The parking lot was absolutely empty, but a lot of parking lots in and around Charleston are empty these days. Regular business had mostly ground to a halt, a result of efforts to try to “flatten the curve” and slow the spread of the coronavirus.
I parked my car, anyway. Maybe I was early. That happens — occasionally.
All I needed was to knock on the right door and everything would be fine. Without a soul in sight, I left my car and went around Sacred Heart Catholic Church a little after 10 in the morning in search of an unlocked door and someone to get me started driving and delivering for Meals on Wheels.
I was ready to work, desperate to do something, really.
Thanks to the coronavirus, I’d been given a little time off from the newspaper, a business necessity due to the wobbly economy.
Lots of people were getting laid off and I was just one of them. But it wouldn’t be that bad, I was told — this was only temporary. Once things picked back up, once life started to return to normal, I’d be brought back.
I just needed to wait things out, but I was nervous. The world had turned on its head.
Lots of people reached out, offering everything from thoughts and prayers to free beer. A former editor heard about my predicament, told me to take it easy and to “enjoy getting some of the money you’ve paid into the unemployment fund over the years.”
But I’m terrible at time off.
In the first couple of days, I dug up flower beds, raked my yard, cut the grass and re-watched most of the “Star Wars” movies (again), while I waited to find out what was going to happen with unemployment.
I was luckier than some.
The weekly payments rolled in as scheduled, a relief. My dogs weren’t going to starve, and I could still afford Netflix (though, sadly, still not HBO).
But I had trouble sitting still.
I cleaned my house, mopped floors (twice) and cooked more than I needed to — mostly, comfort food. I made brownies, cookies and a birthday cake, as well as chicken and dumplings, meatloaf and pancakes.
Meanwhile, I checked on friends, sent letters and cards, donated blood through the Red Cross and then reached out to Meals on Wheels in Charleston to see if I could do anything.
A few years ago, I had been a driver for the American Cancer Society’s Road to Recovery program.
It was a volunteer gig, just a couple of hours every few weeks. I picked up cancer patients from around the county (and occasionally beyond) and took them to chemo or radiation treatments.
I fell into the volunteer work because I’d been too slow in signing up for the company volleyball team during the annual Corporate Cup competition, a kind of local Olympics where different businesses battle for mostly bragging rights.
Sometimes, you got a T-shirt, but the newspaper hadn’t needed me for the tug-of-war team or anything else, if I remember right. But I still wanted to contribute.
After talking to the newspaper’s human resource director, I was told there were still a couple of things I could do to help my company score points.
I could give blood, which I did sometimes anyway, and I could volunteer to drive for the American Cancer Society, which was worth a bunch of points.
It was an amazing experience, and because there wasn’t a specific term of service for volunteering, I just kept driving. I figured if anybody at the paper asked what I was doing, I’d say I’d been sold into indefinite servitude to score points for the Corporate Cup.
Nobody ever asked, nobody minded and I liked doing a little good.
No two assignments were the same, but everyone I picked up was older.
A few were well-educated with advanced degrees who’d had professional careers. I met a chemical engineer who’d grown up in England during World War II. His brother, he said, was a member of the Royal Air Force and had died on his first mission.
The engineer had come to America in the 1960s, married and started a family, who had all moved away. While undergoing cancer treatment, he cared for his frail (and half-deaf) wife. Their nearest relative was a daughter in Texas, I think.
Many of the people I met came from hard lives. They struggled working one low-wage job or another. They’d cleaned houses and businesses for a living, kept other people’s children, or spent a couple decades manning this register or that register at one of several convenience stores.
I heard a lot of stories about tragedy, heartbreak and loss — and I heard about Meals on Wheels more than once. Several of the people I drove to treatments mentioned receiving the service. A couple of them, too sick from treatments, offered me their meals when I brought them home.
They couldn’t stand to see a chicken dinner go to waste.
During this pandemic, these were the most vulnerable people I could imagine, and I wondered about how they were doing.
I’d just started working on a story about Meals on Wheels during the pandemic when I was told to go home for a while. Suddenly, I had free time. Volunteering just seemed like the right thing to do.
Over Facebook, I was matched up with Helen Scragg, the 83-year-old volunteer coordinator for Meals on Wheels, Inc. of Charleston. We talked by phone. She told me she was glad I called. They needed someone soon. A couple of their volunteers were leaving the area, which left a delivery day open.
Meals on Wheels delivers five days a week.
The trouble was training. Before the pandemic and social distancing, a new driver would just ride along with Helen and learn one of the two morning routes. But Helen was wary of riding with anyone besides her son.
“Would it be OK if you just followed behind?” she asked.
I said that was fine. It meant I didn’t have to wear a mask all the time.
We made plans to meet, but somehow I mixed up Charleston Catholic High School and then Sacred Heart Catholic Church with Saint Francis Hospital. Both times, I wound up making laps around buildings, tugging on doors, while looking at signs telling me to please, just go away.
This led to a series of calls, some rescheduling, and a worried cancellation by Helen over an illness that turned out not to be COVID-19 but a garden variety stomach bug. After all that, finally I arrived where I was supposed to be.
It was a cool and gray Wednesday morning when I showed up at Saint Francis Hospital to meet Jim Hoke, one of the longtime volunteers with Meals on Wheels. Helen had passed me onto him to take me through the route and show me the ropes.
“He used to be an FBI agent,” she told me over the phone, excited.
I imagined riding around with an aging James Bond, maybe doing some good work to make up for all the shaken but not stirred martinis and questionable choices made with women whose parents had been drinking heavily when they named them.
I considered wearing a jacket and tie for this, but instead just stuck with my usual uniform.
Finally, I was ready to get started. Then the paper called to tell me they wanted me to come back.