chunky young white man appeared at the window, followed by his wife or girlfriend, both in baseball caps.

"Here you are, sir," I said as I placed his drink on the counter, "Which dessert would you like?"

After some discussion with his lady, he chose a piece of apple pie. Consuela was holding his plate.

"You want salad or fruit?" she asked.

He pointed to the salad. She added it, then pushed the plate onto the window shelf.

Consuela was too short to reach all the way to the shelf. During the first few days we worked together, I took plates from her and put them on the counter, but this meant watching her progress on each plate, and I would get behind on pouring drinks or stocking the dessert tray. So I stopped trying to help, and she managed well enough on her own.

The young man began to salt and pepper his plate, from the condiments arrayed to the side of the pass-through shelf. We didn't keep any on the tables.

"Remember, you guys," said Andy, "Don't put another plate out until the last person has finished seasoning his food. We don't need to be in a hurry. I don't say it loud, 'cause I don't want to be mean, but ain't nobody in here gonna be late to work."

Less than a minute to serve each patron, but we didn't rush them. Andy had prepared meals for thousands on the Nimitz, so feeding 150 in two hours didn't seem much of a challenge to him.

After the young lady came Barbershop, a tall, middled aged black man with a graying beard, who I sometimes passed bicycling on the sidewalk.

"How you-all doing today?" he asked.

"Just fine," Consuela and I said, almost in chorus.

"Like some cake or pie?" I asked.

"Let me have that piece of pound cake, in the middle, in back," he said, reaching a hand in the window to point.

"Don't put your hand through the window, please," I said, passing him the pound cake.

"Barbershop!" Sally scolded, wagging a finger at him, "Can't you read that sign? It's been there ever since you started coming here."

An 8"x11" sign in one-inch letters told patrons not to reach beyond the glass partition. Barbershop grinned and feigned putting his hand through again. Sally grimaced and pointed an accusing finger at him.

The ice was thinning out in the 10 gallon vat of kool aid.

"Consuela, can you watch the drinks and desserts for a minute while I get some ice?" I asked.

"Sure," she said.

I rolled my cart, with the kool aid vat and sleeves of cups, back to the ice machine in the stockroom. The sheets of little ice cubes had to be broken up with the scoop before adding to the kool aid. I would be dipping kool aid from the vat with a pitcher, then pouring cupfuls; a sheet of four cubes had to be watched, and larger ones would be too big for the cup.

"Hey, Andy! You cooking today?" came a voice from behind me.

Pig Man was standing in the kitchen door- a tall, tanned white man with a bushy moustache and slightly bulbous nose. He hunted wild hogs and sold the meat. Also fed a domestic hog or two on his home property. Joe sometimes gave him spoiled food for the hogs.

"Hey, Pig Man! Sure, I'm cooking"

"I just wanted to make sure Joe wasn't cooking," said Pig Man with a grin.

Joe yelled out something from the dining room, drawing a laugh from everyone who understood him (everyone but me).

Pig Man was the only patron who would never choose a dessert.

"It don't matter," he said, "Any one of 'em will do."

I passed him a slice of apple pie. There were no more patrons behind him. I poured a few cups of kool-aid, rounding out the nine I liked to keep lined up, and waited.

Lifting a single cup off a stack of fifty takes a light touch, just the slightest friction. Apply any pressure, and you get two cups or more, which means you have to put down the pitcher and use both hands to separate cups.

"I didn't see Stu today," I said to Andy.

"I haven't seen him for a few days. I hope he's OK."

Stu was usually first in line. A tall white man with a bushy afro haircut, he always arrived early in the morning. He seemed in good health, always cheerful, and would help unload the boxes and shelve the bread and desserts when carloads of donations came in.

I heard that he lived with his mother in a tent, in a former hobo jungle along the tracks about four miles north. I'd often see him riding his bike in that part of town or near the library.

I often wondered why he was here. Like many other patrons, he looked to be able-bodied and capable of holding a job- would make a good employee, in fact, with his attitude. Disabilities aren't always visible, of course. But he didn't appear to be an addict, showing up alert and active early in the morning after a 20-30 minute bike ride.

A young black man in sunglasses, cell phone in hand, came to the window.

Asked about dessert, he said something I didn't understand and pointed to a big slice of gingerbread.

"You didn't hear what he said," said Sally. "He said he wants the one that's darker than you."

I laughed. "They're all darker than me, man- what you want?" I asked.

He kept pointing at the gingerbread, grinning.

"I want the one that's much darker than you."

I passed him his gingerbread, and he thanked us all for the meal.

"Good morning!" came from the window.

It was Mrs. Jones, an elderly black woman leaning on a rolling walker. She handed an insulated jar in the window and I filled it with kool-aid. Sally assembled two meals on a tray, took them out to the dining room and help her arranges the plates in a box to carry home.

We had a firm rule against patrons taking food away. They could do it, but we didn't provide wrap, covers or anything to help. Mrs. Jones was an exception because her husband was bedridden.

"God bless you-all," she said on leaving. We blessed her in return.

Next at the window was Ms. Stearn, a tall black lady with short cropped hair and a severe expression.

"I don't want no hot dog, and no bread," she declared.

"Which dessert would you like, Ma'am," I asked.

She looked over the desserts and shook her head, wrinkling her nose.

After her came one of our regulars who could not eat pork: a soft-spoken middle-aged man with short, graying hair, who I guessed might be Iranian or Turkish.

Andy set up his plate, taking an all-beef hot dog from a small pot on the stove.

"Miss Betty," he said, "Give him two servings of the green beans, please."

"I can't give you the pork'n'beans because there's pork in it," he told the man. "I'm giving you two helpings of green beans, and the hot dog is all beef. Do you want a whole-wheat roll?"

"Yes," he replied, "Thank you very much."

Four small brown faces appeared at the counter, one a young boy asking for apple pie.

"Who are you kids with?" asked Sally. "You can't come in without your parents or an adult."

Ms. Stearn stood up from the table.

"Here, you kids!" she called. "You come with me."

She led them to the registration table and got each one signed in for a meal ticket.

Next up was a familiar Hispanic couple, who never wanted drinks or dessert, and always thanked us for the meal. Then came a pretty, chocolate-brown girl, absent mindedly singing to herself in time to "Girls just want to have fun" on the radio.

She gave an embarrassed giggle when I asked her about dessert. Later on, she stopped at the kitchen door to scold us.

"Y'all put ten pounds on me today!" she called, standing there for a moment in her skin-tight jeans.

Andy echoed my thought: "I don't know where she put it."

A young white man, new to us, collected his meal, stacking everything precariously, and edging away from the window.

"Thank you all, very much!" he said.

"You're welcome, my brother, enjoy it," called Andy.

He hesitated in surprise for a moment, then moved on to a table.

"He was surprised I called him 'brother'," Andy laughed, "But every man is my brother."

The words sound pretentious, but he spoke them as if commenting on the weather.

With only four desserts left on my tray, I moved them to the side and picked up the empty tray. Joe was washing dishes at the sink.

"Joe, can I give you this tray?" I asked.

"Thank you," he said, reaching to take it from me.

I turned to go the bread rack, but Consuela had already pulled out the next dessert tray and passed it to me.

"Thank you, Consuela,"

"You're welcome, Mr. Bob."

Three school aged children came through, shepherded by an elderly grandmother.

"Their mother's been missing for two weeks," Sally told me after they passed. "It's been on the news and in the papers."

"Gee. I hope she turns up OK," I said, though it didn't sound hopeful.

I must have missed that report. It would have been easily overlooked in our TV news- usually an hour of crime stories from around the region, punctuated by previews and weather reports.

Another new patron thanked us heartily after picking up his plate.

"It's great to be poor in America!" he said. "I used to travel all around on business. You wouldn't find this in Guatemala or Ecuador."

I knew we were winding down when a tall white man in glasses, made taller by a high peaked baseball cap, appeared in the window.

"Care for dessert today," I asked.

"No, thank you."

He never wants dessert, but I always ask- it's part of the meal, if he wants it. He's the point man for a half-dozen white men I think of as the "Elk's Club" - guys around my age who look like they could have walked out of the same social club.

They're not Elks, of course, and they probably don't know each other, but they all come in during the last half hour, wearing the regulation baseball cap, shorts and T-shirt, the shirt often proclaiming the military branch they served in. If I was coming in for lunch, I'd fit right in with them. (Need to get an Army T-shirt.)

Twenty patrons later, the last "Elk" appeared, in sunglasses and a moustache.

"Double scotch?" he asked, as I set his drink on the counter.

"Nope, this is one of those flavored vodkas- cherry, I think."

"Good enough!"

We pass some version of this joke every Thursday.

It was almost closing time when a tall, elderly black man appeared at the window, wearing a dress shirt, tie and straw Fedora. I'd heard Joe call him "Reverend Ketchup."

"My, my," he said, smiling down at the array of desserts.

After some deliberation, he indicated a slice of chocolate cake. On his dinner plate, he split a large bun and slathered both halves with ketchup.

"Thank y'all, and God bless you," he says in parting.

It's fun to work a morning with the kitchen crew, though it tires me out. I'm glad to have spent some of my time helping make sure no one in the community has to go hungry.

Nothing I see on these mornings looks like those depression-era soup lines. Few of our patrons are ragged. Few appear to be homeless. I would guess many are working some part-time job. Sometimes we see men from a city street maintenance crew or a dishwasher from a fancy restaurant.

I'm still puzzled, though, that so many people need a free meal in a relatively prosperous county. If I can develop something worth saying about our local situation, I'll cover it in another post.


Post a comment...
All comments are moderated. I may answer flame mail directly, but will not post it unless it makes a good point.


Revisions to this post:
Jan 17-19, misc. rewording, corrections and additional detail.

Energy Independence: Why Bother?
It doesn't make economic or geopolitical sense

In a global economy where we drive cars built in Japan, work on computers made in China and eat shrimp caught and peeled in Thailand, why do we hesitate to use oil pumped in Saudi Arabia?

Do we fear oil shortages or embargoes? We've weathered those before. The oil exporting countries can only hold back so long- they have to sell the stuff. Camels won't drink it, and you can't make vodka from it.

A nation prospers in global trade by exploiting its comparative advantage, exporting the goods it can produce better and cheaper than others. For the U.S., that's not oil. Of twenty major oil producing nations, our production costs are in the top three, and the range is wide. It costs nearly twice as much to produce oil here as in Russia; more than three times as much as in the middle east.

Data from CNN Money, reference below.
Notes: Other oil exporting countries not shown. Production cost figures vary from source to source, but the contrast between US and the lower cost producers always shows up.

Our president-elect has pledged to boost the tight oil (fracking) industry by removing virtually all federal regulation- a giant subsidy, paid not in dollars but in damage to our land, waters and atmosphere. Fracking is so destructive that New York, Maryland and Vermont have banned it, and Pennsylvania has it under a moratorium. Many counties and cities have enacted their own bans.

Rather than sacrificing air, land and waters to try to compete in the oil trade, we should work to strengthen our industries, possibly bringing back some that have offshored. Boosting industry will give us more jobs as well as more goods to trade for oil. Mr. Trump has made some progress in this direction already.

From a geopolitical point of view, energy independence is a fallacy. "Independence Now" assures dependence later, as Howard Odum pointed out decades ago:

"Such efforts made by nations which are short of energy will have the effect of using up what energy they have even more quickly..By becoming more independent now, these nations would certainly run out of resources even sooner and become even more dependent on others."

Many energy and foreign policy analysts are equally skeptical. In a 2012 poll of 57 energy experts, nearly two-thirds said energy independence was not a sensible goal. Daniel Yergin, summarizing the survey, called energy independence "A chimera which has been invoked by every U.S. president since 1973."

An article in Foreign Policy magazine that year traced the history of the concept, calling it "A century and a half of an idea whose time has never come." A defense department report, also published in 2012, criticized the concept.

Let those vast reserves of tight oil stay underground in the fracking plays, for now. Later on, if we desperately need the oil, we can decide whether it's worth the cost and trouble to extract it: Paying $4 or more for gasoline; polluting ground water and coastal waters with acids and carcinogens from fracking fluid; triggering earthquakes in vulnerable regions; creating millions of tons of radioactive solid waste; adding vast volumes of CO2 and methane to the atmosphere.

In desperation, we as a nation might decide to pay these costs. But we certainly aren't desperate now, with oil in the $50 range and gas around $2 a gallon.

Comments Jan 9
Energy independence never seemed like a realistic goal. If the major buyer of oil stopped buying, the world's other oil-producing nations would find themselves in a pretty bad economic fix. So why is it a good idea to eliminate the world's most reliable oil consumer?
Besides, as your graphic shows, the U.S. has nearly achieved independence, and yet prices remain relatively high and various lobbying groups are working feverishly to limit energy alternatives while Mr. T. pledges to revive the coal industry since the climate change thing is a Chinese myth. Ah, if only our theories operated in vacuums.
Tampa, Florida

Post a comment...
All comments are moderated. I may answer flame mail directly, but will not post it unless it makes a good point.

CNN Money, table titled "The Cost to Produce a Barrel of Oil",

Kai Wang, "Energy Independence, Yes? No? and How?", University of Pennsylvania Public Policy Initiative,

Howard T. Odum and Elizabeth C. Odum, Energy Basis for Man and Nature, 1983, McGraw-Hill Inc.

Foreign Policy, "Energy Independence: A Short History,"

Daniel Yergin, "How is Energy Remaking the World", Foreign Policy magazine,

Energy Security Leadership Council, The New American Oil Boom: Implications for Energy Security,

Revisions to this post:
January 11: Added reference for data from CNN Money used in graph.

Nibbling at the Margin
Thoughts toward a New Year's resolution

I've never been enthusiastic about reducing my carbon footprint or energy consumption. It would have real effects, I know, and you can make extreme reductions, as the Riot 4 Austerity folks and others have demonstrated. But I can't help saying to myself, "Unless everybody does it, the effects are marginal."

Yet recent news got me thinking about that term "marginal." After a year of remarkably low oil prices, a few months of chatter about an OPEC deal to limit production started prices edging up again. Tight oil production had seemed to be in permanent decline, but rig counts started to climb, and climbed still more after the actual deal was announced.

The nub of all this excitement was a deal to cut production by 1.8 million barrels a day, against world production of about 93 million barrels a day. The prospect of a two per cent cut in supply was enough to lift investors' spirits and bring some of the most expensive, dirtiest extraction activity back on line.

OPEC is powerful, but in America it's selling into the biggest national oil market in the world. American drivers in their personal vehicles use roughly ten per cent of world oil production. And about two-thirds of those drivers are concerned about global warming and understand the basic facts about it.

If American drivers cut their mileage by 20%, they would reduce world oil consumption by nearly as much as the OPEC cut- apparently enough to reverse market sentiment. It could keep the fracking industry in decline, keep oil prices low, and keep gasoline prices around $2 a gallon in the near term.

Even if half those drivers cut their driving by ten per cent, it would save about half a million barrels a day, cooling demand significantly.

Impossible? It's been done before. Starting in 1976, Americans reduced their petroleum consumption by twenty-plus per cent (see graph below) within a year or two. Some of the cut came from industry, but much came from individuals using car pools, public transit, bicycling or walking. My experience was typical: I traded a late model gas guzzler for a more economical clunker, then commuted by motorbike for a few months, then organized a car pool.

USEIA, graph from Annual Energy Review 2009

What would it take to revive the Spirit of '76? Back then, we were motivated by high gas prices and shortages. Today's motivations are subtler: some of us are concerned about resource depletion, a great many are concerned about global warming; few are sure what to do about either. But nearly everyone is happy about $2 gasoline.

Paradoxically, that $2 gasoline is like any other limited resource: the best way to keep it around for awhile is to conserve it. We should remember, and teach our children, that any resource is valuable and should be conserved, even when it seems cheap. And conservation is our best source of clean energy. We know it works, and it's available right now.

Americans' devotion to the automobile is not entirely dictated by the layout of our freeways and suburbs- it's also a matter of habit and preference, as a thoughtful comparison with Europe will show. Even in sprawling motor cities like Atlanta or Orlando, public transport networks operate alongside the legions of automobile commuters, and there are bicycle paths and walkways that could take some commuters to work.

Using public transit has an added benefit: additional ridership helps to keep the system operating and expanding, so it will be there when you and others need it. (For that reason alone, I think we who believe in public transit ought to use it when practicable.)

Even when there's no way but the highway, car pooling can cut your personal gas consumption by three-quarters (plus you get to drive in those restricted lanes). Just combining errands saves time and gasoline- try to avoid single-destination trips.

If you live in the country and need your pickup truck to get around, you could consider joining a neighbor for trips into town. The timing might work out; tradition has it that farmers go to town when it rains.

I've cut my family's gas consumption more than 20% by using bicycle and bus for personal errands. But I'm retired, so it's fairly easy for me. If you're commuting to a job and/or taking kids to after school activities, you have many more constraints and fewer choices. Reducing gas consumption will take careful planning and extra effort. (If you're driving kids to and from school, think again about the school bus.)

The nifty thing about personal action is that 100% of your effort goes toward your intended goal. You don't have to donate to some big organization with lots of overhead, don't have to join the "Trump resistance" or the Trump supporters, don't need to argue with anyone about global warming or peak oil. Just use your time and effort to take some measures that make sense.

It isn't "just", I know. It takes planning, time and effort. But for many of us, it's doable. If you can see a way to cut your driving by even a few per cent, it's worth doing. In a small way, you'll help to slow global warming, to slow oil depletion, even to keep gasoline around $2 for awhile. And by visibly practicing conservation, you'll help to nudge the nation in the direction it needs to be going.

If you're already conserving, or even Rioting 4 Austerity, good for you. Riot On!

Jan 2
I've cut my gas consumption, but it's mostly because I've gotten older and have a more fuel-efficient car. Old farts don't cruise Jerry's Drive-in like younger guys do. I've long been a fan of trains. But I've found air travel to get worse and worse every year. Honestly, I think the appeal of mass transit of all kinds lies in its marketing. Make it cool, and folks will take it.
Tampa, Florida

I seem to drive as much in retirement as when I was commuting- or did before my recent cuts. With grandchildren in Orlando and DeBary, we do a lot of day trips.
-- Bob

Post a comment...
All comments are moderated. I may answer flame mail directly, but will not post it unless it makes a good point.

Oak Ridge Nat Lab Transport Data Book Ed. 35, 2016, Table 1.16

U.S. Energy Information Agency, "History of energy consumption in the United States, 1775-2009"

Gallup, "U.S. Concern About Global Warming at Eight-Year High"

Recent discussion on energy conservation:
Make Your Life Less Oily in 2017: Part I, Taking Stock

How we went on an energy diet, and what we lost (and gained!)

Meet the Scrapers: reducing energy use on the cheap

Robin Hill Gardens archive: Recent Riot Posts (2014-2015)

Revisions to this post:

Previous Post: Living with Heat II: Clothing and Accessories


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