Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times
Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times
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At a Soup Kitchen, Lost Dreams and Modest Hopes
NEWARK, Nov. 25 — Tall wood tables line the parking lot of St. John’s Roman Catholic Church on McCarter Highway. Volunteers slowly unload a truck full of 4,000 frozen portions of chicken Parmesan from a New York restaurant. Seagulls are bickering overhead, edging out pigeons to land on bread crusts.
Hundreds of people form a line along the spike-topped fence.
The soup kitchen here serves 700 breakfasts and lunches in the open air each Tuesday through Saturday, and more toward the end of the month as the benefits checks run out.
The people served here tug on rolling suitcases or carry plaid plastic duffel bags. One slouchy man wears a Disney Princess backpack. A woman says she is a former member of the Irvington Township Council, incognito. Two sneakers and a dress hang on the fence, and a crutch rests against a full black garbage bag.
Here are the stories of a few of those in the line and those who serve them:
‘AFTER THE FOOD IS GONE, YOU SEE THE SAME SADNESS’
For three years, Richard Stewart has been staying with friends, a couple of nights here, a couple of nights there. He tries to keep eight outfits of clothes clean.
“I try to not to stereotype myself as homeless,” said Mr. Stewart, 43. “I keep my nails and hands clean, I try to keep my hair cut at all times, and try to look like I’m not so desperate.” But dental care is an unaffordable luxury; he is missing several teeth.
A few months ago, Mr. Stewart said, he was stabbed in the neck at a welfare hotel, attacked by a man who was high on drugs. “I asked him to turn the music down,” Mr. Stewart recalled. “It wasn’t the right thing to say at the moment.”
Mr. Stewart eats at the soup kitchen, and helps clean up as well.
“You see the smiling faces, the blessings that’s coming to them,” he said as he surveyed the line. “But after the food is gone, you see the same sadness. It’s like a desperate look. I’ve looked in the mirror and had that look.”
Leon Smith, 59, said he has 19 children, spread all over. But he is focused on the daughter who turned 13 in September. He last saw her when she was 6, Mr. Smith said, when “her mother took her down South.”
“I miss her a whole lot, not to be able to talk to her, not to be able to see her, not to be able to do anything for her,” he said.
“The only thing I need is to see my daughter one more time. I want to see her at least before it’s too late, or before she’s grown, and help her fulfill the rest of her life.”
Mr. Smith said that he lived in an apartment complex for the elderly. He said he was an artist and wrote poems. He recited one, called “Mother of Civilization,” by heart.
Among its lines: “You are the one that was born out of three rooms of darkness.”
‘WHEN YOU COME OVER, THEY CAN’T WAIT FOR YOU TO LEAVE’
She has a wide smile and wears wide-framed glasses around her brown eyes. She learned she had “the virus” — H.I.V. — two years ago.
“I call it the vapors,” said Carolyn Strickland Bell, 48. “It’s still kind of new to me.”
She lives in subsidized housing for the elderly. She said she had walked more than an hour to get to St. John’s; when she arrived, she asked workers for some bus passes and soap, but none were available.
Ms. Bell said she had some nieces who live nearby, but when she visits, she is uncomfortable.
“You feel obsolete, feel you aren’t useful no more,” she said, adding, “When you come over, they can’t wait for you to leave.”
She finds comfort in a pet, a black cat from the Humane Society.
“I call him Cat,” she said. “My friend-sort-of-husband calls him Baby.”
“He has the prettiest coat,” she said. “He’ll come to you and jump on the bed, or jump in your arms.”
Ms. Bell said that she took the antidepressant Zoloft, and that it helped.
“They asked me at the church, ‘What do you want?’ and I said salvation,” she said. “I’d take salvation, rejoicing, jubilation.”
‘THE MORE WE GIVE AWAY, THE MORE WE GET’
Vincent Smith, 68, commutes an hour and a half from his home in Spring Lake Heights to work as the parish manager at St. John’s, but that is only the last leg of the long journey he took to get here.
Mr. Smith retired from a career at Lehman Brothers at 52. Six months later, one of his three children was injured in a helicopter accident, and another suffered an aneurysm. With too much worry and time on his hands, he went to a priest for help.
“He said I should go to St. John’s and do dishwashing” Mr. Smith recalled. “I made it to kitchen manager and then to parish manager in 16 years.”
Laughing, he added, “I made faster progress on Wall Street.”
Barbara Maran, 55, started off volunteering at her church, St. Aloysius, a 20-minute drive away in Caldwell, making 60 meatloaves a month to send here to St. John’s. Now she manages the St. John’s kitchen.
“You see more than you ever thought you’d see,” she said. “I’ve seen so many pass away.”
She gave a tour of the storeroom, now filling up with the bounty of holiday food drives. She opened a door to a vegetable storeroom, where she and Mr. Smith discovered a sack of potatoes that someone had left.
Mr. Smith said: “Mother of God, look at the size of those. The more we give away, the more we get.”
‘THEY SAID I WAS PRONOUNCED DEAD AND CAME BACK TO LIFE’
Charles Polite, 32, takes a piece of folded paper from his pocket. Inside, there is a brassy, bent clip of metal. It’s the back of the shell of a bullet, and he found it in his sneaker after he was shot in the foot a week ago during an argument.
“It wasn’t really scary,” Mr. Polite said. “For another person it would’ve been scary.”
The web of scars over Mr. Polite’s left eye is a result of a car accident in 1992. He went through the windshield. “They said I was pronounced dead and came back to life,” he said.
But Mr. Polite said that experience did not change him.
“The next month I went to jail,” he said. “That’s what changed me.”
It was for a violation of probation, and it was not the first time he was locked up. The first time he was 12, and had been caught stealing cars.
“I had a lot of dreams,” he recalled of his childhood. “I wanted to be a college professor, that’s the kind of dreams I had.”
But then, he said, “my father left my mother, and I had to tell on my mother because she was using drugs.
“I was good all the way from preschool until seventh grade, then my whole world just crumbled. I couldn’t really control it.”
‘THE FIRST TIME I’VE EVER BEEN HOMELESS HOMELESS’
She is five months pregnant, expecting a girl. She has an 11-year-old son who has severe asthma and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. They have been homeless since May, she said.
Roachai Minitee, 38, said she used to be addicted to heroin and cocaine, but had been clean for seven years.
Ms. Minitee said that she was in foster care from age 11 to 18, and that she did not want her son to have the same experience.
“That’s what keeps me from using,” she said. “Through all my hard times I’ve been able to keep him. It has not been easy. This is the first time I’ve ever been homeless homeless.”
She said she felt depressed during her pregnancy, but added, “As long as I’m blessed to wake up in the morning and be healthy, that makes me happy.”