Jim Hoke had already loaded two coolers and a heavy plastic tray into the back of his SUV well before I pulled into the side entrance of Saint Francis Hospital in Charleston.
“Glad you made it,” he said, smiling and then extending a sweatshirt-covered elbow for me to bump.
“Social distancing,” he said, and then halfway apologized for calling me.
“No, that was all me,” I said. “I have no idea how I mixed up Saint Francis with Sacred Heart. I’m sorry to keep you waiting.”
Almost predictably, I’d screwed up the instructions for where I was supposed to be to train as a Meals on Wheels volunteer, my project for the month of May. Somehow, I’d confused Sacred Heart Catholic Church — and then Charleston Catholic High School — with Saint Francis Hospital. I had only managed to get where I was supposed to because Hoke called me while I was doing laps around the church and the school, looking for divine guidance.
Hoke said he hadn’t been waiting too long, but the cooks at the hospital who prepared the order for Meals on Wheels had the food ready earlier than usual.
For my first day, I was just supposed to follow behind Hoke in my own car and learn the route. He drove one of two routes for Meals on Wheels. Other volunteers drove one of the routes on other days of the work week.
Social distancing during a global pandemic was a lousy time to start any kind of job, but particularly a volunteer gig working with the homebound elderly and infirm, who are the most vulnerable to COVID-19.
Still, it hadn’t been hard to convince me how necessary volunteering was, especially now.
“It’s not just the food,” Hoke said. “Sure, for a dollar a day, we provide something like basic sustenance for people.”
A daily meal typically includes some kind of meat-based entree, side dishes and a small container of a thick soup, plus a small carton of milk, a slice of bread and an apple.
It was more food than most people might eat in a single sitting and could probably be stretched out to two meals for some. This, I imagined, was a great help if you didn’t get around so well or if standing for more than a couple of minutes in a kitchen was a chore.
But Hoke said feeding people was only really part of the mission.
“But we do more than just bring food,” he said.
Social isolation is new to the rest of us, but for some people on the Meal on Wheels route, it’s been a way of life for years. Beyond the drivers, a few of the program’s recipients scarcely see other people the rest of the week.
We were a lifeline.
Hoke told me the job is tougher than it sounds — it is strictly volunteer, there’s no mileage reimbursement, no money for wear-and-tear on your vehicle — and if you get into a fender bender, the repairs are on you. You’re also probably traveling to neighborhoods that aren’t your own, and some of them can look a little sketchy.
But he said there hasn’t been much trouble that he could remember. The people who received the meals were grateful for the food and the visit. Over time, Hoke said he’d gotten to know some of the people on his route.
“We’ve got some real talkers,” he laughed.
But sooner or later, a name left the list. They’d moved on and no longer needed food.
“But it’s still very rewarding, maybe one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done,” Jim said.
He’d joined the program eight years ago, not too long after he’d retired as a postal inspector.
Originally, from Pennsylvania, Hoke moved to West Virginia decades ago.
“I married a West Virginia girl,” he said.
The job had brought him to West Virginia early in his career and taken him to New York and Pennsylvania before it returned him to Charleston in the early 2000s.
“I loved it here,” he said. “I was the one really pushing to come back.”
I followed Hoke on the route. We left from the hospital and wound our way through serpentine backstreets on Charleston’s West Side.
On an average day, route one takes about an hour and a half, Hoke said.
“But you get bad weather and road repairs,” he said.
Sometimes, it takes a little longer.
At our first stop, about a mile from the hospital, Hoke hopped out of his SUV and I crawled out of my car, quickly slipping on my face mask. We met at the back of his vehicle.
He opened the door and began pulling the specific components from the two coolers in his trunk. Other volunteers had assembled and organized the food.
The right cooler contained hot food, placed in clamshell Styrofoam to-go boxes. The name of the recipient was written in marker on the top lid. The containers were stacked in order of delivery on the route sheet.
The left cooler held paper bags of cold food — a carton of milk or juice, fruit, bread and some kind of salad.
Hoke carried the soup in the back seat of his car, which was easier for transport. We put the boxes and paper sacks in plastic grocery bags, then carefully added the soup. Sometimes, the soup container went in with the cold food. Sometimes, it just went on top of the box.
“You put everything together at the stops,” Hoke said. “That protects against spills.”
The food was treated with a grave seriousness. We carried no spares and a lost meal was lost.
We drove all over the West Side, took food to a pair of disabled veterans in a small house and then to a cluster of retirees living in an old school that had been converted into an assisted living facility.
Some people lived in cute, grandmotherly homes with shelves full of pictures and knickknacks. They seemed surprisingly clean, given the circumstances of the people who lived inside.
At least, they seemed that way from the porch, looking through storm doors or windows. We didn’t risk going inside.
A few houses looked a little battered, but there were no shacks, just as there were no mansions.
Occasionally, a neighbor sitting on a porch watched us when we stopped and seemed to size us up, before waving, smiling and forgetting we were even there.
We left the food by the door. Sometimes, we sat it in a canvas bag on top of a chair or a box. Occasionally, there was a cooler with a lid.
“We try to encourage everyone to have something like that,” Hoke said.
It cuts down on thefts from Charleston’s tremendous cat population.
In happier times, he said he sometimes took food inside for some of the recipients. “People like to talk,” he said.
He liked to talk, too.
We got through the route in a little less than two hours. I’d slowed Hoke down some, but he thought I had the job down pretty well.
To be on the safe side, I went out a second time with volunteer coordinator Helen Scragg, a few days later. We did the same route, or pretty close to it. Once again, I followed behind and then met her at each stop to get the food and take it to the door.
“You’re a natural,” Helen beamed at me. “You ready to do this on your own?”
I shrugged. I thought I could handle it.