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Night School by Robert Beck

“The instructor has a car problem and is going to be about 45 minutes late. Is that ok? Can you wait?”

One of the women translated what I said to the others and they began talking to each other in Spanish. I held the phone against my shoulder. They went on for a while.

“I need a decision here, ladies,” I said. They nodded. Yes they would wait.

My first night as a volunteer/dishwasher/mule was off to an uneven start. When you are operating at the unvarnished end of the bell-curve there is nobody to call to take care of things that go wrong. You have to figure it out. The people in social services are used to flying seat-of-the-pants. Caseloads go up (they always do), government funding disappears (it did), and events go in bad directions. Think 2008. Think last November. You can no more predict the twists and turns of society than you can those in your own family.

This night I’m working the sink at a Fisherman’s Mark program that teaches food prep skills such as how to use a knife, basic cooking techniques, and safety. Participants are also taught about nutrition and they are required to learn kitchen terminology in both English and Spanish. It expands employment prospects, promotes healthier living, and encourages assimilation for a growing sector of families in our community. Like all the Fisherman’s Mark programs, it focuses on sustainable solutions to help people find their footing and keep them from relying on government agencies. The FM food bank distributes 135,000 pounds of food a year. They make sure people have clothes. They help with navigating government bureaucracy, finding a safe place to sleep, and even getting a shower if you need one. You don’t have to be indigent; you just have to need help.

The organization works smart. It became apparent that some elderly and infirm clients were feeding their pets instead of themselves. People food is bad for pets, no food is bad for people, and everybody gets sick. So FM partnered with Lambertville Animal Welfare to create a pet-food section in the food bank.

I volunteered because I needed to. After watching so many people around me blindly advocate self-interest over civility I had to physically do something that helps others. There are perks that come with giving your time. At one point during the class I was handed a pair of beater blades that had been used to make a dessert. Remember licking metal beaters? Sticking your tongue into where the blades meet the shaft and the biggest deposits of good stuff are? I was on it.

This class is bare bones and takes very little money to run. The Lambertville Station Restaurant donates a lot of the food. We met in a borrowed kitchen down the street. All of our utensils and tools – everything – had to be hauled from the FM office on a big cart, rumbling and clanging down the sidewalk. The stove is used for the Meals On Wheels program during the day and has needed repairs for weeks. It wasn’t up to the job this night so we had to go back to the office and grab the portable propane unit to finish the class.

Shelley, the instructor, conducted the lessons entirely in Spanish, except the part where participants need to understand English terms. I stood at the two-bay stainless steel sink being fed an endless stream of pots and tools to wash, unable to understand any of the conversation around me. Welcome to another pair of shoes. The class wrapped up with all of us eating a dessert at one of the chipped Formica-topped tables.

Our area is a great place to live, seemingly with none of the homeless, impaired, and unfortunate people you notice in other cities. The truth is, they are here as they are everywhere. What you see when you look around, or rather don’t see, is the result of work done by Fisherman’s Mark and other groups. The alternative is a lesser place with people living on the streets, getting ill, or cast adrift because they are unable to navigate this complex societal web we have created. Fisherman’s Mark is the hand that you would give to someone so she doesn’t go under. It’s how we keep things civilized.

The women all leave with plastic containers of cooked greens, a bonus from learning to cut vegetables. It’s ten o’clock. Shelley and I drag the tool cart back up the street to the office and say good night. The town is quiet as I drive home. Streetlights illuminate the clean sidewalks. A guy is walking his dog in front of the church. A woman talks with her friend while they look at the display in a brightly lit shop window.

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