The woman guarding the side entrance looked up from her table and asked me what I wanted.
A sign on the glass door to Saint Francis Hospital said no visitors, another safety precaution during the COVID-19 pandemic. But I wasn’t a visitor — I was on a mission.
“I’m with Meals on Wheels,” I said. “It’s my first day. I mean it’s my first day driving solo. I did this, before, last week. I’m supposed to pick up food to deliver, on wheels. I’m driving.”
The masked woman listened to me babble and nodded. She understood what I was saying, at least.
I didn’t actually want to be inside the hospital, not with a virus raging. I was happier waiting outside. But when I’d pulled up to the side entrance to collect the two chests full of food for me to deliver, there’d been nobody there.
The two times before, when I’d been in training, there’d been someone outside the door with a cart. I worried that I’d botched the time somehow and turned up late. Maybe another volunteer had been called in to complete the chore.
But no, I was on time, even a couple of minutes ahead of schedule. The other driver, for the other route the charity served, was nowhere in sight.
I waited awhile, but nothing. Nobody else showed up.
Embarrassed that I might have to call Helen, the volunteer coordinator, I walked past the warning signs, went in the building and explained my situation to the woman at the table.
“Do you have a headache or a fever?” she asked me. “Do you have a cough?”
“No,” I said.
I didn’t think I was sick.
She stood and touched a digital thermometer to my forehead, told me my temperature was 98.3.
“You don’t have a fever,” she said, asking me to hold out my wrist.
She affixed a paper hospital band around it, which apparently signaled that I was safe — at least, safer than my green crocheted surgical mask might have indicated.
“Go down the hall,” she said and pointed to my left. Someone down that way would help me at a desk, she said.
Glumly, I walked down the eerily empty halls until I found a bored security guard in a mask looking at his cell phone.
Once again, I explained what I was there to do and hoped maybe he would call someone and tell them I was parked outside, waiting.
Instead, he said, “Follow me. I’ll get you where you want to be.”
The security guy led me down solemnly quiet corridors and forlorn stairs that brought us to the basement.
“I’m in a horror movie,” I thought. “Any minute now the zombies are going to come racing up the hall from the morgue and I don’t even have my good running shoes on.”
This was true.
Even before the pandemic and the closing of most stores, all my shoes and boots had been coming up on their last few miles. I’d put off getting anything new like I’d put off getting my hair cut, but while I could (sort of) cut my own hair, there wasn’t much I could do to fix my footwear.
There were no zombies in the lower level of Saint Francis Hospital. There were barely any people.
I was taken to the door of the hospital kitchen and passed off to one of the workers, who brought me to the condiment stand in the cafeteria where I met the Meals on Wheels volunteer taking care of the day’s meal packing.
“It’s not my usual day,” she told me. “I got a call to come in.”
I’d gotten wound up over nothing. She’d been a couple of minutes behind. I’d been a few minutes early and just assumed the worst.
I helped her take the cart up to the ground level and the side entrance, where she handed me the route itinerary, which listed who was receiving a meal that day. A couple of names were scratched out. They weren’t going to be around and I could skip the stops.
There were also notes about what each person was to get. One house got an extra soup. Another house didn’t take red meat or corn.
Along with these instructions for the packer, there were directions to get to each stop on the route — if we could make this work.
The volunteer looked at my car. Many of the other drivers drove sport utility vehicles, roomy family cars with plenty of leg room or space to shove a couple of full-sized ice chests.
I drive a Chevy Cruze, an economy vehicle — not as small as the Spark, the Volt or whatever eco-friendly golf cart is at the bottom of the company’s fleet, but not exactly a big car.
This suited me fine, but neither of us was entirely sure if I could get both coolers in the backseat. Luckily, they both went in with only a slight adjustment of the front passenger seat.
I was ready to go. Well, almost.
While I’d been careful to pack a mask (two of them, actually) and a new bottle of hand sanitizer, I’d forgotten to bring grocery bags to pack together the separate Styrofoam containers that kept hot food and paper bags away from the salad, fruit and milk.
I needed to use the restroom anyway, so I stopped in at West Virginia Public Broadcasting on Capitol Street, where I record a radio show for the weekend and read the weather in the morning. While inside, I scoured the break room for plastic bags and came up with four, including two pulled from the freezer. With a couple in the car leftover from my last grocery store visit, I was ready to go, back on the street and headed to my first delivery.
The first house was easy. I knew my way, stopped, got out, put the food together in a bag and ran it onto the porch, yelling out “Meals on Wheels,” after I knocked on the door.
From the other side, a woman called back, “Thank you.”
The second stop was a little more complicated.
On my two training days, I had followed two different drivers who took two slightly different routes to get to the same place, which was enough to throw me off. It took me an extra couple of blocks to correct the course. I wound up on the correct street, just pointed in the opposite direction to where I was supposed to go next.
After I delivered the two meals to the one house, a woman called out to me from her front porch, asking what I was doing.
“I’m with Meals on Wheels,” I explained.
She seemed interested, but I wasn’t sure who to tell her to call about getting a meal.
“I can bring that next time,” I promised.
“Where’d you get your mask?” she asked.
“A friend made it for me,” I said. “She knits and crotchets and has been giving them away.”
“I could use a mask. I have to go to the store today and I don’t have a mask,” the woman said.
“Hang on,” I said, and fetched a spare paper mask for her from my car.
By my fifth stop, I’d gotten turned around again. I zigged where I should have zagged, turned left where I should have turned right. I don’t know, but after spending 10 minutes trying to right myself, I pulled to the side of the road, dug out my not-always-reliable GPS from the glove box, plugged it and waited for it to slowly connect to the satellite.
It took a couple more minutes, but I got back on track and finished the remainder of my deliveries without any real trouble.
Everyone got fed, maybe a little later than I’d hoped, but the work was done. I returned the coolers; the driver of the second route had already dropped his/hers off.
I promised myself the next time would be a little better.