Behind the Wheels


A yellow Volkswagen Bug sits in this far-flung corner of the city. Pigeons fight for crumbs spilling onto the sidewalk while inside, bags and cats wait for the woman who calls this home. With a trunk full of groceries, Valerie and I park behind the car. We’re paying a visit to an assisted living residence, where people count their blessings daily. 

Until nine this morning Valerie and I were strangers. We were introduced at a loading dock where Bayview crawls from the marshlands of Islais Creek. Meals On Wheels has kept offices and an industrial kitchen here since 1995, just one milestone in its four-decade march against hunger. It's here that the Wednesday volunteers come, participants in a pilot program run jointly with the SF Food Bank, bringing groceries to the homebound and trying to combat census statistics suggesting that a quarter of San Francisco's seniors face hunger daily. 


Rain doesn't dampen the enthusiasm of Meals On Wheels employee Gustavo as he hands out route sheets and rattles off changes to the roster. Handling almost 1,500 daily clients, the local Meals On Wheels agency employs drivers for the heavy lifting, and it is from their ranks Gustavo has climbed to become supervisor of the Home Delivered Groceries experiment. Years of social service have done his spirit well, granting him an easy smile and buoyant handshake for each arriving volunteer. His cheer is infectious, oozing the kind of camaraderie reserved for church picnics you might see in those old black-and-white movies. After all the volunteers arrive, everyone grabs handfuls of neon-orange sacks and together we load trunks and backseats to a soundtrack of light banter. 


If Meals On Wheels ever shoots a commercial about its volunteer program, Valerie is picture-perfect for the role. Buried beneath groceries, I listen as she recalls why she started volunteering with the program: seeing her grandmother use a pushcart to bring meals to neighbors in her retirement

community. One day, she noticed a Meals On Wheels delivery van on the street. It took one phone call, one interview, and a meeting before she was shadowing people driving this route through the hills of Hunters Point.

These days, her two-tone station wagon navigates twisting streets that intersect million-dollar views seldom visited by outsiders – it’s the city's most ignored community.


We begin our day with a lesson – the GPS is not to be trusted. The first door is answered by a man whom we’ve either caught as he is waking up or falling asleep. He is clearly confused as to who we are and why we are there. At our next stop, through a metal-gated door of a housing project, we find a silent young girl eating ice cream for breakfast, her grandmother off in the recesses of the unlit apartment. Then we go to a home where a rotating cast of grateful kids accept our orange sacks in the doorway of a house dripping with Christian iconography and garish altars. Raw need serves as the propellant driving us from door to door, and knowing what a difference this simple task makes in people's lives keeps you from breaking down.  

The procedure never changes, but the context shifts. A vibrant woman dressed to the nines throws open her door in welcome, and I don't feel like I’m just a UPS driver dropping off packages anymore. Ms. F. Allen and Valerie have established a rapport that transcends an act of weekly charity – we’ve become instant neighbors. We talk Thanksgiving in the kitchen, and in the foyer Ms. F. Allen explains her patterned sweater, golden earrings, and carefully coiffed hair. As a former employee of both Laguna Honda and General hospitals, she has been invited to a luncheon hosted by the city. Today she's catching a ride to the celebration, for an afternoon out. She usually stays close to home, at most, doing daily activities within the ridge separating Portola and Visitation Valley, where no buses run and no grocery store sits on the corner.  

As we take our leave and hug good-bye, Ms. F. Allen explains she always remembers faces but not names. I reintroduce myself and say I have the same problem. Well, she says, let's see how well you do when you're 88.  

This is when you forget the statistics. There's a human warmth impossible to capture in official reports, one that chases the cold damp from your bones as you're welcomed into someone's home. Our clients aren't just in need, they're mothers and grandmothers, fathers and grandfathers. Valerie says it took two or three trips before people really began to open up to her, but four months in she's forged friendships with them.


Past the yellow Volkswagen Bug, we push twelve sacks of groceries on a utility cart through the assisted living residence. The building isn't some horror show backdrop of fraying carpets and stained walls. It’s well lit, tastefully colorful, and free from the medicinal stench of hospital wards. People don't die here, they live, and they live independently.   

Valerie introduces me to Sylvanian, a shy woman who wears her hair relaxed. But once we start talking about her family and she takes me on a whirlwind tour of portraits and snapshots that overwhelm her shelves, her shyness is erased by pride. As she points out children and grandchildren, her soft chuckles over moments past brighten the light freckles dancing across her cheeks.  

When we meet Naomi, she’s stepping away from an Isaac Hayes album cover, floating to the door in her ’70s print robe. Her eyes roll behind tinted glasses while she lays down the virtues of ginger tea on the body and soul before clasping our hands to thank us. This is a blessing, she says, and I almost ascended through the ceiling.  

Not everyone is up for company that morning. When a gentleman answers the door and quietly accepts his bags, Valerie worries he isn't feeling well. Another woman we visit is gearing up in layers of clothing, heading out to a cold hospital room for dialysis. Part of the job is checking in with everyone, making sure that everything's okay. They're not just clients, they're people. We're not just making deliveries, we're visiting their homes.  

Our next visit is with Miss Maple. We drive up to her house and notice she is bathed in the luminescent red glow of poinsettias that she is loading into her minivan. She refuses all help moving her church-bound flowers and leads us into the simple house she shares with her mother, Bertha Mae. Valerie and Miss Maple talk about pies; closely guarded family secrets have perfected a pumpkin pie recipe defying the dominance of allspice in holiday baking, and Valerie has been trusted with this knowledge. They giggle like old friends as the groceries are stowed.  

We follow Miss Maple back to her mother’s bedroom, from which strains of gospel choir music and radio static can be heard. Bertha Mae has presided over this earth for 103 years and shows no sign of abdicating this sacred trust anytime soon. Although a little hard of hearing, she's sharp as a tack, amused that anyone would care to say hello but perfectly happy to adjust her chair and turn down the music. No lines on her face, wrinkles on the back of her hands, or silver hues in her hair could ever extinguish the mischievous spark in her heart. When I ask if she's going to help take the poinsettias down to church I'm rewarded with a rumbling belly laugh as soft and easy as a sultry summer's breeze. I've never met anyone over one hundred before.

In the kitchen of the last house we unpack the bags for a woman nearly blind from cataracts. Valerie and I rattle off the wares as we go: sausages and sardines, eggs and milk, pasta and rice, fruits and vegetables. The simple fare we've carried through the streets is received with a gratitude that patrons of the finest restaurants will never understand.


As we drive back to headquarters, Valerie lets out a heavy sigh explaining how deflated she feels at the end of every shift. For five or 10 minutes we enter someone's life, learn a little about them, and give a little of ourselves. Every stop could have easily become cookies and tea and an afternoon of stories, but even if we wanted to stay for longer, there are more deliveries to be made and schedules to be kept. I ask Valerie if she's considered joining the Friendly Visitors program run by Meals On Wheels, which pairs volunteers with a single person whom they visit twice a month. She has, of course, she has.  

Once the empty bags are returned, the rain-soaked street of warehouses is emptied of volunteers. I understand Valerie's heavy sigh – it’s like a depression that settles in after a good party when everyone's gone home. The good deeds have been done, the conversations concluded, the rest of the day stretches ahead, but nothing on the horizon promises the sense of fulfillment that comes from meeting these people and the smiles on their faces when they answer the door.


Meals On Wheels SF runs several volunteer programs that help to combat hunger and isolation throughout the city, including the Home Delivered Groceries program that Valerie is a part of. Go to the website or e-mail Meals On Wheels at to find out more about how to get involved.

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Published on January 20, 2011, 2011

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