Three strangers said “God bless you” and a woman handed Ellie an umbrella from her car window and drove on.

Ellie and I were standing in the rain directing drivers to a drive through food distribution event Wednesday in Collins Park – a miserably wonderful experience, and vice versa. With our son Zak, we joined a few dozen volunteers at 4 p.m. to prepare for the 6 p.m. distribution, but customers started lining up even before we arrived. 

We never actually saw the distribution across the park, but saw everybody drive in, then out. 

By 5 p.m., we’d waved more than 100 cars into line as sprinkles muscled up into a downpour for real.

Drivers were grateful, but some seemed shy as if they’d had to suppress their pride to take free food in a public place. As rain poured down and Ellie and I refined our direction raps, the most common emotion coming through their open car windows was sincere thankfulness, but sometimes a desperation we could feel.

To keep traffic from backing up onto the roadway, Ellie stood near the corner and waved cars on to me. I waved them forward and told them to stay on the road, not turn into the parking lots alongside it. As I spoke to the first driver and more cars drove in, Ellie addressed the second while the third, fourth, fifth and sixth waited.

Complicating things, a baseball game, an event at the adjacent Beukendal Lodge and a young girls’ track and field event also brought people to the park, as did the usual attractions of the lake and picnic areas.

When I waved a car to a stop, I’d ask, “Here for the food drive?” – in a way I hoped felt neutral. If “no,” if they came for baseball or track, I’d apologize for stopping them. If “yes,” I’d ask, “Picking up?” If “yes” again, I’d say, “Great! – you’re in exactly the right place.” I assured them, “You’ll be there in a minute; thanks for coming.” If they came to volunteer, I sent them to the parking lots, again with thanks.

Masked, I stood back from the car windows. 

As customers drove in, some thanked me and said, “God bless you.”

We saw folks of all ages and conditions, in all sorts of vehicles from battered sedans and pickups to newish, pricey SUVs. Some seemed to be in their last miles, and several drivers seemed to be living in their cars. A mother and daughter, both in good moods, ate ice cream cones from Jumpin’ Jacks near the park entrance. Many were un-masked, some held their hands over their mouths. A guy with Confederate flag headrest covers in his beater pickup rushed to put his mask on before opening his window. He was poignantly grateful; so was the young couple in a pickup with REDNECK CHICK across the windshield. A well-dressed couple in a new Porsche SUV avoided eye contact. Hunger can hit anyone.

Folks driving away with their food bags – our son Zak helped pack and hand them out – waved gratefully. They mouthed “Thank you” or stopped to say it, relieved and happy. An outbound woman stopped to wave Ellie closer and handed an umbrella out her window. Ellie tried to decline this sweet gift: “How would I ever get this back to you?’ The woman waved and left. I could tell Ellie was smiling through her mask.

Set to run from 6 to 8 p.m., the Drive-Thru was all but over by 6:15. 

In-bound traffic peaked around 5. Outbound drivers soon started warning us “They’re running out.” Zak texted from the distribution line that the food was all bagged; his work was done. He told the volunteer coordinators about his “two old folks directing traffic” – could we go?

Wet shoes squished as we walked to Ellie’s car, cold and emotional. 

We’d seen people in dire straits, trying to hide desperation that was often all too clear and deeply sad as they drove in; and we felt their gratitude as they drove away.

Realizing that this scene of volunteers handing donated food to our neighbors is playing out across America brought a disturbing recognition. Something is deeply, maddeningly wrong.

In what some claim is the greatest country in the world, we had seen desperate people in their hungry hundreds lining up for donated food. The embarrassment some seemed to feel was in the wrong place. It belongs instead to a society or system that rewards selfishness and pushes millions down through the cracks. 

For a nation that worships winners, we tend to overlook how each winner requires a sacrifice by dozens or hundreds of “losers,” some struggling, some dead. For each Bezos, multitudes of marginalized workers literally piss into bottles, working without breaks in warehouses. Hunger and homelessness are essential in this system for the greedy to win. 

Fortunately, resources – both material and human – are gathering to meet this gnawing need. There IS help, and helpers.

Earlier in the pandemic, we’d stifled our own impulse to join those helpers. Now, all three of us vaccinated, we were glad to volunteer – and felt a little uncomfortable at the gratitude that greeted us. 

As we peeled off wet clothes and started to make dinner, we realized we had seen humanity at its worst in the inequality that brought people to us in such desperation. And we had seen humankind at its best in both our fellow volunteers and the gratitude of those we helped.

This made the experience of sharing simply wonderful, delicious and nourishing.