‘Like you wouldn’t believe’: The sociable soup kitchens of Chicago

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Windy city. (Steven Boone)
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Some free dinners for the homeless in Chicago use a number system. A placard at each dinner table has a number on it. When the number is called at random, the folks at that table line up buffet-style for the grub.

At Fourth Presbyterian Church's Monday Night Supper, they don't go by numbers but by famous authors. I was sitting at the Maya Angelou table. A substitute teacher and I talked politics and education to distract from our rumbling guts while waiting for our author's name to come up. At one point, a tablemate blurted, "Diamondbacks? Did they say 'Diamondbacks'? In fuckin' Chicago?"

"No, Steinbeck," the guy next to him said.

Across the room, a group was getting up from the John Steinbeck table and heading for the fried fish tray.

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Monday Night Supper at Catholic Charities on LaSalle Street is just one of many services the Fourth Presbyterian Church offers Chicagoans in need. There's also Sunday Night Supper at the Fourth's own beautiful church building and Friday Night Supper at Holy Name Cathedral. Several churches and charities of various faiths come together to make these meals happen like clockwork.

The previous day, I'd stumbled upon Sunday Night Supper online, through the website direct2food. You type in your zip code, direct2food tells you what soup kitchens and food pantries are nearby.

When I got to Fourth Presbyterian on Sunday afternoon, Reno showed me the ropes. He was a stocky, smiley black dude bursting to share the big secret.

"These people here in this church, man, they are loaded," he said. "They will help you like you wouldn't believe."

I believed. The grounds and location exuded wealth. Some of the folks moving through the courtyard had that Midwestern-aristocrat look: air-scrubbed, noble, lily white.

Reno described the supper with awe.

"Brother, this is the place. You will eat like you ain't never ate. Five star restaurant, believe that. Good people here who want to help."

He recalled the time one church member clasped his hands on his way out of the sanctuary, leaving a bill in his palm.

"I thanked him, slid it in my pocket and didn't look at the damn thing till a long time later. It was a hundred damn dollars."

It was pouring rain, so we waited for dinner time in the sanctuary, where a jazz combo practiced for an upcoming performance. I passed out to the lulling bass guitar, slumping over the pew in front of me until Reno nudged me: "We can go get a seat now."

We crossed the courtyard to a dining room full of tables with numbered signs and empty buffet tables. Not too long afterward, a woman came in and asked for volunteers to help load the food carts. About ten of us wheeled the carts out to a side street, where the rain had eased up to a light drizzle. Several cars, vans and SUV's pulled up, one by one, across a half hour, each one dropping off about two carts' worth of dinner, drinks, snacks and bag lunches.

It felt good to make a gesture of earning one's keep, so I stayed out there loading the carts until the last van was gone. Reno pointed out the "good people" among the church members out there with us. "That one there? She's a doll, a sweetheart. She will help you out."

He was talking about a sunny, silver-haired Kathy Bates lookalike (how many times have I met Kathy Bates lookalikes at Christian charities?) in a raincoat, directing church staff through a walkie-talkie. She radiated faith only slightly dulled by experience. This was Chicago. Surely, she'd sampled every flavor of bullshit from various street slicksters, but the light way she joked around with us indicated that she had yet to embrace full-on cynicism.

Sunday Night Supper was chili with shredded cheddar cheese, buttered bread, hard-boiled eggs, cole slaw and sweet corn. Entenmann's donuts for desert. Not five-star, but great on a cold, rainy day.

I'd gotten out to several kitchens around Chicago, from the People's Church uptown to the Franciscan Outreach Center on the West Side to A Just Harvest Community Kitchen on the North Side. As I've been told in New York, Toronto, Atlanta and Port Chester, so was I told in Chicago by plenty of chronically homeless folk: "That's one thing you never have to worry about in this town, going hungry." Or, the more common refrain, "You'd have to be a damn fool to go hungry in … ."

Chicago stands out for the way its charitable churches encourage fellowship at the dinner table. It's promoted on their websites. At New York soup kitchens, folks tended to speak only with people they knew. Or they just stared down at their food until it was all gone, then fled. Conversations with strangers started up fitfully and died quickly over small talk and a rush to get seconds or takeout bags.

At both Sunday and Monday supper, I was struck by the unrushed and sociable environment. The young folks at the Ralph Ellison table might as well have been with their best friends at the high school cafeteria.

It all plays out against a breathtaking backdrop. Fourth Presbyterian sits in the posh Magnificent Mile shopping district, and Catholic Charities, run by the powerful Archdiocese of Chicago, rents out a lavish space to the Fourth for Monday Night Supper.

Downtown in the "Loop" area where most of the soup-kitchen clients loiter, there are some new, ugly steel-and-glass buildings, but many of the magnificent old ones are still there, grouped together with a much stronger feeling of purpose and design than most cityscapes. At least that's what it looks like from my vantage point down below. When you turn onto the stretch of bridges and towers along either side of the Chicago River, you feel the entire city curving around you, bearing down, especially at night, when the array of lights is pure Star Trek.

It feels absurd to be broke and rootless in a city this confident of itself. Down on Michigan Avenue, Millennium and Grant parks and the Art Institute of Chicago evoke past and future with equal grandeur. (I never heard the theme to Chicago-filmed "The Dark Knight" in my mind while wandering these streets, only the hammer-and-tongs, robotic piledriver sound of the "Robocop" score. Ho'wood should consider moving the latter's upcoming remake from Neo-Detroit to retro-futuristic Chicago.)

"You can make a lot of money right here,"a woman named YoYo told me the day I arrived in Chicago. She was standing outside a corner 7-Eleven in a shiny Mets jacket, asking passersby for "some help."

"All you gotta say is, 'Can you help me?' and watch what happens. They got big money down here. I seen people make a hundred dollars in a few hours."

But most panhandlers contradicted her claim.

"There ain't no money out here no more," a man working the area between Millennium Station and the Chicago Cultural Center complained. "Even those that got it, they are tired of the bullshit in the Loop. You got to go up north or somewhere. Or get your ass a damn job. Except if you out here, most likely it means you can't get a job nowhere."

Same old same old. The drunks, the drug addicts, the unemployable, the chronically homeless. Only in the dead of winter do the big-city governments bother keeping up with us, since no metropolis wants to be nationally known for frozen corpses. During the warm months, it's up to the private charities, churches and nonprofits to look after a city's lost causes.

And Dunkin' Donuts. At least two of the 24 hour Dunkins scattered around downtown let folks sleep at the tables until around 5 a.m., when the groggy working stiffs arrive, in no mood to navigate a gauntlet of of snoring bums on the way to their coffee and Munchkins. I know this only because I slept in two Dunkins on nights when the Pacific Garden Mission shelter refused to let me bring my laptop in with me.

At the end of my last Dunkin' slumber, I stumbled into the lobby of an adjoining office building. There was no guard at the desk, so I stood by the front glass doors, which were singing from wind and rain that made the trees bow sharply. The singing became roaring, and needles of cold air slipped in through the cracks. It wasn't like Chicago winter, to be sure, but it was a springtime glimpse of what gives the town its notorious rep. I was busy taking pictures of the tumult outside when a guard came up behind me.

"Can I help you?" she said.

Out on the street again.

I had no money, so options of places to stay warm and dry between now and the time the Harold Washington Library or the Cultural Center opened were dwindling. Passing the unusually narrow ATM station of a US Bank branch, I noticed that a heating vent sat off at a sharp angle from the glass door, stretching out of view from pedestrians. The bank wouldn't be open until 8:30. I slipped my ATM card through the scanner and went in. Somebody had already set up camp in the corner, but was gone for now.

His or her milk crate held a bag lunch and a neat stack of Tupperware leftovers. A pile of cardboard signs was wedged between the heating vent and a counter. I slid the milk crate aside and curled up in the corner, peeking at the signs: Somebody named Poochie described in permanent marker his or her losing a job and apartment, thanking God "for good people like yourself, just for stopping."

If he or she returned before I left, I planned to tell Poochie about the good places to get help in Chicago, resources that the city's 311 hotline doesn't provide. (The standard line from Chicago 311 reps and street cops is to direct you to a police precinct, hospital or fire department, where someone will hand you a list of far-flung shelters.)

The vent dried my clothes and put me to sleep. It was two hours before one customer buzzed in, waking me up right on time.

It was calmer outside now, so I wandered up Michigan Avenue to take a look at the giant Marilyn Monroe statue that had been stationed at Pioneer Court since last year and was to be taken down in a few days. As a few early-rising tourists gathered between Marilyn's legs while grim commuters brushed past, I thought of the writer commemorated at Monday Night Supper's table #4, Nelson Algren.  

In his epic essay "Chicago: City on the Make," Algren wrote, "For it isn't so much a city as it is a vasty way station, where three and a half million bipeds swarm with the single cry, 'One side or a leg off, I'm getting mine!' It's every man for himself in this hired air. Yet once you've come to be a part of this particular patch, you'll never love another. Like loving a woman with a broken nose, you may well find lovelier lovelies. but never a lovely so real."