Gina’s Review: Volunteering is so honorable and it makes us put ego aside. Of course, it’s even better if a free T-shirt is involved. Keep up the good work, and you might make supervisor.
The conveyor was a bit too tall for some of us on the line. As I reached in to tuck my designated contribution of Corn Biscuits Cereal, I once again scraped my forearm over the edge of the box, contributing to the welt forming on my tender skin. I briefly wondered if I could use a short stool to give me more height. Realizing, as I turned around to unpack two more boxes of cereal from the pallet of boxes behind me and was obliged to dodge an energetic middle-schooler who was racing up and down the line, how unpragmatic that remedy would be. I tugged my ¾ length sleeve down to my wrist in an attempt to protect the reddened area. This action restricted normal arm movement and made me look like Quasimodo.
Our friends Linda and George put my husband and I up for three nights on a recent unexpected stay in Atlanta. We welcomed their hospitality as we combined celebrating at a wedding and mourning at a funeral. Emotions fluctuated and fluttered all over the map. We’d known these friends for nearly 30 years and were grateful for their close-ish proximity which gave us more opportunities to visit one another, Atlanta being 3 ½ hours away from our mountain hamlet. They rescued us from our emotional maelstrom by walking us around town, taking us to a live concert and distracting us with community service.
George had recently found out that he and his fellow employees would receive two days of pay for the equivalent hours of community service. With this in mind, he began to concoct a plan whereby a group of his workmates would take a day to serve together. The question to us was, would we be willing to put in three hours engaging in some unknown task together as a test-run/scoping-out mission at the Atlanta Community Food Bank, a prospect for his work group. No. Was my first thought. Stand in some cold warehouse doing God-knows-what for three hours when the local coffee shop right down the street was beckoning out-of-town customers with time on their hands to stop by on their daily walk to spend money and have a cup? No.
Unless…a free lunch was available. Yes, we would do it, take one for the team we were not even part of, if lunch was our reward. And so, a deal was struck. At 9 the next morning, the four of us arrived during a rain shower at the large and impressive buildings of the Atlanta Community Food Bank and gathered around the free coffee and donut holes for an orientation. We still had no clue what this work would entail. I began to wander about the building, taking pictures of the very clean and neat warehouse, until we were all ushered into the inner sanctum to choose a task. The actual operation was still a mystery as the food bank supervisor began asking for volunteers for such things as “peaches” and “taping” without further explanation of just what action these job labels might involve.
The four of us wanted to stay together, but George broke rank right away by volunteering for taping. There was some grumbling amongst the remaining three with harsh words like “traitor” and “abandonment” tossed in George’s direction. We explained to our supervisor that we wanted to be together and were there any jobs for 2 or 3 people to perform together. She indicated that each assignment would involve only 1 or 2 people. The next task up for grabs was cereal, requiring 2 people. Linda and I enthusiastically (and probably obnoxiously) started yelling and running toward our leader for the chance of at least 2 of us working together. We were led to the warehouse conveyor belt as my man chose the peachy assignment of canned pears. We were going to pack boxes. One thousand (1,000) boxes, filled with our assigned food items, destined for the kitchens of elderly residents of Atlanta.
Linda and I, at the start of the line, introduced ourselves to our closest neighbors, our comrades in nonperishables. Our fellow volunteers across the belt from us, named Ronnie and Andre, were two charming (and good-looking) young men chosen for their muscular physiques to load bottles of orange juice. We thought perhaps we could forgive George, at the other end of the line for his defection. As our anger receded into history, the first boxes made their appearance on the belt for the test run.
Cereal was first. That’s us! That’s us! We eagerly placed our boxes of flakes and biscuits into the test boxes, only to be told from down the line that they should be placed on their narrow sides or the box could not be closed properly. Nitpicking. Duly instructed, we began in earnest to slap a box of each cereal into the boxes that came past us. Quality Control shouted down the line that I had missed a couple boxes with my Corn Biscuits! Soon the calls came back to our end of the line of missing milk or tuna or, to our delight, orange juice.
These mistakes brought to mind Lucy and Ethel in the chocolate factory. Linda and I had a chuckle over that image. We weren’t doing so badly. We began to have fun, dancing to the music piped in to keep everyone in good spirits. Madonna and Ricky Martin serenaded us as we perfected our delivery. Until the youngsters (one on each side of the line) began to crash our party.
We never found out why there were children there on a school day. I commend their mother for bringing them to volunteer. I condemn her for bringing them on the day we were there. They, being pre-teen young and full of an unnecessary overabundance of energy for this task, cruised up and down the line with their canned goods, getting in everyone’s way and creating log jams in the assembly line. We had to turn away from the line to retrieve our food items from the pallets behind us. Several times, as I turned back to place my cereal into oncoming boxes, I nearly crashed into the boy on my side of the line, or had to wait until he was out of my way and then rush like a mad woman to catch up to the boxes going past my loading zone.
Their mother finally reined in her junior volunteers, perhaps having had a similar episode with her own kid on the other side of the line. A break was called. We welcomed it as a photo op and posed with some silly signs appropriated by George because he was in charge and that’s what he wanted to do. We smiled anyway, ate more donut holes and returned to our tasks only to find that many food items had been taken away and replaced with unfamiliar food items.
This change caused some protestation down the line at not quite the Norma Rae level, but indignant nonetheless. It was mostly me doing the whining. My item had been removed completely, leaving me with nothing to do. I forced my assistance on the milk lady as she still had milk and it looked like a tougher job than lifting cereal boxes. After the unpacker opened the boxes from the pallet which contained the milk cartons, I picked up two and handed them to the designated milk lady, reinventing myself as the middle (wo)man.
The unpacker and I had a nice little system going, stacking up the cartons so that I would not have to bend over and hurt my back, when we were chastised by our Food Bank supervisor for creating a potential topple hazard for the cartons. My partner in milk carton destruction and I worked around this by continuing to do the same thing when she wasn’t looking. I was beginning to tire. Even the middle-schoolers were less rambunctious.
Linda, across the line from me, was planting oatmeal cylinders into the boxes as they came by. I wondered how she managed to hike those things over the top of the box. She, being of shorter stature, must have had to dunk them like a basketball. I was too busy dodging the scrutiny of the supervisor and keeping the milk lady amply supplied with cartons to really assess the situation.
A call went out to finish up the final boxes. A few hoots could be heard, cheers of joy for a job well done or thank God it’s over. We were happy-tired and satisfied that we had done something worthwhile for the community. We wandered back toward the parking lot as we said goodbye to our fellow volunteers. I snapped a few photos of them as we passed. The boys were productively sweeping up around the conveyor. Such sweet lads.
We ate a hearty, well-deserved lunch, eating up a good portion of the three hours pay that George would receive from his company. Company swag as well as good memories to follow.
Good work makes good lunch,
Guest Editor Gina is a member of the Asheville Women Writers Cooperative. We met at the coffee meetup and have been comparing notes about moving here from the tropics ever since. No commas perished in the editing of this story.