At the shelter, the phone rings.
The days are getting longer, and the streets run with the crystal rivers of melted snow. It has been Chicago’s coldest winter in nearly two decades, and it is taking its time in leaving. But today is a blow to its permanence. The day is not warm, not by a long shot. But there is something in the air. A white sunniness. The frost is over.
Whole Foods is calling. It’s only six blocks from the shelter, but I’d never been to it. I’d petitioned them over email once to donate food for a Thanksgiving feast I’d hoped to conjure for our homeless parishioners, and they’d never contacted me. So, I wrote them off as just one more big corporation anxious to shovel profits into its jaws. But here they were, coming through. They’d baked some extra bread and understood that I was always on the look out for extra food, and would I like to have some?
I said that I’d be right down, but was not very excited. In my budget, bread wasn’t much good, no matter how free. Bread meant butter, jam, turkey and ham, mustard, mayonnaise, lettuce, tomatoes, and several varieties of individually-wrapped American cheese singles. In short, it was a bad investment. But free food was hardly an investment and I was in no position to refuse. At best, it would make for a side item. I told Caleb, my friend and co-worker, the news and asked him to come along, in case there was more bread then I could carry back on my own. He was typically game, and this was no exception. I admired and admire his capacity for joy.
We ventured out into the great thawing of the second city, and were greeted by a chorus of songbirds. Shimmering droplets slipped from every rooftop and tree branch, spotting our hair and sliding down our foreheads before pooling in our eyelashes. Roaring busses lumbered through great puddles, and every Chicagoan with a pet was being tugged this way and that by a dog reintroduced to a living world. We set out to walk to Whole Foods in light jackets, but soon shed even these and felt the tingling cool of March on our bare arms, shooting us with goosebumps and setting our hairs on end.
This marked almost exactly a year since anyone had taken an outside interest in Safe Haven. The previous May, four chipper, pretty college girls had joined as volunteers. I’d initially approached them with some idea of impressing them with my own sacrificial spirit, but had soon come to rely on their expertise in being pleasant. As the boss, I’d chopped off that strongest of desires: the one to be liked. Instead, I’d turned into a curmudgeonly cop, kicking out rule-breakers and yelling at kids to leave the equipment alone. The job of being likeable had fallen to Laura, Taylor, Alora, and Cory, and they’d all taken to it easily. Their prettiness lent them naïve courage, a firm belief that nothing bad could happen to creatures infested with such charm and charity. They were mostly right, as it happened, and even if that meant I had some stern conversations with a few kids who couldn’t keep their hands off them, the girls themselves made up for it by encouraging within the crowd a flirtatious politeness. They were indispensible, and I needed a dozen more like them.
But the interest in Safe Haven had fallen silent for the year. A year of writing restaurants and grocery stores, churches and shelters, asking anyone who had more food and a better idea to show up and give it to me. I was generally ignored, occasionally entertained, but never indulged. So Caleb, four college girls, and me scrimped together and found enough food to feed everyone who showed up for an entire year. Until Whole Foods called and I walked with my jacket tossed over my shoulder and Caleb next to me and, lo, I found myself fighting tears.
I walked into Whole Foods and introduced myself to the first cashier I saw. Sitting in the corner were James and Nikki, all smiles. It was they who’d told Whole Food about my need. They’d been asked if they, themselves, had any need for bread and had deferred to me, saying I needed it more than they did. Nikki swept me into her arms, matronly and smelling strongly of piss and weed. But I buried myself into her many trenchcoats pushed my mouth through her ratty, grease-slicked, haystack of hair, up to her ear and whispered, “thank-you.” She kissed the corner of my mouth in response, and three Whole Foods employees pushed three grocery carts out from their bakery, each one piled high with fresh baked bread.
I count that moment – me in Nikki’s arms, three grocery carts all full of hot, golden loaves of bread, Caleb laughing in pure amazement behind me – as one of the happiest of my life.
“Can I have it all?” I asked, not quite believing.
“Of course,” the manager, an amply-bearded ginger a little older than me said.
“I don’t have a way to take all that back home,” I told the manager.
“Do you have a car?”
“Well,” he said, and we looked at the carts. They looked the three wisemen all laden with gifts for the Christ child. “You can have one cart,” he said. “I can only give you one. Whatever you can load into one cart, you can have.”
Caleb looked at me, grinning. “We can load it all into one cart,” he declared. And I quite agreed.
And so it came to pass that Caleb and I pushed one grocery cart stuffed full and piled high with fresh baked bread down Halstead Street in Chicago. The rack underneath was stuffed with bread. The cart itself had bread spilling out of it. And Caleb and I had shoved loaves into our pockets, and carried the rest under our arms and tore what pieces we could from the loaves and stuffed them in our mouths. And the loaves kept falling off our delicately stacked tower and into cold puddles and trickling streams of melted snow and we laughed every time and rebuilt our pile less well than it had been before. And we sang the entire six blocks home, made up songs on the spot about eating and baking, and bread recipes. That I had no butter or cheese hardly mattered now – not with this bread. We had marbled loaves, rye loaves, cracked wheat loaves, peppered loaves, chili loaves, garlic loaves, sweet loaves, cheddar loaves, cinnamon loaves and chocolate loaves. Each variety seemed like a meal unto its self. We were pirates with booty, princes with a dragon head, Santa bearing gifts. It seemed like spring had come for just this moment, to provide us with just this gift – the Bread of Life.