There’s no place like home. Literally. No place like it… How well we know now. For most of us these days, there’s no place BUT home. For those of us quarantined with “loved ones” —unless you happen to be a dog or cat — we tend to fall on a spectrum between “We’re getting closer as a family!” and “I can’t stand looking at you!” The latter exclamation best applies to my “home.” 

Granted, my unkempt quarantine beard is now exceeding previously held records for facial hair experimentation in the house. On the other hand, my girlfriend never takes off her knit ski cap (from an aerospace conference) or her red bandanna. Never. It’s a great “look.”

At least that’s when I actually catch a glimpse of her. We live in an overly expansive house for two people. At least there are lots of places to hide. I can hide, but I can’t run…

Before the latest order to avoid even grocery shopping if possible — in a moment of weakness — my girlfriend blurts out, “We need to get out of here and volunteer or something…!”

It happened that I had just received an email from Union Station Homeless Services calling for volunteers to help in assembling prepackaged meals for their more vulnerable clients, who had been displaced to local motels for quarantine. Their volunteer quota for that week had been filled, but there was a shift available in the kitchen between 10:30 a.m. and 2 p.m. on Friday. Running for daylight, I quickly nabbed the kitchen shift for myself.

Union Station has been operating in Pasadena and their satellite locations in the San Gabriel Valley for nearly 50 years. Over that time, the operation has earned a deserved reputation as an extremely well-managed and supported local organization that plays an essential role in effectively addressing homelessness in our area.

Prior to the COVID-19 outbreak and subsequent lock down, Union Station was serving 2,200 meals a week, routinely assisted by a cadre of hundreds of volunteers and their small dedicated staff. With the advent of the lock down and resident clients now scattered across the SGV, the organization managed to pivot quickly, despite a diminishing number of willing volunteers.

As of April 3, 5,000 prepackaged meals are assembled and distributed every week by volunteers and staff. Notably, the Patina Restaurant Group donated the use of two refrigerator delivery trucks to aid in the twice-weekly meal distributions. In addressing the growing issue of local food insecurity, by this week the number of distributed meals will have grown to 6,000 a week. As CEO Anne Miskey states, “We are showing how we are living our core philosophy of meeting our clients ‘where they are at’  — physically and emotionally.”

The founder of Patina Restaurant Group, Chef Joachim Splichal adds, “We are honored … to do our part in helping to feed our community’s most vulnerable.”

The Kitchen at the Adult Center still serves three squares a day to the healthy residents who remain at the facility. Unfortunately, public access to the meal service has been discontinued for the duration of the current lock down. The kitchen operation at USHS Adult Center is ably commanded by Chef Marisa along with Jimmy Lawson, Loretta Guerrero and Lawrence Regalado.

I’m a kitchen rat at heart and frankly I had been itching to volunteer here for a while, but I was too busy… visiting restaurants and chefs… until suddenly I wasn’t.

I show up at the kitchen door on time and am greeted by Beau Swofford. A regular volunteer with a languid east Tennessee drawl, Beau gets me settled with disposable gloves, a mask and an apron. After a round of introductions and quick tour of the relatively compact industrial kitchen, he deposits me in front of three large sinks and a growing stack of huge pots, trays, and kitchen tools waiting to be washed. After instructions on how to operate the industrial disinfector next to the drying counter, it’s wash, rinse, wash, rinse, disinfect and repeat. For the next three hours. I’m just getting into my groove, when my phone goes off. [“No Caller ID” is my girlfriend’s name. ] Why and how I manage to answer the call is complicated, but I do.

Apparently even more hysterical than usual, she is now convinced that I’m undoubtedly infected and that a mandatory 14-day personal quarantine will be waiting for me back “home.”

Rather than inquire as to available vacancies at the shelter, I return to my station and plunge my arms back into a tub of disinfectant. Trust me, after observing hygiene procedures here, the kitchen at Union Station might be the safest spot in town with the possible exception of a “Clean Room” at JPL.

It’s not all work, though. Prepping for lunch service, Chef Marisa invites me to first sample her subtly sweet and tangy udon noodles riddled with juicy slices of portabello mushroom and then a savory bite of Chinese-style red-rind barbecue pork. Did I mention I’m here for lunch?

It’s a light service today and with the clients sated, Beau and I grab some plates to enjoy Chef Marisa’s signature Udon Stir-fry with barbecue pork, fresh bok choy and spring rolls. We retire to the outdoor tables, where the packaged meals are prepped, and from six feet away we trade notes. As it happens Beau is a nonprofit veteran of shelter operations and management in several facilities around the country and he quickly confirms my own impression of Union Station’s apparent excellence.

After lunch, all the pots and pans sparkling on the drying counter, I join Beau and Loretta in disassembling unused snack packs donated by PUSD that will then be used to supplement the packaged meals for distribution. Then it’s over to the freezer to store gallon cartons of donated milk. Each task falls into an easy rhythm and the time passes almost too quickly. The people are lovely, the food’s great… why leave?

But I do have a home. And I’m truly grateful to have one. And there are too many folks who don’t and likely a growing number uncertain of their next meal. If any of us lacked empathy before the current horror, perhaps we can better recognize the need and manifest some now.

We may not all be homeless and hungry, but we all do share the same plate of uncertainty and insecurity for the future and its side dish of anxiety. Suffice it to say, I’m not ordering take-out anymore. I’m volunteering here. You should too. Union Station Homeless Services: There’s no place like it. 

POST SCRIPT: Our sincere condolences go out to Chef Laurent Quenioux — the subject of Part 2 (PW, April 2, 2020) — on the passing of his mother, who died last week in Paris from complications related to COVID-19 infection.