I ran the meal program at an inner city agency in Edmonton, Canada for three years. I count it as the best “office” job I’ve ever had and will ever have. If it wasn’t for the fact that I could not write and work the 60+ weekly hours I regularly pulled in, I’d still be there now, still arguing with volunteers, still trying to find a way to balance budgets and donations, still screaming at the top of my lungs in frustration when there was no one in the building, and still crying at funerals.
I loved every single moment of it and I’d not exchange those memories for all of the gold on earth.
But when I left, I had no idea of the wounds I carried. The faces, the scars, the pain. I struggled every day, wondering if I made a difference. Some days, I was convinced. Some days, I wasn’t. Most days, I was too busy to ask the question. I saw people sink, and rise, and maintain their status quo. I saw love, hate, racism, bigotry, ignorance, tolerance, and acceptance – and most days, I saw them all.
I rarely talk about how working with homeless people made me feel because I tend to tear up. I spoke to thousands of volunteers as a part of my position, and I developed a lot of automatic responses. They’ve stayed with me, so those basic, almost glib answers are fairly ingrained. They protect me.
But I needed to share how I felt in one of the most unique jobs a person could have.
When I wrote What Kings Ate and Wizards Drank: A Fantasy Lover’s Food Guide, I had to cover food, power, and poverty. It was terrifying to write those couple of pages about me and homelessness and poverty and food politics for that book, because it was the first time since I’d left that I’d spoken candidly.
I did it, and I survived.
I realized that I needed to write an inner-city story and somehow explore the things I did right, and many things I did wrong, and have one of my characters ask the questions I asked myself every day for three years. And I needed to explore in a purely fictional setting.
Thus, First (Wrong) Impressions was born.
I want to thank you for taking the time to read this book, and for reading this note. This book gave me the chance to let Lizzy say and do things I wished I’d said and done. It gave me a chance to talk and explore and to heal. So thank you.
To my former co-workers: Jo, Cindy, Jamie (my bitch-and-cry sister), Caitlin (who once was the victim of my curse-laced screaming when I thought I was alone in the basement), Trisha, Devin, Billy, Sean, Dave, Mischa (who hired me), Leanne, the other Leanne, Adrienne, Roger, Evan, Tim, Eugene, Jenny…the admin crew, the volunteer crew, too many part-time floor staff to remember, too many meal groups to remember…all of you made it easier for me to work those 80+ hour weeks in the summer, in the heat, in the kitchen, by myself, cooking for 400 people when I had no volunteers.
And to the clients who came every night. You were my family. You stood at the bus stop with me, you jumped drunk people who swung at me, you gave me Christmas cards. You made me laugh at your jokes and cry at your funerals. Some of your names I never knew and some of you never knew mine. I loved you, even when I hated you. I admired you, even when I couldn’t stand you. It killed me to leave you, even when I had to go.
You changed my life. You changed who I am as a person. Thank you for being you.
And, just for the record, yes, one night for supper, I actually did serve lobster and steak to over three hundred homeless people.
They’re still talking about it.