Do not worry about tomorrow for tomorrow will
worry about itself. Each day has trouble of its own.†
It wasn’t supposed to be this difficult. For years I volunteered for Meals on Wheels, a small gesture of good will to get me out of the office and into the apartment buildings that dotted the downtown Minneapolis skyline. But at the moment I wasn’t at work or delivering meals. I was in limbo.
I strangled the steering wheel. I never liked Franklin Avenue. With little room and constant traffic, everything about the avenue was mad-dash and chaotic. At the moment I wasn’t even moving. I was stuck in the same spot for ten minutes and I had no idea why. All I knew is what I felt. If danger can be felt, I was picking up its vibe, much like how a soldier feels a chill when a sniper is near. But this wasn’t a chill. This was pulsating heat and the heat was telling me to be careful.
Traffic started to move so I inched my car down the block. When I reached the intersection, I soon discovered the reason for traffic jam. Smashed glass and twisted metal lay everywhere. A couple of squad cars were tending to the injured and directing traffic. The ambulances were already gone. A car sat on the front lawn of the corner church.
Straitgate Church may have been open to all souls, but when it came to wayward drivers, its stone foundation was unforgiving. The crumpled car lay at its base and the owner sat on the front steps. She was a young African immigrant. She had a dumbfounded look. It said, “What am I going to do?”
As I slowly turned left onto Park Avenue, I thought the girl could have easily been me.
I pulled into a parking lot and walked into the Benedictine nursing home nestled next to the I-35/94 interchange. I was thirty minutes late and saw the coordinator on the phone. Pat was a little worried and about to call me. I quickly told her about the delay and we ran over the route before I ran back out the door.
Pat had sketched a route that went through an alley, down Park, across 15th, around the Minneapolis convention center to 12th to Nicollet to Grant and then LaSalle Avenue. With one-ways, blocked streets, two interstates and a few historic churches, this was actually a direct route. It was also tight fitting with too much traffic. If I took this route on this day, I may as well drive back to Straitgate and pile my car into the front steps. Instead I drove back to Franklin and entered downtown through 1st Avenue. It was an easy one-way that gave me plenty of room until I turned left onto 15th and into the path of a man crossing the middle of the street.
There was no immediate danger. I wasn’t driving fast and there was still plenty of room between us. The problem was the man was not only walking a miniature poodle but also carrying a Styrofoam container of food.
Even though I slowed my car to a complete stop, it didn’t prevent the man from bolting into a complete panic. His bolt looked more like a crawl but it was enough to cause paper napkins and a plastic fork to flutter off the Styrofoam container and float to the ground. The man, the dog and the meal made it safely to the other side, but his eating utensils and napkins were crushed by my car’s tires.
I could not believe the irony that I inhibited one man’s ability to eat his meal with my wheels. Did I just cancel out my good deed? Should I stop and give the guy a fork? No, it would be idiotic to stop in the middle of the street. He would find other cutlery. Plus, I was running late.
When I arrived at the Maryland, I could find no place to park in front of the apartment. Normally, there was at least one spot in the small driveway, but today was not a normal day. In fact, the driveway was overloaded with trucks and construction equipment spilling onto the sidewalk.
I drove down the street and found a spot a block away. As I approached the Maryland with two full bags of meals, it became apparent the building had become an impromptu construction site. Supplies were everywhere. A giant crane was in the process of being assembled. I reached the front lobby, rang the front desk and the manager let me in.
“Am I okay to deliver these meals,” I asked.
“Yes, yes,” She replied. “Just be careful on the south corridor.”
The manager waved off my question like a foul order and scurried back into the office. I shrugged my shoulders and felt the heavy load for I still had yet to make my first delivery.
Delivering the meals at the Maryland was a little different than most places. At any usual stop I would knock at the door.
“Who is it?”
“Meals on Wheels.”
The door would open and I would hand over a hot meal in a shrink-wrapped plastic tray and a cold meal in a white paper bag.
“Thank you so much.”
“Not a problem.”
“Have a good day!”
It was that easy, but the Maryland residents didn’t even want this limited interaction. Instead of knocking, I placed the meals in the coolers that were in front of the resident’s doors.
It wasn’t always this way. I worked this route long enough to remember when most of the residents came to the door, all except for two – Sally and Dorothy. For years I delivered their meals and never once did I meet them. Many times I wondered what led them to this circumstance where they put a cooler in front of their doors to avoid contact. The possibilities were many and I was sure I would never know. All I knew was Sally and Dorothy’s aversion to the outside world started to spread to the other residents until no one at the Maryland came to the door.
As I walked the hallways, dropping off the meals in the coolers, everything looked fine until I got to the south corridor. At first I heard the whirling and then I saw the giant commercial fans tucked underneath the hallway’s damp carpet in an aggressive attempt to fight off mold.
I finished delivering my meals on the third and fourth floor, opened the door to the south stairwell and saw no carpet. All that remained was a blackened, gooey resin. Part of me thought it best to go back to the main elevator, but I was too curious. I carefully moved up the sticky stairwell and opened the door.
A fire definitely broke out in this hallway. The carpet had been ripped out and the ceiling tiles were gone. The door to my right had been kicked off its hinges. I peered into the charred remains of the apartment but I didn’t step any further. It felt wrong. Whoever lived here lost everything. The neighboring apartment also looked damaged, but the fire department was able to keep the fire to these two units, creating the remaining damage with their fire hoses.
I eased down the hallway until I came to Dorothy’s door. There was no cooler. I didn’t know what to do. She always had a cooler. Had it burned in the fire or washed away in the flood? I tentatively knocked and Dorothy opened the door. She wasn’t a gargoyle, a witch or a kissing cousin to Boo Radley. In fact, she was perfectly normal. I handed over the hot and cold meal and she thanked me. I stood in the hallway and she remained at the door. I couldn’t help myself.
“What happened to your neighbor?”
Dorothy did not wave off the question. She instead told me her neighbor tuned on her self-cleaning oven and went out for the evening. The oven went on the fritz and everything went up in flames.
“Water damage all the way to the first floor.”
The pulsating heat that licked at my car on Franklin had partially destroyed this building. I told Dorothy to be careful and gingerly moved down the hall, a gummy resin sticking to my shoes.
Since it was the summer, there were plenty of spaces to park at my next stop in front of Emerson Elementary. I eased into a spot, grabbed the delivery bags and darted across the street to the Commodore. I rang the door bell. There was no answer, so I rang the bell again.
As a rule, I will ring the buzzer at least three times. The reason is most of the residents have a long list of ailments that may include, bad hearing, failing eyes or the unfortunate circumstance of being old. As long as they were there, I was willing to wait, but this stop was getting ridiculous.
I rang the bell again and leaned against the stoop. The school’s playground across the street was empty. A tattered soccer ball lay abandoned in the dirt.
Finally, I heard the buzz and opened the lobby door. I went up a flight of stairs and walked down a darken hallway. When I reached the apartment, nobody was there to greet me. I knocked and waited.
If every route has a bad apple, this was the stop. There was no reason for Lance to take this long. He wasn’t old or wheelchair bound. He was just a guy that somehow got on the list. I thought about leaving the meal at the door, but then I heard the door unlock and slightly open. It wasn’t Lance, but a woman, and except for a bed sheet she was completely naked.
I didn’t find the circumstance unusual. After all, who knows what you will run into when you enter another person’s home, maybe its five cats and a half-eaten pizza or a guy still sitting in a fully reclined Barcalounger viewing internet porn. One lady answered the door wearing a tube top, a full leg cast and that was it. One guy greeted me with a, “I hunt bugs.” So, a lady wrapped in a bed sheet was just another Tuesday except for one problem – the impromptu toga. I had one hand on the cold meal and the other under the hot. The lady could reach over with one hand but to do so with the other would involve the bed sheet falling to the floor.
Where the heck is Lance, I thought. We could use another team member to complete this volunteer challenge.
The woman eventually tucked a fold of the bed sheet under her armpit and grabbed the two meals. She quickly closed the door and the show was over.
I know there are many who wouldn’t hesitate to point out a situation where I took time off work to fight through traffic to wait at an apartment while Lance and his lady friend fought over who would get out of bed and walk the twenty feet to the door. Maybe that was the story. Maybe I didn’t know all the facts. What I did know was at 12:25 on a sunny Tuesday afternoon Lance was having a lot more fun than me.
I crossed over the I-35/94 interchange and pulled my car into a parking lot that sat behind an Ace Hardware. I liked this parking spot for I could hit three different apartments within a couple blocks.
Today, I only had two and I was happy I didn’t have to deliver to Steve at The Coyle. He was a large man and completely unwilling to walk down the flight of stairs to let me in. Also, he couldn’t buzz me in from his apartment. Instead, he would walk to the balcony to fling his wallet with the key card, which I usually caught with my face.
I was glad that I didn’t have to catch a flying wallet and I was happy that my next two stops were my favorite.
I always liked delivering to Irv. He promptly answered my ring and quickly buzzed me into the building. He was cheerful and always greeted me with a Howdy-Do! Delivering to Irv had never a problem, except for today.
Six squad cars surrounded the front of the building, but I didn’t see any police officers, which indicated the situation was not secure. I thought it best to come back later.
I headed down the street to Lydia House, which is a text book example how every delivery should go. When I reached the front of the building, the doors automatically opened for the person at the front desk saw me approach. I then crossed the small lobby with a “Good Morning!”
That’s right, I was running late.
I pulled out the hot and cold meals and handed them over.
“Have a good one.”
When I returned back to Irv’s apartment, a couple of police officers were standing around a squad car with a screaming person in the back seat. The moment still looked sketchy. If it was Lance, I’d be back on the road, but with Irv…
I tentatively approached one of the officers. “Um, I have to deliver a meal. Is it okay to go into the building?”
As I ascended the stairwell, I wondered how much faith I should have put in the officer’s belief that the third floor was secure. Did everybody in the building know this?
I quickly delivered the meal to Irv who appeared oblivious to the activity a couple flights below. We only talked about the weather and I didn’t mention the ruckus. Why ruin his day.
After delivering Irv’s meal, I had one meal left and I looked at the list.
“No,” I groaned. “Not Lech.”
At this point I was forty minutes late and if there was one person who would not be happy, it would be Lech.
I think Lech was born cranky. He was a Polish transplant in his mid 70’s. Most East European immigrants resided in public housing downtown, but for some reason Lech lived in a high-rise on Clifton and Franklin. The apartment was mostly filled with African immigrants and Lech did not like his situation for he really didn’t like his neighbors. In fact, he never seemed happy about anything. The few times I delivered his meals I got a heavy dose of complaining. One time he was upset that I was early. Another time he looked at the meal and said, “Do you expect me to eat this?” It was almost assured our encounter would not contain the word congenial.
I pulled into the tight parking lot and walked to the high-rise. I rang Lech’s number and he answered.
“Who is it?”
“Meals on Wheels.”
We lost connection, so I dialed again.
“What do you want?”
“I have your –”
It sounded like Lech was hanging up on me, so I dialed again.
I was baffled. I could not think of a situation where a person would refuse to let me in with a free meal. All I knew for sure is Lech got under my skin.
“Buzz! Buzz! Buzzzzzzzzzzzzzz!”
The lady at the front desk saw the commotion and let me in.
“Meal for Lech,” She asked.
“Yeah,” I replied. “Why wouldn’t he let me in?”
She just shook her head.
I took the elevator to the 12th floor. The doors slowly opened and I stepped out. I saw Lech’s door pried open with a plastic snow shovel, which is not a good thing to see in the middle of August. I ventured tentatively as if it was some sort of trap.
“Lech?” I stood at the open door. I definitely wasn’t going into the apartment.
Lech quickly appeared from the kitchen wearing khaki shorts and a loose fitting grey tank top. For being an old guy he still had muscles. He probably did a thousand pushups a day. I heard anger is powerful fuel. I definitely could see the veins on his forehead and they were bulging. He wasn’t upset. He was livid.
“Why so late,” He screamed.
My response was robust and forceful. Lech heard the frustration in my voice and smirked. “Somalis, they can’t drive.”
I was shocked not by his prejudice, but that a half mile down the road was a frightened girl waiting for her smashed vehicle to be towed off of Straitgate’s front lawn. I didn’t validate Lech’s comment by explaining the situation anymore. Instead, I handed over the last meal of the day and moved on.
When I reached the intersection of Franklin and Park, the crash site had been cleared. I pulled in front of the Benedictine nursing home and dropped off the bags. I then turned onto Portland and back to Franklin.
After spending close to two hours volunteering over my lunch hour, I still needed to find something to eat. Normally, I would grab a gyro at Taste of New York, but I was beyond late. I needed to find a place that was fast. That’s when I saw Jimmy John’s.
I pulled into Plymouth Congregation Church’s parking lot and waited for my turn to dart across Franklin. As I waited I saw a silver haired lady standing in front of her pearl-white Cadillac. She was shaking her head and talking on a cell phone for the front hood of her car was scrunched all the way to the windshield.
“Unbelievable,” I said to myself.
I patiently waited for traffic to die down, then bolted across the street and dipped into the store.
I picked Jimmy John’s for as advertised they are exceedingly fast. In their commercials, the delivery guys usually beat police officers, EMT’s and Formula One drivers. It wasn’t bluster. There were times when I was given my sandwich before I could even hand over the cash. To walk into a Jimmy John’s is to walk into the emergency room of fast food. But when I walked up to the register, nobody was there. Somehow the day outside had followed me through these doors. But instead of being dangerous and chaotic, the restaurant was subdued. I somehow walked into the Jimmy John’s of Mayberry County. No one was in a hurry as most of the employees seemed mildly interested in their current assignment. A kid refilling mayo jars eventually noticed me and sauntered over.
“What can I get you?”
“I’ll take a Vito.”
I handed over the cash but did not receive the sandwich. Instead, I headed down to the end of the counter to a sign that said “PICK UP.” When I saw five other people waiting, I knew my sandwich would be delayed.‡
I shook my head. What was late on top of late? So what if the two girls working behind the counter moved at the pace of a sea krill. The waiting gave me a chance to decompress. It even allowed me the opportunity to read the signs splattered on the walls like “SUBS SO FAST YOU’LL FREAK” and “WE’D LOVE TO SEE YOU NAKED” and “WE CATER WEDDINGS.”
Subs for a wedding? Is that acceptable? If Jimmy John’s was in play as a wedding caterer, is it possible to bring in a hot dog vendor and a beer man? Could they work the aisles during the ceremony, shouting “Ice Cold Beer” between vows?
Before I could bring in peanuts and cracker jacks, my sandwich was tossed onto the counter.
Taking a final drive down Franklin, I listened to the announcer on the radio lament for she was having another birthday. I could relate. Mine was a couple weeks before and it was impossible not to become reflective on a life that kept moving forward even while I felt like I was still I park. Whatever the sentiment, I was glad to be turning off of Franklin. Lyndale Avenue never looked so good. Soon it would merge with Hennepin, open wide like a delta to take me onto 394. From there I would head back to work with the firm belief that I drove through a chaotic core of accidents, fire, police and a possible swinging shovel. All around lay disaster but I remained unscathed.
Strait is the gate and narrow is the
way which leadeth unto life.
† The places are real. The events happened. The names have been changed to protect the hungry.
‡ It would also be the wrong sandwich.