Under the Bridges
Darkness had already moved in during the three -hour meal preparation at Kiki’s house where we had been cutting onions, green peppers, herbs and spices to add to his main dish. This was taking much longer than I expected. As the main dish simmered, we waited for Nelson and Monica to return from the store with the paper products. The neighbor lady was still preparing the 100 tortillas to add to the meal. Pastor Luis, sensing my uneasiness about the time to begin serving in this unfamiliar environment, gave me a smile and warm assurance, “Don’t worry, Caroline, I will be your bodyguard.”
To my non-discerning eye in the dark shadows of a San Salvador night sky, they appear as trash bags heaped on the pavement, I am embarrassed to say. When our driver, Nelson, applies the brakes of the vehicle signaling for the car traveling in tandem behind us to stop, I see movement on that pavement. The homeless begin to sit up in anticipation of the meal they are about to receive.
Children, youth, adults of all ages appear out of nowhere. I notice a pregnant young woman and emaciated young men. All are covered with layers of filth and grime. All are destitute living on the streets. All are God’s children.
Our first of the six stops tonight is so brief that it is over before I realize it began. In a whirlwind the leader of our team, Kiki, fills a plate and serves the man who lays under a burning candle for heat, and we all jump back into the vehicles to drive to the next stop.
Tonight’s weather is unusually cold for San Salvador. I’m wearing the warmest clothes I brought and still need to borrow Don’s jacket which I zip up to my chin. These homeless folks wear threadbare sleeveless shirts and many are barefoot. I’ve often wondered how homeless survive in northern climates in winter temperatures. Shelters fill up quickly and generally allow homeless only in at night to sleep.
The second stop is our largest turnout, 30-50 people gathering and running down the sidewalk when they spot the two parked vehicles. Kiki, reminds them of the familiar rules: line up for a filled plate, and then move to the drink station where I serve.
I’m “in the moment” serving at my assigned drink station when out of the blue I hear Pastor Luis calmly whispers, “Caroline, get in the car NOW.” I had sensed nothing happening around me but was so focused on my duty that I am oblivious. A few blocks down the street I ask Nelson why the hurry. “There is always the potential for danger” he tells me. These guys take no risks and perhaps transporting two gringos tonight makes them even more cautious. We definitely serve quickly and move from one location to the next.
Kiki tells us he chooses to serve at locations where other groups such as the church groups tend not to target. One group of homeless lives among the merchant stalls adjacent to the National Cathedral in center city. During daylight hours this area fills with tourists seeking Monsignor Romero’s crypt or Iglesia El Rosario a few blocks away. Under the veil of darkness, the occupants of the same area change dramatically, not unlike any major city in any part of the world.
One of the more “colorful” scenes tonight takes place under a bridge. The young man who seems to be the “kingpin” of this turf sits in a very worn, over-stuffed recliner in the middle of the hard-packed dirt. He is not only extremely thin, but also his demeanor is intimidating as in DO NOT APPROACH. Several mangy-looking dogs lying on scraps of raveling carpet pieces surround him. A couple of other young men are nearby. They take our food and drink to the kingpin in his chair. When I glance back, I notice him breaking off pieces of the two tortillas to feed his dogs. “Does it bother you that he feeds his dogs the food you work hard to pay for and prepare?” I ask Nelson. “It’s his choice what he does with it. Besides, I have dogs so I understand” he responds.
Somewhat reluctantly from across the street a couple with two young children slowly approaches and sits on the edge of the curb. They do not set foot on the dirt of the kingpin’s turf. As famished as they all appear, they wait for US to take THEM plates of food and cups of green tea. They retreat with their meals back across the street without taking a bite. It is tough to see these homeless children. Hundreds of thoughts run through my head. They are really cute kids if you can mentally see through their circumstances.
I ask Kiki if they tend to always see the same people from week to week. The answer is “Yes and no; many are the same, but others come and go.” The recipients know they will receive a substantial home-cooked meal from our group. Tonight we have prepared a rice base with many vegetables and seasonings simmered in a tomato sauce. There was not enough money to add meat.
Because of the emphasis on speedy deliveries and language barrier, engaging and interacting with the homeless is difficult and minimal tonight. However, Don did find one fluent English speaker he engaged in a short dialogue. The guy had lived a productive life in California for 30 years where he raised a daughter who is now a successful physician. Then he was caught by immigration officials and due to non-residency status, deported. He now lives on the streets unable to find a job. We long to pursue the conversation but are denied the opportunity to explore more of his story. Safety prevails and another mouth needs to be fed. Off we go.
An hour and a half later our containers are empty. We thank our friend for changing the night of the week he normally does this activity in order to include us in this adventure. We offer a monetary donation for next week’s meal telling him, “Maybe you can add meat next time.”