Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Joe Caldwell, The Pot Washer

The "Pot Washer", Mr. Joe Caldwell

I read this story in Guideposts in 2006. It really touched me. I cut the article out of the magazine, made copies, and shared it with all my friends. I just found the article on-line! Now I can share it with you.

Maybe I was just too old and cranky to be a volunteer.
By Joe Caldwell, New York, New York

I'm the pots-and-pans man. For 25 years now, I've spent my Saturdays elbow-deep in two sinks (tubs, really—one for washing, one for rinsing) at the soup kitchen run by the University Parish of St. Joseph in Greenwich Village, New York. In that time, I've managed to come up with a long list of things that raise my hackles: Drains stopped up with peelings and cuttings because someone forgot to put in the strainer; someone dipping his dirty hands into the clean rinse water; the coordinator (who is new every week) snapping up all the volunteers so I'm left without someone to dry. Incredibly, despite my prayers for patience, these petty irritations can suppress the joy I once felt at the opportunity to serve.

My most righteous wrath I save for the cooks. There is a substance called Pam that prevents food from baking onto a pan. That is, when a sufficient application is made. If it is used sparingly (or not at all), a long soaking, repeated hacking away with a scraper and an inordinate expenditure of elbow grease come into play. Except to me, it's not play. It's more work than should have been necessary. Much more.

One recent Saturday, I had encrusted pans that completely resisted my efforts. It was as if the tuna casserole had glued onto the stainless steel, impossible to separate. I headed straight for Miriam Lee, who heads the program. "This," I said, shoving a pan under her nose, "is not acceptable. It's a complete lack of regard. To be able to Pam a pan does not take a Ph.D. They've been told often enough!"

Miriam pointed out, as she had in the past, that the cooks can be different people each week. Not every volunteer—especially a new one—is aware of the wishes of the pots-and-pans man. They may have other things on their minds. I should take this into account, get back to my tubs and get busy. People needed to be fed.

I got busy. But I'd had it. After today, I resolved, I would quit the soup kitchen. After all, I'd volunteered for a quarter of a century. Time for someone else to take over.

Still seething, I walked through the basement to put some pots into the pantry. Passing by a table, I overheard a woman telling of a clinic appointment she'd gotten for the following week. A man with a ginger-colored beard discoursed on the need for less rain. A young woman said the tuna needed more salt. A young man offered his uneaten bread and butter to the old man sitting next to him.

I stopped. And I looked around. A month-old conversation with my sister came to mind. I had told her I was worried about becoming a curmudgeon in my old age. "What do you mean, becoming?" she'd asked me with a wry laugh.

It was true. I'd become a curmudgeon, a common scold. It's said that as we get older, we become more difficult. Well, I am getting older. Not much I can do about that. And my prayers for patience were, possibly, too impatient to deserve the hoped-for response.

Now, in that room, amid the murmur of all those needy people sharing a meal, I knew I couldn't quit. How could I have forgotten what an honor it is to serve? To help those who have less than I do.

What I do might be a chore, yes, but it's a chore for which I should give thanks and praise. I'd been given the opportunity to do something—this least little contribution to my community, to my brothers and to my sisters, to Christ. To serve. How wonderful the word! How inviting the act!

I put the pots inside the pantry and then headed back to my tubs. I got busy. And I still am.

Am I a recovering curmudgeon? Not at all. I can be as cranky as ever, with an increase expected as the years go by. But I ask that God, in his love, will translate my mutterings into what they should be: prayers of thanks, prayers of praise, for the simple chance to serve.



Anne said...

Oh this is an excellent, excellent story! It reminds me of what your friend Jennifer at My Chocolate Heart keeps quoting from St. Francis de Sales-"Be what you are and be it well!" Thanks for sharing this!

Gabriella said...

No, Joe, you're not a curmudgeon ... you're a hero!
And what you are doing for all these people whom God loves so very much you are doing to His son.

Thank you for sharing this Brian ... an example for all of us!

Brother Juniper said...


Thanks for this! Similar things have happened to me when I was working at a tutoring center and got irritated with some of my students because they weren't learning fast enough.

Lo and behold, Our Lord knocked me upside the head!

Anonymous said...

With a Labor of Love, every day is payday!