Fieldnotes: Being a Greeter at the Salvation Army on Thanksgiving Day, November 22, 1985

Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA

By Jane Gilgun

Turkey Lurky at McNean Farm, Co Fermanagh, N. Ireland

Summary For my second Thanksgiving in Minnesota, I volunteered at the Salvation Army in Minneapolis. I had been a social worker for about eight years, but I was still surprised at what I witnessed. I was so moved that I wrote down my experiences later that day. Now, all these years later, I am sharing them on What is my connection to these men? Where are the bridges? Where are the differences? What is the accident that caused me not to be t here for a meal? I had a turkey in the oven at home and a family of four waiting for me. A lot of the men I saw are alcoholics. Alcoholism is a terminal disease. These are broken men. Who isn’t? There are different kinds of brokenness. Most were grateful for the meal. I wanted them to organize. About the Author Jane Gilgun is a professor and writer. See Jane’s other articles, children’s stories, and books on, Amazon, iBooks, Barnes & Noble and other on-line booksellers.

Fieldnotes: Being a Greeter at the Salvation Army On Thanksgiving Day


oday is Thanksgiving Day, and I drove to downtown Minneapolis, looking for 706 First Avenue North. As usual, First Avenue did not come after Second Avenue. So, I drove around where I thought First Avenue might appear and ran into several one-way streets. I ended up down by Butler Square, but I persisted, turning another corner. I drove by a slate blue building that looked a little ashamed of itself and saw the small numbers 706, but no sign that it was the Salvation Army. Three men with hands in their pockets were standing in front of the door. There was a parking lot next door, but it cost $2.25 to park. I didn’t want to pay that. I found a place to park on the street, about half a block from the building. I walked back to the entrance. The three men were gone. There was a sign taped to the door in red block letters: NO BEDS FULL. On the window next to the door was a pegboard like those used at diners to announce the day's special. Thanksgiving Dinner from 11:30 to 2. All welcome, the pegboard said. I knocked on the door, and someone I couldn't see buzzed me in. As I walked into the hallway toward the reception desk, I smelled a smell I hadn’t smelled since I was a little girl the one time I visited Mr. Baron who was a boarder across the street. The smell means dirty men to me, reminding me of dirty feet and possibly smegma. The man behind the desk said I could go downstairs where dinner would be served. There was an unmarked door on the right of the main entrance. I found out later that was the chapel. I went downstairs. The room had a low ceiling. There were about 10 tables seating six people each with paper flowers on them. The room was full of blonde people of all ages, skin smooth, glowing, well-fed. No one came to greet me. I stood there in my red coat, realizing that these people were volunteers, there to serve dinner. I counted 45 of them. A thin, blonde woman walked by. She wore a butcher’s apron. She ignored me until I said, “Excuse me. I’m here to serve dinner. “She said, “Oh.” I said, “Are these people volunteers?” She said, “Yes.” I said, “It looks like you don't need me. Maybe I should go home.” She said, “No, wait a minute. They’re calling to see if they need help in other centers.” She paused and said, gesturing toward the door, “Maybe you could be a greeter or something.” I put my coat in a room behind the kitchen. I carefully put my expensive sports jacket inside my coat. I went back to the main room, and all those blonde, graceful people were busy talking to each other in groups of twos and threes. Even the little kids were talking to each other. No one talked to me, and I wondered if I wanted to talk to any of them. They looked too prosperous. A big man with a big nose walked by and then stood to my left in back of me. I thought he might be indicating willingness to talk to me, but I wasn't up to talking to him first. I

wanted to watch. I watched people talk to each other. I watched the wedges of pumpkin pie with artificial cream on them. I watched the one decoration in the room besides the flowers on the table. It was a round paper ball, orange, yellow and brown, the kind that folds out like a fan, but lies flat for storage. It hung from the low black ceiling, which was made up of pipes of various shapes and sizes. It was beyond me what all those pipes would be for. The leader of the group may have been the woman in the Salvation Army uniform. Her cap was pulled to her eyebrows and her glasses covered the rest of her face. She had great-looking legs and probably a great-looking body, when she took her uniform off. Yet, she was sexless. I wondered how it is that being good often means you have to be asexual. I also thought that she might spend a lot of time around sex-starved men and was deliberately asexual. Her sexuality appeared beyond salvation to me. This woman became my salvation. I was getting uncomfortable. Here I was all ready to interact with street people, poor families, and the elderly, and I wasn't needed. Then she called all the volunteers to her and said, “I need someone to help the man at the desk upstairs. He has to answer the phone and let people in the door. He won’t be able to do both things when people start arriving.” I waited a minute. N o one said anything. I volunteered. “I'll go, if someone will take over for me later. I'm not sure I want to stay up there for three hours.” She said, “Sure, someone will come up to take over.” She told me to get my coat, which I did and then walked back up the stairs and went to the front desk. I asked the man there what I could do for him, that the woman downstairs had said he could use some help. He told me, “Go back downstairs. The head honcho is there. She will tell you what to do.” I said, “I already talked to her. She said, ‘The man upstairs needs help letting people in.’” He said, “Oh. Go stand by the door. When someone comes to the door, let them in. Tell them to go wait in the chapel.” I said, “OK,” wondering if they have to hear a sermon before they could eat. I glanced into the chapel. I felt like crying. I never saw so many street people in one place before. Usually I see them one at a time. Tall, thin men, short, I mean short men, mostly unshaven. Wrinkled clothes. Shamed men. Men--that's all I saw. Shabby men. Wrinkled. Lint on their clothes. They looked as if someone just beat them up. They had lost the fight. I stood by the door, looking at the NO BEDS FULL sign. The letters were backward. I let a man in. “You here for dinner? Go back and wait in the chapel. Dinner will be ready in a little while.” The bottoms of his trousers were rolled. He slouched in. Two men came walking out of the chapel and walked outside. I could see them because the door was made of thick glass. I heard one say to the other. “I want to talk to you.” He was taller than the other man, who looked up. His mouth trembled. He reminded me a battered child about to get another beating. They disappeared from my sight. Then I saw the shorter man backing up rapidly. I could see a pair of fists beating him on the face. I saw a tall bald man and asked, “Do you work here?” He said, “No. I'm not going out there, either.” I said, “I wouldn’t if I were you.” Another man came to the door. As I opened it for

him, he backed in, looking at the fight. The two men reminded me of boxing kangaroos. I said, “You here for dinner? Go back to the chapel to wait.” I pointed to the chapel. The men sat on folding chairs The two men who fought like kangaroos left. The tall bald man said, “One guy squealed on the other. They were at the House of Charity, and one guy got kicked out because the other squealed on him. House of Charity Rule: you drink--you're out.” I said, “Oh.” I didn’t know what the House of Charity was. I was also thinking that I didn't feel safe at this door. Thinking, too, about how the men fought. One started punching the other in the head. It doesn't matter that one man is a head taller than the other. You squealed on me, and now I'm going to beat you in the face. I let more men in. “You here for dinner? Go back to the chapel and wait.” Another man, slim and very wrinkled, with missing teeth on the side of his mouth and a cigarette hanging out of his mouth came up the stairs. He said, “I'll stand by the door with you.” I thought he was a resident of the house. He wasn’t, but I didn’t find that out for a while. A red-haired kid who looked hurt around the mouth, shamed, a button missing off his brown cord jacket, walked by. He came back with a heavy young man, who looked like the son of a friend. The heavy kid said, “I make $24 a day working for Manpower.” I asked, “What do you do?” “I’m a furniture mover. I live here. It costs $12 a day to stay here. I leave too early in the morning to have breakfast here. I have to pay for my food out of that money. I can't get ahead. I got a job in Eden Prairie, but I have no way of getting there.” Eden Prairie is a suburb of Minneapolis, about 15 miles away from the Salvation Army. I said, “There aren’t any buses?” He said, “No. The fella said he would give me a job, but I can’t get there.” His clothes were shabby. His wool topcoat w as wrinkled. It had lint on it. He didn't look too ashamed of himself. He showed me a wrinkled card. It said Flour Exchange. “There’s a free dinner there all day. Two other places do, too. The Flour Exchange has real turkey.” The sun came out. The tall, shiny buildings that are next to the Salvation Army building gleamed. I thought of the money that built them. I thought of where the money to build them came from--the backs of men like the men I see here. Then an Indian family was at the door. Yes, Indians come to the Salvation Army for Thanksgiving. One grandfather, with grandchildren and their parents. Indians, an Indian with a B.A. in business administration. He moved from New Mexico to South Dakota to the Twin Cities. I wondered about the state of his emotions. He had nice teeth, good clothes, could've been telling the truth about his education. Then there was the extremely well dressed family, leather coat, nice clothes on the kids. The wife's shoes were too big, gaped when she walked. The street men, with the wild hair and the army coats, greeting me when they came in. The lone woman, who coughed as she walked through the door. I said hello and gave my speech. She kept on coughing, and she coughed her way to the chapel. Later, she asked a

man for a smoke and money so she could buy some cigarettes. She said she was really full. She had eaten at the Flour Exchange at 10:30 and at the Salvation Army at 11:30 and was planning to go to a church later in the day. A well dressed, woman with a bandanna said she used to live here. “Free dinner today,” she said. Nice jeans. Well kept, clean. Nice sneakers. Giant white teeth. Well-fed, pink. What was she doing here? Was she the black sheep of a wealthy family? About 20 minutes into the dinner, a woman with a necktie and a cashmere sweater and knickers left, trailed by her groomed powdered mother in her camel hair coat. Were they shocked by how the men looked? Were they shocked at the number of men? A man walked in with a woman. She wore a purple hat. I couldn't tell if she were female or not. The man in front of her had liquor on his breath. “Motherfucker. Motherfucker.” I heard this coming from the stairs. “Where are my cigarettes? Motherfucker. Where are they?” The voice sounded violent. “Baby, take it easy,” I heard a woman’s voice say. The woman with the purple cap, cone-shaped. “Your cigs are in you pocket.” He reached into his shirt pocket. “Found them.” Then he said to no one, “I forgot.” The woman went out the door. The man stood there. I was terrified. “Good riddance to you,” she said. “Now I’ve got you out of my hair.” He walked into the chapel. She walked across the street. She walked up and down the sidewalk. She came back in. “Did you see him?” “He went toward the chapel,” I said. She walked toward the chapel. Twenty minutes later she came back. “Did you see which way he went?” I said, “No.” She went out the front door and walked back and forth smoking. She came back in. “You seen him?” “No. Maybe he went out the back door.” She went out the front door, saying, “The hell with him.” She crossed the street and walked away. A man with red, white, and blue leather sneakers said, “I'm 64. Do you think I can come to the senior citizens lunches here?” I said, “Sure.” I said, “You’ll meet a lot of people here.” I told him I liked his sneakers. “Sneakers? That what you call them?” I said, “What do you call them?” “Tennis shoes.” He said he had bought them a year ago at a store buyout. He said he was going to the Flour Exchange for another meal. The sun came out, and the shiny buildings got more shiny. I went downstairs. People eating and smiling. The setting was congenial. Steam rose from the stainless steel serving area. Forty-gallon pots held the vegetables. A little blond boy eyed the cinnamon rolls that he passed out to the people eating at the tables. The man with the beard who wouldn't look at me earlier was eating dinner and not talking to anyone. A man who looked like he used to sell insurance was talking genially to the man across from him. I heard a man say, “Going upstairs to watch the game.” A group came down the stairs. “Game over?” “No. It's half-time.” A few minutes later, “Going up to see the game? Half-time is about over.” Another man said, “I see someone who doesn’t like football.” I said, "You’re right." He said, “Did you ever hear the story about the woman who got so tired of her husband watching games that she went to the store and bought negligee and paraded in front of him during a game, and he said, ‘Not now. The play’s on the 40 yard line.’” I went back upstairs to do some more greeting and goodbyes.

Almost all said “Thank you” when they left. I don’t want them to be grateful. I want them to organize. The man at door with me said he lives in Brooklyn Park. His wife does a lot of volunteer work. She wraps presents. Every year she cooked, but this year not. They got so many invitations to stop at people's houses that she didn't cook. The sexless sergeant comes up and said, “Thank you for minding the door. The man at the desk is a resident. He’s been sober for a while. I don’t want him to lose his sobriety, and if he gets too flustered trying to answer the phone and tend to the door, he might start drinking.” I said, “You don’t want that.” She said, “No, we don't He's good worker. I don't want to lose him." The little blonde boy I had seen earlier came up the stairs with a package of cinnamon buns. His grandpa put them in the car. “I suppose I’ll give these to someone,” he said. I said, “Your grandson had his eyes on them when I was downstairs.” He laughed. “ I think he wanted to eat them.” The older man laughed again. Another man with teeth missing came to the door carrying a cloth bag. He said he had packages of frozen salmon to donate. “I guess l can afford that,” he said. A man in a wrinkled army coat knew all about Africa. He had spent time there. What was he doing there? Here? Indians had Thanksgiving at the Salvation Army. Wasn’t it the Indians who showed the European settlers how to celebrate the harvest? Where is their harvest? Paul, the man at the desk, said, “Indians are the niggers here. There are 10,000 of them. They live in a ghetto not far from downtown. They’ve suffered terrible discrimination.” He said, “I want to do something about the discrimination. The living conditions are terrible for them. Their family lives are suffering.” His eyes were as blue as the downtown Minneapolis buildings t h a t stood like bullies over the Salvation Army. A young blonde woman glanced at me and looked ashamed. Do women live in the Salvation Army? She had biggest, whitest teeth I’ve ever seen. I wonder who washed the pots and pans. I watched the volunteers leave, family group by family group, driving away in their Saabs. It’s easy to tell the volunteers from the guests who ate Thanksgiving dinner off plastic plates. A man asked, “What time does the Flour Exchange close?” I didn’t know. “Do you know where I can get a coat?” a man in his early sixties asked. Paul, the man at the desk, said he would check. He walked down the stairs. The man who asked had come to Minneapolis two years ago from a small town in northern Iowa. What could he have done there? Run the grocery store? Why was he here? Paul came back and told him, “You can come back here tomorrow. They'll write you a voucher, and you can go to their store to get the coat.” While Paul was gone, the man wanting the coat said, “It’s getting cold out. That wind is cold.” He had on a

medium weight cord jacket fastened with a large safety pin. What is my connection to these men? Where are the bridges? Where are the differences? What is the accident that caused me not to be here for a meal? I had a turkey in the oven at home and a family of four waiting for me. A lot of the men I saw are alcoholics. Alcoholism is a terminal disease. These are broken men. Who isn’t? There are different kinds of brokenness.

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