2083 Sunset Cliffs Boulevard, San Diego
"I'm so broke I can't pay attention," says Steve. We're sitting on the wall, waiting. Three of us. Steve, Kelly, me. It's evening, around 5:15. We're facing a cream-colored stucco-church compound with ferns and a big old olive tree in the patio. A sign has been hung on the railing: "Dinner Tonight. Join Us at 6:00 p.m. This is a Free Dinner Sponsored by the Holy Trinity Church and is Opened to the Public."
I was just passing by, so -- impulse -- I came over and plopped down on the wall. "Really? Open to the public?" I asked Steve. "Sure," he said. "Twice a month. Third and last Wednesdays. No questions. No means test. No sermon. It's always spaghetti and meatballs. But they're good. And they give you seconds if there's enough."
So, hey. Carla's away. And to be honest, I am kinda tapped, Still, Steve's situation makes me a little ashamed of doing this.
"I can handle kinda broke," he says. "But totally broke?"
"How broke is broke?"
"How about 30 cents till the end of the month?"
He's serious. Man. That is bee-roke.
Steve's a good-lookin', tall, straight-backed, red-bearded guy. You can't believe he's old enough to have fought in Vietnam. His skin's ruddy, healthy-looking, from living outdoors, I guess. But he did two tours, late '60s, when he was around 20. The 101st Airborne. He tells me he volunteered for the second one.
"Revenge. What the VC did to us the first time."
A guy comes out from the hall door into the courtyard. "Just so you know," he says, "Father Sadler won't be here tonight. He passed earlier this month."
You can see a little shock go through some of the guys and women with carts who've been turning up these past 15 minutes. "He was a good man," says Steve. "He was 92. He was here last month! He'd been on the town council here in OB. He always spoke out for the homeless."
The iron gates swing open. Steve hops up. He was here first, so he gets first in line. Then comes Kelly. Everyone shuffles toward the entrance, and then, inside the hall, along past a line of ladies behind tables, ladling out spaghetti, meatballs -- nice big ones -- beans, some salad on top, a mess of corn, and a round half-dumpling of garlic bread. The church people are bright, but not, like, forced happy-happy. The relationship seems to be respectful, from both sides. You end up with a nicely piled plate, plus a plastic fork and paper napkin, plus a cup of milk or coffee, and then head for a seat at this ring of tables they've set up around the sides of the hall.
"Just so you all know," says the organizer guy again, "Father Sadler passed. But believe me, he is definitely around us at this time..." His voice quavers. An old guy in a blue cap who's just put his tray down at the end of the far table stands up. He starts uttering the Lord's Prayer in a loud, shaky voice. "Our Father..." He doesn't make it to the end. "Father Sadler was good to us" is all he says.
After a couple of moments, everybody munches into their meatballs. They taste good. The corn isn't up to much, but the garlic bread and spaghetti are tasty, and a lot of food to get through.
"Yes, sir," says a scholarly looking gent seated across from me. "Father Sadler was a fine man of God." This is Lawrence. Lawrence likes to stay in the OB area. "People are more accepting here," he says. "The worst place to be homeless is downtown. There are too many mean people down there."
Steve's up already, heading off for seconds. Right behind him is a big bronzed guy with Fu Manchu whiskers and gnarly bare feet. He knows the beach. "They call me Lifeguard Eric, because I saved five people from drowning this summer," he says. "I was just on hand."
I like the easy conversation. No "What brings you here?" kinda stuff. People are talking about everything from ocean currents to literature. Just don't get these guys going on the cops. "They'll snag you on illegal lodging, say, if they find you sleeping in an alley," says Steve. "We're homeless! Where are we supposed to stay? So that's $80. They catch you with an open container, that's a $120 fine. Where are we going to find that kind of money?"
Turns out this whole operation is run by two of the parishioners at Holy Trinity -- Jon Greulich and his wife Jackie. She's the one handing out boxes of leftovers. He's a financial planner and, turns out, great-nephew of Edward R. Murrow. Whoa. The CBS newsman. "I started this program," he says, "because my three daughters were complaining that we didn't have enough stuff. They were too sheltered from the realities of life. Now they come down and help out and see what it's really like to have nothing."
Jon says tonight will have cost them probably $80. That's out of his and Jackie's pockets.
I turn down a box of leftovers to take with me. Really, this was filling. And, yeah, helped with those end-of-month blues. Most everyone has left, and there's just this guy Dave and me still chowing down at the table. Dave says he's been homeless since he lost his crewing job on a fishing boat. Now he sleeps in a tent up in the bushes on Sunset Cliffs. "It's hard. Police harassment, keeping clean, looking for food. It takes your whole day. People don't realize how much work everything is when you're poor."
Before the last of us leaves, Jackie announces that they'll have a special turkey Thanksgiving on November 15. "November's a good month," says Lawrence. "Every church has Thanksgiving dinners."
"We must have had 60--100 tonight," Jon says. He's on his way to lock the grilled gate. That's when this blonde girl Mary comes puffing up. "Am I too late?" She can see that she is. "Damned buses," she says. Then she's gone, as quick as she came.
"That's the only thing here," says Jon. "No second sittings."