|Photo Courtesy Federation CJA
Vegetable frittata. Red cabbage salad. Navy bean soup. A dinner roll. Banana or blueberry cake for dessert. Unlimited juice and coffee.
That was the menu Thursday evening in Montreal for 230 customers of Le Cafe, a free dinner service offered twice a week all year round by the Cummings Centre. Since 2009, Le Cafe has been feeding hot meals to underprivileged people from the Snowdon area of the city, including plenty of seniors, new immigrants and people living with mental or physical disabilities.
I was visiting family in Montreal last week and decided to accompany my mother as she fulfilled her monthly shift at Le Cafe, which she does together with members of her synagogue.
Armed with a white name tag, and a black apron with Le Cafe on the front, I joined the group of volunteers just before five o’clock as supervisor Paula Wasserman explained the evening’s duties.
Two men would each handle a juice cart and rove around the cafeteria on the main floor of the senior citizen’s centre. A pair of women would hand out the soup. Other volunteers were put on tray washing duties. The rest of us were assigned to wait tables.
I was assigned to help my mother with her three booths at the east end of the dining room. In my opinion, they were the best seats in the house, because they were small and private, and offered a nice view of the street through the floor to ceiling windows.
When the doors opened to the public at five, our customers began to take their seats.
It had been unbearably hot that day in Montreal, sunny and 29 degrees Celsius. Many of the clients don’t have air conditioning in their apartments, I was told. The cafeteria at Le Cafe was nice and cool, and must have been a welcome respite from the oppressive heat.
Diners with walkers, or canes or otherwise needing help are allowed to enter first. We waiters lined up beside the area where the chefs dish out the meals on paper plates, and placed our orders. While all the adults get the frittata, kids can have macaroni and cheese instead.
Over the next 90 minutes, I served a Russian grandmother with her two grandsons, a young man with bushy hair, a Spanish speaking mother with twin boys (they all chose macaroni and cheese), a well dressed couple, and a single gentleman who said his apartment was too hot that day, because he didn’t have air conditioning. I made sure to keep asking him to drink more water or juice. He had three styrofoam cups worth.
It was all going smoothly at our small booths, but I soon noticed that no one at the long table next to us had received any meals yet. The volunteer for that table had come in late. So I grabbed two university students who were there to help out, and between us four, we delivered the trays as quickly as we could, with profuse apologies.
One of the men at that long table politely told me he didn’t want any tomato sauce on his frittata. That’s the way it comes.
Back at the serving area, we scraped the sauce off carefully and wiped down the paper plate so he wouldn’t notice.
He was thrilled.
The tables filled up, and even though many diners had finished their meals, none seemed in a rush to leave. They lingered over another cup of coffee, or asked for an extra soup, to be taken home for the next day’s lunch, or for someone else in need.
A thin man with wispy grey hair wearing a black T-shirt touched my shoulder, then quickly apologized for the contact.
“It’s fine,” I told him. Not to worry.
“I wanted to tell you I like you better [as a waitress] then the other people,” he said. “Can you come back next week?”
No, I told him. I live in Toronto. Then we got to talking.
He told me about the time he had taken a bus to what he thought was Ottawa, but it actually ended up in Toronto. And how he had had a good time, despite the misadventure. That was when he had made lots of money investing. Now with the economy the way it is, he had some advice.
“Bricks and mortar, bricks and mortar,” he urged me.
We shook hands and introduced ourselves. I told him I had enjoyed chatting with him. I truly had.
Le Cafe fills more than just the bellies of the hungry. It also offers companionship to those who want it, with a chance to socialize with other diners, and with the volunteers and staff.
“Friday is my favourite meal,” a man in a straw hat was telling his female dining companion. He was already looking forward to the next day, because it’s when he goes to another location with free food distribution where “you can get three hot dogs,” he said, smiling.
It was nearly closing time at 6:30, and the man who had eaten his frittata without tomato sauce was also still there, with three desserts wrapped up to take home later. He quietly got up from the long table and went to sit down at the upright piano in the corner. He didn’t have any sheet music. But he began to play melodies, which he said he composes himself.
“Do you play at any clubs or restaurants?” I asked him, as I came over to listen.
Not really, he answered, just at home, but his electric keyboard is broken now, so he has no place to practise.
I told him I really liked his music and encouraged him to ask the organizer if he could come to use the piano even on days when he wasn’t eating at Le Cafe.
Wouldn’t it be great if someone in Montreal could find the man a keyboard? A used one. Even a new one isn’t that expensive: Best Buy has them on sale for $199.