When I graduated from high school, I received a community service award from the city for completing hundreds of hours of volunteer work. I wasn’t the altruistic teen that my prize might suggest, though: As a kid, I needed to be the best. (In fact, as a precocious 10-year-old egomaniac, my motto was, “Amber is the best,” which I spent a disconcerting amount of time scrawling into my notebooks.) I can’t be certain of the psychological root of all this, but I imagine it has something to do with being the only child of a doting single parent who truly thought that I was a wonderful mélange of bee knees and cat pajamas.
By the time I entered high school, I’d become a grade-obsessed extracurricular activity–hound. If I was assigned a brief oral report on the office of the Attorney General for my government class, then you’d better believe that I came correct with some tight audiovisual aids. If my religion teacher wanted me to do a presentation on the Catholic sacrament of Confirmation, I was just going to have to bust out my acoustic guitar and compose a song about it. (Yes, this actually happened. It was a parody of Adam Sandler’s “The Chanukah Song,” and it was all about Catholic celebrities, like Alec Baldwin and Martin Scorsese, whom I imagined had been confirmed.)
As a freshman, when I learned that every student in my school was required to complete a total of 40 hours of community service over four years, I immediately started devising a plan to complete twice as many hours. Maybe even three times as many hours. Hell, the sky was the limit on this. I consider myself a kind person, but honestly, truthfully, on the really real? When it came to doing this particular type of community service, my enthusiasm had next to nothing to do with kindness. Humanitarianism, compassion, the basic idea that the volunteer work that I would be doing might lighten the physical or emotional load that some struggling person was carrying….these things barely even mattered. My brain was hyper-focused on getting into the ivy-covered, East Coast university of my most titillating nerd fantasies.
I “nobly” chose to volunteer with Meals on Wheels—a national organization that delivers hot meals to people—mostly senior citizens–who are homebound, because it didn’t seem too labor-intensive. (Since I was going to be doing something like infinity hours of community service, I needed to make sure that the work wasn’t too strenuous.) Every Saturday morning, my mom shuttled me around town as I delivered the meals. There were 10 to 12 people on my delivery route, most of whom lived in labyrinthine apartment complexes. Aside from the occasional emotional breakdown whenever I found myself lost, anxiously contemplating living out the remainder of my days roaming the confusing hallways, the work was easy. I knocked on a person’s door, smiled when they answered, and handed over their meal. I hardly spoke. Some people even requested that their meal just be left outside their front door, which was more than cool with me. The whole delivery process was a very quick, pleasant, in-and-out affair with everyone on my route, except for Mrs. Bryce.
The first time that I visited Mrs. Bryce, I rang the doorbell and waited there long enough to start imagining what the meal I was holding—which smelled like an oddly yummy mixture of hospital floor and gravy—would taste like. There was an indefinable stillness to her one-story house that I decided meant that no one was home but I rang the bell again anyway, impressing myself by how dutiful I was. I waited for what seemed like a solid eon and a half before I finally turned to leave and bring the food back to the Meals on Wheels office, where it would become someone else’s responsibility. I headed down the walkway and was nearly back to my mom’s car, when I heard the door creak behind me. I quickly spun around and made sure to jog toward the house in order to outwardly convey some enthusiasm for this thing that I was doing. The door was opened just a sliver, and a raspy voice from behind it called out, “Who’s there?”
“Meals on Wheels,” I said in a bubbly tone. Answering that door after I was fully prepared to leave was the first thing that Mrs. Bryce did to irk me.
The woman opened the door wider. She had short, frizzy, gray hair that covered her head like a batting helmet and wore glasses with huge lenses that took up most of the real estate on her face. She was probably in her late 50s and sat in a wheelchair, wearing an oversized sweatshirt that made her tiny frame seem even tinier.
“Ah—you can just put it on the table over here,” she said, slowly backing her chair away from the door and directing me inside.
She was the first person I delivered to who invited me into their home. Perhaps the others were more aloof because, like me, they thought we were just engaged in a simple, perfunctory transaction—they wanted da food, I gave ’em da food. Or maybe the veneer of affability that I wore was thinner than I thought, and these people were turned off, or offended, or possibly even hurt by the reticence they observed in me. If Mrs. Bryce was able to sense any reticence, she certainly ignored it. Or maybe she fed off of it. Maybe it fueled her.
The house’s interior, from what I could see from the small entryway, had a retro taupe-ness to it, with olive green and orange accents. A plastic floor runner bunched up in treacherous mounds over the carpet. Tentatively, I walked into the kitchen and gently set the container onto what looked like a ’70s-era Formica table. Mrs. Bryce—who not only proved to be the chattiest person on my route but also one of the chattiest that I’d ever meet—explained to me that she was legally blind. She could see a bit up-close, but mostly she just saw blurry shapes.
“Your face is a shadow,” she said as nonchalantly as you might discuss cloudy weather.
I’m not a talented conversationalist, and that was especially true when I was 14 years old, so I had no idea how to gracefully and respectfully make small talk with this woman about her disability. I managed to reply with a very eloquent and consolatory, “Oh…OK.”
Having been in her house for upwards of two and a half minutes, I was ready to finish the rest of my deliveries and go home, so I could complete my weekend ritual of watching Dirty Dancing and reciting all of Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey’s dialogue. But by simply stepping into that house I had unwittingly agreed to some kind of social contract in which I would be required to answer an indefinite—possibly even infinite, I felt—number of questions:
How old are you?
Oh, my son is just a few years older than you. Do you know Michael?
Which school do you go to?
St. Joe’s? Oh, that’s nice.
So you’re Catholic. Are you Catholic? I’m Catholic.
What was your name again?
Where do you live?
When did you start working for Meals on Wheels?
Why are you delivering meals?
Another girl used to come here. Do you know her?
Even though I was essentially being bombarded with questions, I didn’t feel like I was being interrogated. I understood that she was simply trying to have a conversation with me, in her own, blustering way. That being said, she was annoying. I felt guilty for having this thought. I mean, she was frail and alone—traits that should have made her an entirely sympathetic figure in my mind, right? But, goddammit, my skin tingled with how irritating this situation was. She just wouldn’t stop talking. (These are not exactly the thoughts one might expect of a certified all-star of volunteering, huh?)