Executive rolls up sleeves and fantasizes at soup kitchen

Only two members of my family were there. It wasn't a dinner, it was a lunch, and I never had a morsel of food.

The scenario started last December when the phone rang and it was my 13-year-old grandson Jake.

"Gramps," he said in his highpitched voice. He knows when he says that, he can have anything in the world from me. "Gramps, I have an obligation to fulfill. For my bar mitzvah, I'm required to do 16 hours of community service."

Jake asked me to take him to a soup kitchen so that he could work for the needy. That was a fair request, so I made an appointment at St. Vincent de Paul in San Rafael for Jake, his friend Matt, who was to conduct services with Jake in mid-January, my wife, Thelma, and me to help out at the center. The woman in charge suggested we come in two days after Christmas, when the crowd of volunteers starts to taper off.

We gave Jake and his friend money to buy frozen turkeys to bring to the shelter. On the appointed morning at 9 a.m., six frozen 20-pound turkeys, two 13-year old boys and Grandma and Grandpa made a grand entrance at the alley door of the shelter. As a lifetime executive, of course I expected to supervise the kitchen and the serving of lunches, and to write up a critique of the operation.

Much to my shock and horror, the floor lady shoved an apron in my face and told me that my wife and I were assigned to help the 300-pound chef. She added that we should follow his every direction. Within minutes, I became an expert basil shredder.

I had visions of inventing a machine to do the job. Mentally, I sat in front of a computer designing the software for "basil shredding." The chef kept bumping into me, causing a near crisis of finger amputation with the huge weapon in my hands. I had no sooner finished my assignment when he shoved a huge paddle in my hands and, pointing to the oversize kettle on the stove, made stirring movements.

Ah, I thought, I had already been promoted to assistant chef. However, stirring 30 pounds of cheese and eight pounds of butter for 20 minutes is really boring. I figured I could have called some food supplier who could supply the ready-mixed sauce without all my stirring efforts.

The cooked macaroni was spread into four huge serving trays, and I covered all these carbs with ladles of melted cheese. Thelma had already sprinkled in the bits of ham and turkey, a job I thought could have been done with an automatic machine called "Bits of ham and turkey sprinkler." I next assisted in making 1,000 turkey salad sandwiches using an ice cream scooper. I secretly knew that these sandwiches could have been ordered ready-made.

We served lunch to 250 people. Most expressed their gratitude. Some asked for something to take home and still others just stared at the food and kept nodding their heads.

For two hours, my eyes were glazed with tears. Creative thoughts of automating the process and improving the kitchen left my mind. I was overwhelmed by the faces on the other side of the counter. Where do they come from? Why are they here? I learned years ago that when a human is reduced to the level of asking for charity, one never asks questions. You just give because that person needs help.

I discussed this point with Jake and Matt later. They understood. During his service, Jake spoke of the day at the shelter. He remembered the smiling faces of the people having lunch and how he had enjoyed working to help others.

I knew then that Jake had done his mitzvah.