Rosemary Laughlin/Voices | 'A-Team' in action at the food pantry

Rosemary Laughlin/Voices | 'A-Team' in action at the food pantry

By ROSEMARY LAUGHLIN

I volunteered at the St. Vincent De Paul Food Pantry when I was still teaching high school. I stopped by every Thursday afternoon from 4-5:30 on my way home.

We set up tables and placed bags on them that had been pre-filled by morning volunteers with non-perishables, most of which were bought from the Eastern Illinois Food Bank. These tables were at the end of a long hall whose door was unlocked at 4:30 for anyone who needed free food.

We added perishable items donated by bakeries, grocery stores, and restaurants, distributing them evenly among the 15 or so bags that were the usual number. Directly behind us was the Choice Table with odd things like fresh mushrooms, Danish pastry, pies, kiwi fruit, or avocados. Each visitor could pick one item.

I soon realized, "My word, this pantry is run by a bunch of aging retirees!" The head of it all was Sophia — then in her upper eighties — whose basic rule of operation was Fair Distribution, meaning that the late-in-the-week comers were to have as closely as possible the same good things as the early-in-the week folks.

I witnessed "run-ins" between her and Jim, a former construction worker with a build as big as his heart. When someone asked for another package of hot dogs for a nephew or cousin, Sophia would tartly say, "No! We have others to consider!" Jim would simply toss an extra pack into the man's bag. Then — glaring on her part, big grin on his. Occasionally there were words.

Every week there was a drama of some sort. More than once I thought what a good scenario the SVDP pantry would be for a TV series — part soap opera, sitcom, and serious problem.

One afternoon we unexpectedly had far more people than prepared bags. Sophia grabbed Mark, another volunteer, and went off to fill more from supplies in the storage area. I was at the distribution table. Mike, an extraordinarily sweet man with arthritis, was seated at the sign-in book, chatting and calling each by name. He knew many.

Mike was a veteran of World War II. He had regaled me earlier with a story of being mistaken for an Iraqi Freedom vet. We both laughed, but I reflected that with his smooth skin and calm demeanor I could see why the person had made an older-officer judgment.

Mike said to the 12 people remaining, "Please line up and stay in place. You'll all get your bag and choice item. Be patient."

Slowly the line moved as Sophia or Mark wheeled in more bags on a cart. Grumbling started that the best items on the Choice Table were being taken. "I wanted that lemonade!" "Hey, no more croissants in back?"

Finally, it was down to two men who began squabbling about who was first. "Cut that out!" ordered Mike.

Then — tussling. A knife flashed in the light from the door. Wha-a-t? I froze. I just couldn't process the reality of an attack in the SVDP pantry.

His military training still active despite arthritis, Mike lurched up and blocked the man with the knife. He pushed him, both stumbling, to the door.

Mike butted the man outside. "Now get going, or I'll call the police!"

While Mike yelled, he grabbed the Allen wrench from its nail on the wall and locked the push bar.

My attention went to the other man. Sophia had come to check on the noise and accosted him, finger wagging, working him into an interior corner.

She delivered a tongue-lashing worthy of a Shakespearean harridan. "How dare you behave like that! We'll have none of that in this pantry! Never!" She really went at him. He cowered, covering his face in shame.

"Other guy's gone," Mike said to him. "Now you get out and get on the bus coming to the stop across the street. The police will probably be here soon."

He was off and running. Mike and Sophia could have dusted their hands in satisfaction. Not bad for octogenarians!

Indeed. Paralysis gone, I felt distinctly grateful that the "A-Team" had gone into action.

Rosemary Laughlin lives in Urbana and writes community theater reviews for The News-Gazette.