Life Essay: A summer Fishing

December 2021

For as long as I could remember, my dad always served on a professional or service committee, board or as an advisor. I admired his devotion to giving back.

We would have dinner early some nights so he could make a meeting. I was not privy to post-meeting downloads, which were surely after my bedtime.

I don’t recall exactly when he joined the board of “Fish.” Fish Emergency Services in the 1970s provided emergency food to last three days. I’m not entirely sure when it was begun or by whom. When dad served, the director was a strong willed, chain smoking woman name Jean Higginbotham.

One of the Fish board member duties was to open the office on Saturday afternoon for an hour or two to meet the needs of anyone needing weekend assistance. He would ask me to accompany him, to help put food bags together.

We would head to Centenary Wilbur United Methodist Church in inner SE Portland, located at SE 9th and Pine. This had been a thriving community of faithful, but like its deteriorating structure, the congregation fell away. The sanctuary had suffered a fatal blow during the 1962 Columbus Day Storm; the congregation adjusted and so did the uses for the building.

When we walked up the stairs in the main entrance, many of the church offices, Sunday School and other meeting rooms were rented by community service groups like Fish, as well as other liberally fringe organizations. The Portland Scribe newspaper offices were there as well.

Fish was on the second floor. The door opened into a great room with three mismatched desks for interviewing the needy. An adjacent waiting room was filled with typical non-profit (read mismatch) donated chairs and coffee tables, not to mention magazines that must have been hand-me-downs from doctors’ office. A huge, industrial coffee pot that made dozen of cups of coffee perked in the morning and stewed all afternoon. I learned to drink battery acid at Fish.

A storeroom in back was organized by food types. Instructions for the numbers of cans or bags per order were posted on the wall. Day old bread was shelved. Fresh fruit or vegetables in season and donated in large quantities were also doled out.

The main room was divided by old cubicle partition walls; the other side had racks of clothes that patrons could choose from in case the reason for emergency food also included emergency clothing. In back was Jean’s office.

The patrons who found Fish were sometimes travelers migrating from hardship to hope, but who ran out of money or sometimes got ripped off. Others were locals who may have escaped a fire and needed the resources. Many street people stopped in from time to time, but were turned away if recognized. Intake cards were kept to track times people had received food.

My mother must have put the bug in my ear the spring I turned 16. She served on a committee at First Methodist Church that, among other things, was charged with dolling out funds to students and others as summer interns. The church didn’t have a list to choose; instead the committee reviewed applications by the potential intern describing an organization, why it would benefit from extra help and why this applicant was a good fit. Those applicants deemed worthy then had a panel interview.

Once selected, interns would work eight to ten weeks during the summer, be paid $1,000, and be required to make a brief presentation to the church, usually on a Wednesday night supper service.

I proposed a summer working at Fish: extra hands to sort, shelve and distribute food. My application was accepted, leveraging what I already knew about the organization and the kinds of work needed. I passed the interview; it didn’t hurt that I was interviewed in part by my mother, though I’m sure she did not try to influence the rest of the committee members. Fish was on board and I started in June 1976.

Every day was a new task and usually not very glamorous. It didn’t hurt that a family of three kids, including a girl about my age for whom I would develop a crush, were dropped off to also fill their summer time volunteering at Fish. Various adults also dropped in to do various tasks; several retirees typed thank you letters to those who donated.

One lazy afternoon, one volunteer and I were talking; somehow the conversation got onto my wanting a car blanket for my car. She returned several days later with a used but clean orange wool fire blanket, which has ridden in every one of my cars since.

I accompanied one of the staff people once or twice a week to Franz Bakery to collect loaves of bread. Franz pulled past dated bread from store shelves every day; some of these “day old” loaves went to their outlet store, while the rest sat on racks in the back for agencies such as ours to collect “two-day old” bread for our clients. I learned to read the labels and tried to get the freshest bread.

Many bulk items were donated, which were broken down into family servings. Bulk grains, flour, sugar and powdered milk were measured out, bagged and sealed with bread ties. Instructions for reconstituting the milk were added to the food bags. Large tubs of peanut butter were divided into plastic pint containers. We sorted bags of potatoes on the back concrete stairs, primarily separating the rotten from the edible.

Just before the summer, the FTC or FDA banned Captain Crunch cereal with crunch berries; the berries were colored with red dye number 2, which was deemed a carcinogen — unless it was donated to an emergency food service. We had dozens of cases of cereal boxes and never hesitated to give away boxes in each order.

I learned to appreciate the value of certain food stuffs for food bags, especially high protein foods like peanut butter and tuna. We were often left with odd ball canned goods such as yams or canned chicken.

From time to time, Fish received an invitation from a farm to “glean” unpicked produce. Cucumbers and zucchinis grown for markets were picked when the produce was a certain size, but sometimes couldn’t be picked in time; these became large and sometimes misshaped, but still quite edible. At one farm we climbed ladders to pick plums.

The summer passed quickly; I prepared for my presentation, including slides. I was nervous; it was one of my first public presentations in front of -gasp! – adults, principally families I knew! I hardly remember anything about the presentation, what I said or what pictures I showed. People came up to me later and said kind things, I’m sure.

That time at Fish has stayed with me all these years: the hands-on effort necessary at non-profits; the amount of food needed to meet the daily needs of just emergency resources; the humility of having to ask for a basic need; the satisfaction on people — and these were all people — as they were handed a future meal.