I had been warned about Esther. I’d just begun working at the food pantry recently and in learning a new job’s rigamaroo I discovered that seniors receive a special voucher. Randy came in to volunteer on Mondays and Esther would try to take everything – the kitchen sink if possible.
However, when I first encountered her I didn’t put two and two together. I didn’t know this was her. She was a force to be reckoned with though she stood a slight four foot, ten inches and had a demeanor that oozed of sweetness so viscous it gave an instant emotional cavity to all present, make no mistakes when she shuffled in with her two bags, sweet smile, and general expression of awe and confusion, she knew exactly what she was doing. It was amazing to watch.
Everything was a question. If she incurred a social worker or anyone that could be perceived as a social worker her frail body pinned them to wall with a series of, “Do you have any sandwiches? “
“No. Esther, I’m sorry. Not today we don’t.”
“Tuna sandwiches? “
“Nope. No sandwiches.”
“No. We really honestly don’t have any sandwiches, but you know what? There’s plenty of groceries to choose from on the shelves in the pantry.”
“Jell-o? What about Jell-o? Pudding?”
“No. There really isn’t any Jell-o or pudding today, but I can assure you there’s much to choose from on the shelves.”
“I just really wanted a sandwich and…”
“No. I completely understand, but we just don’t have that today and if you’ll excuse me there’s some people waiting…”
“What about mayonnaise? I have some tuna and I’d really like to make a tuna salad, but I’m out of mayonnaise.”
“You know, I’m not sure. You’d have to look on the shelf - the one that I just spoke of right in the other room. Now, I really do have to…”
“Esther, I’m walking away right now.”
This was the cycle: endless and exhausting.
She’d come for the meals and stay past closing. The rules were all the same for every patron. So, while we all attempted to remain flexible, there was definitely a line that needed to be maintained. When the soup kitchen closed everyone needed to leave so it could then be converted to the food pantry where patrons would shop. Small, cramped spaces required this. So, a social worker or coordinator would notify lingers that he/she appreciated them clearing out so this conversion could take place and that they were always welcome at the next meal. Esther would stay and stay some more. Finally, a supervisor would say, “Esther, please go, but you’re welcome to come back tomorrow.”
“Oh. Yes. Of course.” She’d say as if this were the first time she’d ever heard these words. She remained stagnant.
A few moments later, “Esther, I really need you to leave. The rules are the same for everyone. Thank you.”
”Yes. I was just wondering if you had any…” and the cycle would reoccur.
“No. You can come back and shop later, but now I need you to leave.”
A supervisor would leave the room. Several minutes would pass and there she would remain. Finally, a stern, “Esther you need to leave now.” was expressed. She’d put her hand on her bag talking all the while about all the things she wanted or needed, meekly uttering how unfair she was being treated. She moved slightly toward the door, which began the process of literally corralling her outside. Since our volunteers altered from week to week and their encounters with her were few and far between, there was little way for any social work not to look like a complete asshole when they eventually laid down the law with her. She had the “elderly person card” and man did she know how to play it. What’s a volunteer going to think, “Man, that’s a sweet little old lady and that social worker’s a bitch!” or “There’s another old woman taking advantage of the system! There are so many these days!” I mean, really, we didn’t stand a chance.
What was amazing about her assertions of being treated unfairly was that she came (and if not succeeding, attempted) way more times to get food than any patron was permitted. (Whenever a client of the pantry expressed or displayed a genuine need for more food, there was no question about it. They were going to get it. This wasn't the issue for her. She just wanted - needed to take anything available constantly.) When she did get food she’d never follow the card given to each patron describing how much they could take according to his/her family size. So, she’d just snag things off the shelf without limits. It was difficult for volunteers to call her on it, on account of her looking so damn innocent. She only brought a bag or two with her though the rule was to bring a sufficient amount of bags for the food you need to take home. Finally, she’d ask volunteers to help her carry said bags home for her. The problem was she knew all the rules. She new what she was supposed to take and not, that volunteers weren’t permitted to walk patrons home, that she needed to bring bags, etc. Yet, every time she came she presented a look of wonder on her face, as if it were her first time hearing this and muttered protests of her suppression. Even in all this, one really couldn’t help but love her and look at her with the same portion of wonder she gave to the volunteers and social workers. She was amazing and an adventure to encounter. Quite frankly in my own masochistic way (and the way of nearly every social worker) I genuinely looked forward to seeing her. She was what she was and she wasn’t going to change. I was just there to ride the coaster with her and keep it from crashing, if possible.
This all led to my piece de resistance. One night she came in, as usual, right at the beginning of the food pantry shift, which lasted for an hour and a half. She accosted me with questions about marinara sauce and pudding as I made my way to the office where I checked patrons in. I checked her in first and continued the night; checking in patron after patron. Nearly an hour and a half later I went to the pantry to check on volunteers and discovered Esther still shopping and volunteers wide-eyed and unsure how to move this unstoppable force of a 95-pound woman. She weaved in between and all around of other shopper's paths mumbling an interest in various items and pulling them off the shelf with little regard to those around her. This created quite the cluster fuck. There really was only room for two shoppers at each of the four stations. She wasn’t looking for social interaction, just stuff. Everyone tried their best to continue in confusion or in pitying glances her way, but I knew. This was her routine.
So, with five minutes before closing she lagged behind and the others cleared out . I said, “Esther, you have five minutes to complete your shopping, then you need to go.”
“Oh. Okay.” She submitted. Then, “Maybe, I’ll have one of these”, randomly grabbing a can of artichokes from the shelf. “What are these?” concerning another can.
“What are these?”
“Can I have these?”
“No. The items on the very top shelf and bottom shelf along the floor are for the soup kitchen’s use.”
“What about these? Can I have these?”
“Those? They’re paper plates for the soup kitchen. No.”
“Please. I really need paper plates.”
“Seriously? How many do you need.”
“I don’t know.”
“Here are four paper plates. Now we’re closed. So,...”
“Can I have those?”
“Spoons? No. None of this is for taking home. The food pantry is the shelves here, which I’m now going to pull the curtain closed on, since we are now closed.”
She desperately forced her tiny body around mine to snag a couple more cans of things she could not identify to add to a huge pile of goods she did not have enough bags for and not nearly enough man power or strength to carry home.
I turned my back for a second to close the curtain fully. I turned back around to see an amazing sight. Esther had shimmied her foot under the food pantry shelf and summoned forth a gargantuan vat of chocolate fudge. She shuffled it like the cinder block it was, with her feet, toward her cart. I watched, stunned. She bent over and tried to lift it, but could not. All the while she grunted, “I (huff) don’t know (huff) what this is, (huff) but I’m just going to take it with me…”
I stooped down and calmly said, “No. Esther, you are not going to take that home. It is a giant vat of chocolate and what use could you possibly have for this? How will you carry it home?” Honestly, I didn’t even know what possible use we had for it - Ice cream social? Whatever. I scooted it back to its home. No sooner was she at the freezer selecting frozen dinner to bring home.
“How do you make this?”
“350 degrees in the oven for thirty minutes and you need to go home right now.”
The volunteers had begun to tidy up the place for closing and were about to bring a dinner to the fridge, which she was blocking.
“Esther, I need you to move. The volunteers are coming with large containers of food to put in the fridge.”
“Okay.” No movement.
At this point, I literally had to physically move her. I gently pivoted her away from the fridge as she didn’t lose a moment looking in the freezer.
I slowly closed the freezer, handed her a bag and took the other, physically guiding her out of the pantry as she began the cycle,
“Do you have any sandwiches?”
Not indulging in her persistence she turned her ambitions elsewhere and asked, “Can you carry my groceries for me to my apartment.”
“No. You know the rules.”
Her frustration grew as she saw she was running up against wall after wall in her endeavors. Under her breath she made her protests known as she carried her bags down the sidewalk.
She was a sweet woman who was going to work any angle to get as much as she could as often as possible. Most people are the way they are for logical reasons. The way they were raised, a disposition they were born with, a series of life events and/or choices all make a person who they are. I’m sure Esther is no exception, but it is interesting that we form stereotypes about who we think takes advantage of the system and who we think doesn’t. No one ever suspects the sweet, tiny, elderly woman. Yet, I’ve found, more often then not, it’s not the people who are stereotyped as freeloaders that are such. Most people truly are doing the best they can with what they have, even Esther, who, for whatever reason, felt the need to carry home enough chocolate for a diabetic comma. What was she going to do with that chocolate?