Wednesday, December 30, 2009

A Stain in the Snow

A Journal Entry from February 9, 2004

WARNING: This is a LONG one. It's an abridged account of an ACTUAL day at work when I was a volunteer manager at a small non-profit social service agency. All names (except mine) have been changed to protect the innocent and the not-so-innocent. Read this when you think you’ve had a bad day. J

My first clue that Friday was going to be a bad day was the untimely demise of my coffee. I had just purchased said beverage from the local McDonald’s and had not even cracked the plastic “to go” lid to add cream. When I found my access to the kitchen door of Helping Hearts blocked by a 2-foot snow drift and a badly parked Helping Hearts Express bus, I resorted to the Food Shelf door, knowing full well it was difficult to get open.

Mistake number one: I set the coffee on top of the large Tupperware pie-taker full of cookies balanced on my left hand and inserted the key with my right. A little jiggling of the key and old-fashioned elbow grease got the deadbolt to give, but in the middle of struggling with the lock in the door handle, I lost control of the styrofoam cup. Just as the door pushed open, the hapless beverage dashed to the ground, the cap split open and the steaming coffee transformed instantly into a brown stain in the snow.

I felt like crying.

But I pushed into the building with resolve. It wouldn’t take that long to make coffee and with any luck I’d be at my desk, happily swamped by 8:10.

And then the sound of the coffee grinder was momentarily drowned out by the door buzzer. Someone was dropping off a donation. I was immediately irritated: Does NO ONE read our sign? “Donations Accepted During Business Hours Except By Appointment.” Idiotically, I popped my head out the kitchen door. “Can I help you?” I asked a dark-haired man by a pick-up truck.

“I’m here to drop off a donation.”

I bit my tongue before I could blurt, “Well, no duh,” and calmly said “Actually, we don’t open until 8:30.” Mistake number two. I forgot until that moment that I’d dealt with this yahoo twice before, both times insisting on dropping off food from an area church at odd hours and without prior notice.

“You know,” he said, “I would think you would be happy to get a food donation from my church. Isn’t this a food shelf? Isn’t that what you do? I’m sorry you find it an inconvenience that someone wants to give you something. I’ve always dropped off at this time and there’s always been someone here to take my donation cheerfully. I’m a volunteer,” he ranted on. “I’m doing this on my own time. I’ll even weigh it myself. All you have to do is open the garage door.”

If looks could kill, he would have been a brown stain in the snow next to my departed coffee.

“I’ll be right down,” I said icily, incensed at his condescension.

“Praise Jesus,” he responded sarcastically with upraised arms. I shut the door.

Nathan had just walked into the kitchen and was happily munching on one of the cookies I’d brought when I asked him to help me take in this a!$(*%@’s donation.

Nate and the a!$(*%@ did the unloading while I wrote down the weights, refusing to even make eye contact with this jerk. I added the numbers and handed him his half of the slip with a frosty “Thank you.”

There was a pause. I braced for impact. Nate had gone so I had no safety equipment.

“I’m really concerned about this eight/eight-thirty thing,” he began. He then proceeded to repeat much of his earlier speech with special emphasis on the fact that (A) he was a volunteer and did this on his own time, (B) he had always dropped off at this time and there was always someone there who gladly took the donation (and who was I, anyway, so he could make sure to complain about the right person) and (C) he didn’t see how this was such an inconvenience for me.

Never did he give any thought to inconveniencing himself by waiting until 8:30. Office hours didn’t matter to him. Apparently, in his world people who work for non-profits sleep on the premises and do nothing more than sit around waiting for donations out of the kindness of strangers.

I’d had it.

“You know,” I said tersely, “I don’t think we can continue this conversation. Obviously there’s a fair amount of ill will between us and we’re not going to resolve anything now.”

“Well,” he said for the nine-hundredth time, “If this drop-off time isn’t convenient I need to know that so I can decide whether I can continue to be the person who drops this off. I’ll need to talk to Shelly.” (his church’s volunteer manager.)

“Yes, I’ll be talking with Shelly, too.”

He left. I walked upstairs to my office and cried. I still hadn’t gotten any coffee.

It was now 8:35 and the phone was ringing off the hook. Where was Tonya?

And then I saw my message light flashing. With a sinking feeling, I listened to my voicemail. The soothing “You have one new message” was the harbinger of doom. It was our receptionist, Tonya. Her son was sick and she had to stay home with him.

I left a message for Ronda, our back-up volunteer receptionist and, not having even opened my planner, I went downstairs to work the front desk.

As I—*RING* “Good Morning, Helping Hearts, may I help you?”—tried to take stock of the schedule and —*RING* “Good Morning, Helping Hearts, may I help you?”—figure out the client load for the day —*RING* “Good Morning, Helping Hearts, may I help you?”—Nate asked if I had a volunteer coming in since there were fifty Helping Hearts Express calls to make. “I’ll get started on them,” I said—*RING* “Good Morning, Helping Hearts, may I help you?” It was the case work intern.

“Rebekah, it’s Sarah. I am having the worst week of my life.”

“Join the club. What’s up?”

“You know how my car wouldn’t start on Tuesday? Well now I’m waiting for a tow truck to haul it out of the pile of snow it’s been plowed into. I’m going to be about 45 minutes late.”

“OK,” I said, beginning to wonder if there wasn’t some curse on Helping Hearts and all who dwelt within. “See you when you get here.”

I buzzed Dierdre, the financial case worker, and welcomed her into my misery. “Sarah’s going to be late. Can you do the food shelf appointments?” I’m not sure there was an actual “yes” but I took the groan as an affirmative and said, “Thank you, your first client is here.”

*RING* “Good Morning, Helping Hearts, may I help you?”—you get the idea.

I slogged through the Helping Hearts Express calls at an infuriatingly slow pace: one call out for every three calls in. And, hey!, why was it so cold in here? I discovered that the heat wasn’t on. “Ahh, easy fix,” thought I, and switched it to “high.” Back to the desk to continue the battle of the phones.

I was in the middle of my third “I need to come in today” discussion when Evelyn Smith, the Clothing Coordinator, planted herself in front of me with eyes like saucers. I cocked my head quizzically and finished scheduling the new client.

“Hi, Ev,” I said. “What’s up?”

“We have a major problem in the Clothes Closet.”

“What is it?” I mean, really, I thought, what could possibly be that bad in the Clothes Closet?

“I think you just need to come see this.”

We rounded the corner into the shop. I suppose I should have been prepared for what greeted me, considering the morning that had begun with suicidal coffee. But I was horrified by the sight.

Two big metal brackets dangled from the plaster under a shelf, having been ripped from their positions by an irresistible force. Beneath, a pile of sagging suitcoats and dresses lolled, stunned, in a heap, out of which protruded the hanging pole bent at a horribly unnatural angle.

“I was standing next to it when it fell,” said Evelyn.

“Well… that’s a problem isn’t it?” I said sagely.

Evelyn said she’d find a rack for the coats and, meanwhile, we’d just need to re-attach the brackets and find a new pole.

I went back to the front—*RING*—desk. “Good Morning, Helping Hearts, may I help you?”

Oh, blessed joy! It was Ronda! And she was willing to come in and work the front desk!! We ended our conversation with a cheerful “See you in about half an hour!”

The Executive Director, Tracy, came around the corner. “Why isn’t the heat working,” she asked.

“It’s not?” I replied stupidly. “I just thought mine was off so I turned it up.”

“Nope,” she said with her hand over the register. “It’s blowing cold air. I’d better page Wayne,” which, in fact, she went off to do.

A few moments later, one of the food shelf volunteers came up to the front desk and said, “You’re not gonna believe this. Someone peed in the snow right outside the food shelf door!!”

“It’s coffee,” I growled at her. “Trust me.”

Sarah made it in at last, a blur of dark hair and big eyes flying in the door, through the reception area to her office and then back out to get the next client. Somewhere in between, she’d hung her coat and bag, but there couldn’t possibly have been enough time for even that, as quickly as she was moving.

Wayne appeared, stuck his hand over the heater and said, “Nope. No heat.” Such brilliance from the landlord. He vanished to investigate the cause of the cold snap.

A gray-bearded man then came up to the desk with a concerned look. “Am I going to be seen?” he asked gently. “I’ve been here for an hour.”

My jaw hit the floor. I’d forgotten all about this nice gentleman who was coming to the food shelf for the first time. I hadn’t given him any of the new client paperwork or informed a case worker of his arrival. Two other clients with later appointments and a walk-in had already been seen!

I apologized profusely, feeling at a loss for words to excuse myself. Surely this poor soul had greater concerns than wasted coffee, snotty donors, missing staff, broken clothes racks, malfunctioning heat and incessantly ringing phones! And he was so gracious about having been passed over due to my incompetence. I wanted to hug him for his kindness even as I wanted to crawl under the front desk, mortified. “Sarah will be with you in just a few minutes,” I reassured him.

At that moment, in walked Evelyn once again. She was completely out of breath. “We have another problem,” she panted. “Sorry,” she said, and took another breath. “I went back to the sorting room and I smelled something hot and, well, kind of damp.” A few more rapid breaths. “And I looked and there was steam rising from behind all those bags. I’m out of breath because I climbed over the bags and looked at the heater and there was water spitting out of the heater and all over the floor.”

She had to be kidding.

“TRACY!” I shrieked. “We need Wayne back here!!!” Tracy flew around the corner and, upon quick appraisal of the situation, paged Wayne once again.

“I’m going to start pulling bags away from the heater so he can get back there,” said Lois, now composed.

“Good idea,” I replied and went back to answering the damn phones every fifteen seconds.

“Good Morning, Helping Hearts, may I help you?”

“Rebekah, it’s Ronda,” said the voice on the other end. There was something odd about her tone. Something in the pit of my stomach screamed, “Please, God! NOOOOOO!”

“What’s wrong?” my mouth asked.

“Well… I don’t think I can come in.”

“What happened?” I began to be concerned.

“Ummm. I can’t seem to find my car keys. I’ve torn the entire house apart. I had just gotten home from an appointment with my daughter when I called you the last time. I think I locked them in my car and, just by chance, my older daughter has the spare at school.”

WHAT ARE THE ODDS?!? I wondered.

“Ronda,” I said, finally laughing, “for your own safety, don’t come anywhere near Helping Hearts today.” I proceeded to give her the entire litany of events thus far. “There is some kind of curse on this place,” I said. “It’s truly best for you to just stay home.” We hung up.

Evelyn reappeared. “Has Wayne called yet?” “No.” Evelyn disappeared.

Tracy reappeared. “Where is Wayne?” “I have no idea.” Tracy disappeared.

A barrage of phone calls followed during which time I was vaguely aware of Tracy breezing by saying she’d found Wayne in the basement looking for a leak which is what he thought caused the heat to fail. And—hey!—Evelyn found a leak upstairs! We’ve got to get these two together!

In the end, we learned that the piles of clothing in the sorting room had been too close to the heater and had cut off heat circulation which had caused the furnace pipe to freeze and burst. It would be later in the day before someone could come out to fix it.

By the grace of God, I made it to one o’clock I locked the front door and pushed the “night” button on the phone. I dragged my sorry butt up to my office to get a least a couple things done before heading home. The day was done. The curse was over. I had persevered and overcome!

2:45pm: “Is anyone still here?” called Dierdre from the landing as I was putting on my coat. I bit my tongue and was grateful to hear both Nate and Tracy respond. “There’s a lady who’s here to drop off a food donation and she got her car stuck in the snow.”

Guiltily, I let Nate, Wayne and one of the drivers handle shoving the car free and taking in the donation while I wandered, dazed, to my own car. As I drove away, I thought, “let the donors inconvenience someone else.” I had a date with a glass of wine that, hopefully, wouldn’t wind up a stain in the snow.

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