12-24-2011, 03:01 PM
A long line of hungry residents inched along the food counter, sliding battered plastic trays still wet from the dishroom far in the back. They picked up styrofoam plates of mass-produced food, ladled with assembly-line precision by the volunteers behind the steam table, and moved on at the same slow pace. The kitchen assistants known as "runners" dashed to and from the kitchen to take away empty steam trays to the dishroom and bring in more food. The residents shuffled off with their trays bearing their primary if not their only meal of the day.
Criss observed this grim process from his position in the chow line, as some of the residents called it. He stood between his friends Burt and Dennis. He had no idea where Marvin or Buddy were; he guessed they were far in the back of the line, or at least hoped they were. He approached the stack of wet plastic trays that had just been delivered from the dishroom by some pimply-faced teenage volunteer with iPod headphones plugged into his ears. He neither noticed nor seemed to care that a celebrity was standing in line; it could have been the President himself standing there and he would not have spared him a single glance.
For that one single moment, Criss felt like a nobody. Dressed in his hobo costume, he was just another hungry mouth in a long line of hungry mouths snaking through the double doors of the shelter cafeteria. No one seemed to remember that only a few months before he had been entertaining them with his illusions and passing out lollipops to the kids. They had been his audience then, cheering and applauding him, totally captivated by his every move. Now they didn't even recognize him, much less care. He was lost in the crowd of impoverished, homeless people crushed by the misery of their lives and their environment to notice the presence of a major celebrity in their midst.
He looked at the servers at the steam table. Except for an eldery lady in a mesh hair net spooning out lumps of meat, the other three behind the counter were also teenagers, two girls and a boy about fifteen or sixteen years of age. Curious, Criss turned to Burt. "I see they got a lot of high-school kids working here," he commented as he picked up his tray.
"School's got 'em doin' thirty hours of volunteer work so's they can graduate," Burt explained. "It's supposed to make them more 'socially aware', an' 'involved in the community', an' all that bull(bleep). To them, it's just an inconvenience, like jury duty; they don't stay long after their hitch is done. I know they'd rather be out partying than doin' KP here at the shelter. They don't give a (bleep) about us."
Criss noticed a slim girl with honey-colored hair handing out half-pints of milk to the residents, smiling at them as she did so. He pointed her out to Burt. "She seems to be enjoying it," he said.
"She's faking it," Burt scoffed.
"Maybe not," Criss countered. "Maybe she really likes helping the homeless."
Burt said nothing more but grabbed his plate from the top of the steam table and went on his way. Criss picked up his dinner, still keeping his eyes on the milk girl. He inched closer to her, noticing how pretty she was, especially when she smiled. Burt was wrong, he thought; this girl genuinely enjoyed helping those less fortunate, even if it was simply passing out small cartons of milk.
He approached the milk girl, who handed him a carton of two-percent milk. "Here you go," she said cheerfully. "Enjoy your meal."
"Thank you very much," Criss replied, returning her smile with his own. "So, what's your name, anyway?"
"Well, Jessie, you just brightened my day."
Jessie looked at Criss carefully. "You look awfully familiar," she said suspiciously.
Criss was about to reveal his true identity, but felt Dennis' finger poke him impatiently in the shoulder. "Hey!" he said. "Quit flirting with the help--you're holding up the line!"
"Okay, okay!" Criss picked up his tray. "See you later, Jessie."
He carried his meal into the low-ceilinged cafeteria, crowded and deafeningly noisy. The tables were arranged in long rows, like high school or prison. No sooner was a seat made vacant than it was taken by someone else. Babies and small children sat on their mothers' laps as they were spoon-fed mashed potatoes or other palatable fare. Table manners were practically non-existant--the majority of them simply shoveled the food into their mouths with forks or spoons clutched tightly in their fists, aided by grubby fingers. The whole room reeked of bland cafeteria food, dirty clothes and unwashed bodies. Stone-faced matrons, the "church ladies" Dennis informed him, patrolled the perimeter, enforcing the grace-saying rule to the letter. "They're like the shelter's personal Gestapo," he said in Criss' ear. "You don't say grace, they'll nail your ass to the wall."
He pointed out one cadaverous old woman in a high-collared calico frock. "That's Sister Eunice," he said. "She's the worst of 'em. Keep as clear of her as you can, dude. She's like the wicked witch of the west around here."
"Don't worry, dude," Criss said, smiling mischieviously. "I can handle her."
Burt, Criss and Dennis managed to score three seats together at one end of a long table, Criss at the end, Burt and Dennis on either side. They had barely lowered themselves into their seats when, as bad luck would have it, the grim spectre of Sister Eunice materialized before them like a malvolent spirit. "Y'all remember to say the blessing," she intoned in her grating, nasally voice.
It was not a reminder, it was a command. Criss could see why Dennis and the other residents feared this woman in the high-collared dress dragging all the way to her bony shins: she was tall and gaunt, the flesh on her face barely clinging to her skull. Her mouth, if the slit below her nostrils could be called that, was creased into a permanant disapproving frown. Her thin gray hair was tightly bound into a neat little knot at the back of her head, emphasizing her skull-like features even more. A pair of piercing eyes glared at the three men through gold-rimmed bifocals perched on the bridge of her thin nose. Dennis had been right to compare her with the wicked witch of Oz; Criss could picture her in a black peaked hat, riding on a broomstick with a black cat sitting on the straw behind her.
Burt, however, was not intimidated. "Can't a man sit down to eat without you botherin' us?" he griped. "Ain't gonna make no difference if we pray or not. Food's the same either way."
"This is a Christian-run shelter, sir," Sister Eunice sharply reminded Burt, "and we say the blessing before eating."
Burt leaned over to Criss. "This is why I hate comin' here," he said, jerking his thumb toward Sister Eunice. "Everything here's so church-oriented, you can't turn around without someone shovin' their Bible down your throat! Can't even get a decent meal without her strong-arming you to pray."
"So?" Sister Eunice pressed. "You gonna say the blessing or not? You don't eat until you do; only heathens and animals eat before sayin' the blessing."
"Okay, so, I'm a heathen," Burt retorted, picking up his fork.
"Don't you eat one bite before sayin' the blessing!" Sister Eunice said sharply.
Criss rose to the rescue. "Sister Eunice," he said politely, "since my friends here are incapable of saying grace themselves, allow me to cover for all three of us."
Sister Eunice's sharp features actually softened a bit at this request. "Very well," she agreed, "you may."
Criss sat down, bowed his head, closed his eyes, folded his hands, and recited a traditional blessing of the food--in Greek. Burt and Dennis looked sideways at him, uncomprehending the strange language he spoke. Sister Eunice, for her part, wondered if the young man sitting before her was speaking in tongues. He ended with a quick "amen", crossed himself in the customary Greek Orthodox manner, and raised his head, suppressing the urge to laugh at the bemused expression on Sister Eunice's face. "Well, that's how we said it when I was growing up," he protested innocently.
Rationalizing that the Lord understood all tongues, Sister Eunice made a barely susceptible nod and left. Once the odious figure of the church lady had departed, the three men burst out laughing. Burt gave Criss a high-five for his joke. "You the man, Criss!" he guffawed. "You are the man!"
"Just what the hell did you say, anyway?" Dennis asked.
"Oh, just a traditional Greek blessing, that's all," Criss replied lightly.
"Well, it was Greek to me!" Burt quipped as he dug into his meal. "I didn't understand a (bleeping) word you said."
The meal of ground-up chicken meat and overcooked pasta was lukewarm, but it was filling. The mashed potatoes were the processed kind, covered with watery tan gravy. Dessert was a small spoonful of runny applesauce spilling onto the tray. I ate better in high school, Criss thought. At least we had pizza now and then.
He looked around the cafeteria. He knew the economy had taken a nosedive in recent years, but he had no idea there were this many homeless people in Las Vegas. Had the number increased since his last visit, or had he simply not noticed? Guiltily, he forced himself to admit the latter; he had only met a small handful during taping, fewer still made it on camera with him. Saddest of all were the number of children living in the shelter. All they wanted was a home of their own, with food on the table and decent clothes on their frail little bodies. Criss recalled with shame that all he gave them during taping were lollipops; they had enjoyed the treat, sure, but they needed more, much more.
Again he recalled Father Stefan's words about the two Las Vegases, the one everyone saw and the one nobody saw. Nobody saw this side of Las Vegas because they didn't want to, Criss thought. Everybody here is in total denial; they want everyone to see what they want them to see: the neon signs and bikini-clad models and rolling dice coming up sevens for everybody. As far as they're concerned, these people here don't exist--they just sweep them aside like trash on the street, shove them into this warehouse where they can't be seen, and pretend they don't exist. Out of sight, out of mind.
But who were "they"? Criss' conscience spoke up inside him. Who were "they" who swept aside these unfortunate people just because they were poor and homeless? Who was in denial of their existance? The city govenment? The hotel and casino owners? The citizenry?
Or, perhaps, himself?
Criss set down his fork and gazed at the sea of wretched humanity before him in the cafeteria, scarfing down tasteless, watery meals as if they would be their last. He had always considered himself to be unselfish and caring, giving his time to sick children through the Make-A-Wish Foundation and entertaining the troops and their families at various military bases. But he always had a home to go to, his luxury suite at the Luxor, filled with expensive electronic games and other toys he had purchased during his career; where his every whim had been fulfilled, whether for extravagant jewelry or customized cars and motorcycles. These people had nothing but the clothes on their backs and the will to survive, even if it meant coming here to an overcrowded shelter for a watery meal and a cot to sleep on. Las Vegas made billions of dollars in gambling revenue and ticket sales for their shows, including his own. Couldn't they spare a few million improving the lot of these poor people?
Dennis nudged Criss with his elbow. "You okay, man?" he asked.
Criss made a brave face, hiding the maelstom of emotions swirling inside him. "Yeah, man, I'm okay," he replied. "Just thinking, that's all."
"That can be dangerous," Burt quipped, chuckling.
Criss feigned a slap at Burt. "(Bleep) you!" he sneered.
Last edited by Veritas; 12-25-2011 at 03:44 PM.