Saturday, July 12, 2008


There are many instances which have led me to truly believe in the desperation of the human soul. We are all longing for connection. Dorothy Day's autobiography, The Long Loneliness, intimately focuses on her journey to find herself. The relationship in which she found the most comfort was the mystic connection between herself and God. Others find the solution to loneliness in family, a lifetime partner (romantic or platonic), or even with the companionship of a pet.

Lately, I have seen and listened to stories of overwhelming isolation. Some of the men and women who eat at the Hippie Kitchen experience not only the loneliness we all know in the physical and emotional sense, but also a spiritually exhausting hopelessness. How do we--as individuals, as a community, as a society and culture, as a family--heal our brothers and sisters?

In April, we hosted a music party at the Hippie Kitchen garden. We brought in the accordion, guitars, some percussion instruments, and a list of songs and music. It was a great hit, and the guys were more than happy to shout out names of tunes they wanted to hear. I remember saying, "We don't have 'American Pie,' sorry!" and hearing roaring groans of disappointment.

One of my favorite guests, and one of the two Persians I know who eat at the Hippie Kitchen, walked into the garden flushed and sullen-faced. It was quite clear he was drunk, and it was the first time I had even seen him under the influence. He is a well-kept man with a gentle and loving spirit. Whenever he speaks to me, he leans in a bit, almost a slight bow, and smiles to say, "Allison, how are you?" His greeting this time was strained as he asked to play the accordion. "You know how to play?" I almost scoffed in surprise. "Yes, yes. Give it to me," he replied kindly, and slightly slurred. Margaret and I helped to strap him into the large instrument.

The moment the accordion rested on his lap, although still intoxicated, his eyes alerted. I believe something was set off in his soul, and his drowsy eyes could barely express the change he felt. As he pulled open the accordion's lung, he recited the chord he played, "A." He continued to expand and contract the instrument, stretching it to his arms' full length and closing it almost completely. The music that emitted from his bony fingers was less than flawless. The heart wrenching tune he gave us lingered in the air as tears welled up in his bloodshot eyes. He stopped, wiped his face and said, "I haven't played the accordion in twenty years." Unable to clear his face of the salty streams, he got up and walked away.

Margaret and I looked at each other, and Margaret, being the braver one of the two of us, jumped up to follow him. A few moments later, I stood, trying to shake off the awe that had paralyzed me. He was ready to leave the kitchen when Margaret approached him and said, "That was beautiful!" Our new found musician muscled a smile and said with shame, "It just brought back too much... My mother and father... They died. And now, all I do is drink." Margaret, again finding words that I could not, set her hand on his shoulder and said, "We love you very much. And we support you." Using much of his remaining energy, he supported a smile, said thank you and left the kitchen.

A few weeks ago, he was telling me about the "mission life" as he called it. He has been mission-hopping for three years now, and is growing tired of the instability, the sermons that precede meals, and the strict hours in which guests are to check in and out. Staring off above my shoulder, he talked dreamily of having a room to stay in. "Nothing fancy," he said.

And suddenly, without prompting, he began to tell me of his journey to find Skid Row. Living comfortably with his mother, he had heard of the Los Angeles Mission, an organization still very much active in Skid Row. He sent a donation to the mission to support what he thought was important work. Soon after, his mother kicked him out because of his drinking problem and he found himself dependent on the very organization to which he earlier tithed.

"And I have to deal with anxiety," he moaned disappointingly. "I worry about so many things and I can't do anything because I worry. I live in missions because I cannot do anything. And my mother never understood why I worried so much."

While I know to keep distance between myself as a volunteer and the patrons of the kitchen, I knew I had to share with him my similar struggles. "I know exactly what you mean. It used to happen to me all the time." I continued to describe the physical manifestations of fear, and my handicaps when I am overcome by panic. He looked at me with his head cocked to the side, a curious grin across his face.

"I'm sorry you have to deal with that," I consoled.

"I'm glad you understand," he sighed.