That truism about the significance of the small gesture, that it counts, never felt truer or more noticeable. I see people handing out shopping bags of stuff to the homeless who sleep, among other places, on the steps of closed shops. A friend leaves her home with something in her bag every time for the begging children, mittens, toys. Even the almost funny gesture this morning in my car waiting for the traffic light to change seemed symbolic. A guy in the car next to mine yelled out “let me fix your side view mirror” as he reached from his seat to straighten out the mirror that I’d left closed.
In the atmosphere that really does feel like a noose is tightening as John put it in The New Athenian post the day after all the signatures signed off on the loan package, people are doing the small things they can, a gesture perhaps to salvage some humanity as events keep threatening to strip us of that too. Carolos Papoulias, the president of the Greek Republic, and a wealthy man, made a concrete gesture when he announced he was giving up his presidential salary in support of the state. He’s been the only politician to date to show any empathy , as the entire political body on both sides of the party line continues to be implicated in the various fiascos that have led the country down the road to nowhere. The newest “squabble” is over a minister, still unnamed, who deposited a million Euros (yes, a million) into a foreign bank account, removing it from the country at a time when the finance minister was pleading with the people to keep their money in the Greek banks.
Last Sunday A and I went down to the shelter on Pireos street to help out. I don’t know what I was expecting, but I was surprised that, despite the destitution, there was here too the medley of voices, gratitude mixed in with the arguing and bartering that made what was happening inside the gates of the shelter not very different from what was happening outside of them. There are 3 food shifts, the first one at noon for “the Greeks”; at 3pm and 6pm the servings cater to immigrants. I wondered why they were kept separate. A man in charge says because the Greeks have another process for getting food stamps. I don’t see any food stamps. No one seems to be checking for them when the gates are opened into the “avli” or garden area, with its couple of trees, wood benches and pigeons. A and I have spread out the clothing we separated earlier that morning into piles for women, men, some children’s clothes, some shoes too. We put them out on the vaguely dirtied benches where the pigeons are. I start to clean one when one of the caretakers laughs at me. “They wear these things and sleep on the streets.” I shake my head, irritated, then see him eyeing some of the better stuff. He slipped a scarf into his jacket pocket. The woman from the soup kitchen counter sees him, and yells, “… helping yourself?” he shrugged and moved on.
It was hard to reconcile, the kinds of things we were putting outside on that sun-splashed morning, as people gathered outside at the gates. And it was strange to be spreading them out like gifts as people watched us from the street behind the still locked gates. There was a fur coat still in its dry cleaning plastic, some nice coats; a beautiful purple dress I said to A would have looked amazing on her. Some of the things were new, still with tags, some were your usual worn, still-in-good-shape sweaters. There were bags, belts, two sequined women’s clutches (why is anyone donating a sequined clutch bag to a shelter? Then again, why not…). When the gates opened and there was a rush for the benches, I stepped back. A, who had been to this shelter before said, “It can get crazy.” There were what A called “the professional” gypsies who collected what they could as quickly as they could to sell on the streets, others too, doing the same. But there were also people negotiating with each other, pulling out clothing individually to see what was there, arguing, some trading with each other. It could have been a scene at the market. Some were trying on the clothing. A rather well-dressed woman wearing a ceramic-colored skirt and a white turtle neck with very neatly combed blond hair she had in a bun, picked up the sequined clutch. These were not the people I had expected. Some looked like they might have just got up from drinking coffee in one of the many open-air cafés.
A man came up to me in a NAUTICA coat, and brown corduroy pants, probably in his late 50s; just the stubble on his face made him look weary. “I appreciate this,” he began, “this service, and your offerings, but this isn’t the way to do it. As soon as the gates open, people just come in and take everything. I wanted a jacket, but they’re all gone.” I nod. “This needs better organization,” he says a second time. “Yes,” I explain most of this is volunteer work. So it’s not up to us. But I tell him I’ll go and see if I can find a jacket for him. A has warned me about being subtle since no one is allowed inside the house besides the workers. There are still bags of things, though A and I had managed to get though most of it in the morning, and took almost all of it outside. “Or a pullover” he adds, “So I can change out of these clothes.”
When I come back out with a pullover and jacket that I’ve stuffed in a plastic bag, the food serving has started. The man with the NAUTICA jacket comes up and thanks me when I give him the bag. “Do you see that beautiful man?” A says to me, it’s something she’ll say a couple of times at the shelter. There were more than a few young, lovely people, in line for their food. The person she’s referring to is a tall, dark haired man with his hair pulled back in a long ponytail. He’s carrying a guitar and a knapsack. More than frayed or worn clothing, it’s the roller bags and knapsacks that give away any sign that these are people carrying their belongings with them. A recent newspaper article quoted that 1 in 10 of the homeless had university degrees. Then I heard the loud complaining. He was neatly dressed in a beige windbreaker and jeans. “This is the second time there’s no yogurt!” A woman in line agrees with him. She was also expecting yogurt. “You didn’t have it last week either, but you have it for the immigrants who come at 3pm!” I go to find the person in charge; he’s been generally expressionless for most of the morning. “They don’t realize this is charity operation” he says tonelessly. When I ask about serving yogurt he shrugs, and says “There’s only enough for one shift today.”
“I’m going to go to the person in charge,” the man in the windbreaker continues, now more loudly. “I mean, how can there be no yogurt for the Greeks!” As it turns out there are over 600 people that day, and the soup kitchen has enough food for 500. They have let everyone in who was standing outside the gates. Each person gets what looks like a TV dinner of meat, potatoes, and another vegetable, with a bun, and an apple. The man, still upset about the yogurt, says as he eats his TV dinner, repeats that he will go to the person in charge. I nod. “I won’t leave this alone,” he continues, “It’s the second time it’s happened.” One woman with a tattered paper in her hand who is speaking in heavily accented Greek is insisting that she should be served now rather than wait for the 3pm shift. The person in charge shakes his head. So she comes up to me. She’s also pushing a roller bag, and looks like she could have just come from the gym dressed in her black sweat pants and hoodie; she wants me to look at the paper in her hand, “It is okay for me to eat,” she says in her accented Greek. “I’m hungry.” I think her accent is Russian, but yes her paper says she has Greek residency. I explain this to the guy who is staring straight ahead. He seems to be ignoring me, but when she gets back in line to get her meal and bun, he simply nods when the person passing them out asks if he can serve her.
The serving goes on for over an hour before someone from inside the kitchen says, “food is running out.” There’s a man who has turned up with a large bag he puts on a table as he starts to pull out sandwiches to hand each person as they leave the food line. I think he’s from the church since the neatly wrapped bundles in white napkins, look like prosforo bread that’s passed out in church on Sundays. Someone asks for a second one, and I hear him say, “I don’t eat myself so I can make these for you my friend.” He sees me watching him and asks if I come often. I tell him it’s my first time here, and ask him what he does. “I have a shop,” he tells me, “in Pireaus.” I find out he makes these bread and cheese sandwiches himself and brings them to the shelter twice a week. I tell him I wish I’d kept some of the better coats and given them myself to people after the gates. I tell him about the man in the NAUTICA coat. He shakes his head. “It all helps,” he says, “even if some people come in and take more…”, “But then others don’t get what they need” I say. He looks me in the eyes and I am struck by his expression. “You know what the judges say, right?” I actually don’t, but I nod. “It’s better to let 5 guilty people off than to indict one innocent person.” I am still thinking about this when the food runs out while there are still some 20 or 30 people to feed. The guy in charge nods to the crates of yogurt, and tells someone to open one of them. There are still some bread buns, and apples, and now the yogurt. A woman in the first round with a neat braid who also has a roller bag says she’d like a yogurt but the person at the kitchen window shakes his head, “You got food, this is for the people who didn’t get any.” She accepts this. The sandwiches are also finished. I watch the man who brought them fold his plastic bag, and walk back out the gates. I am thinking of his generosity, and of the man who insisted so adamantly on the yogurt he didn’t get, how our debt is to each other, and that we always come up short.