Given the constant tarantella of confusion and malice that is the Donald Trump administration, missteps from a few days ago take on the air of ancient history. But somehow his budget spiking Meals on Wheels, and his underlings' insane defense of scrapping such an important program, seem to epitomize the short-sighted meanness of our government.
It has been nearly 20 years since I went around with a volunteer from The Ark, delivering meals to the homebound elderly. But their need and gratitude are a vivid memory, and the cheery determination of the volunteers, which will continue with or without government support.
Abe Ginden takes a gnarled, work-worn hand and affectionately pats the top of a covered aluminum pan.
"She's nice," he says, referring to the food platter as if it's the elderly lady whose name is scrawled on top -- one of 30 shut-ins receiving meal deliveries from Ginden through a program run by the Ark, a Jewish social service agency.
Ginden knocks on the door. "FBI—open up!" he jokes. But the woman on the other side doesn't want to open up. As do many clients this particular day, she tells him to just leave the food outside and go away.
"I get this every day," says Ginden, 69, setting the food down. " 'Leave it at the door.' They don't want to get out of bed."
About 31 million U.S. citizens were age 65 or older in 1990. The figure will balloon to 70 million in the next 30 years.
For the portion of these people who become infirm, the choice will be either institutionalization or relying on home services such as the Ark's, which not only provides food but a link to the outside world which -- accepted or not -- is offered every day.
If the rejections bother Ginden—a World War II Navy vet -- he doesn't show it. At every house he says something pleasant, either through the door or into the intercom.
"Hot stuff!" Ginden shouts, pressing the buzzer for the apartment of Harry and Rose Goldberg.
The Goldbergs not only let Ginden in, they are waiting—beaming—in the hall to welcome him into their modest 1-bedroom apartment.
Harry Goldberg, 85, is 5 feet 10 inches tall and 116 pounds; he is the very definition of the word "gaunt." Still, he appreciates the food.
"It's not my wife's cooking, but we have to eat," says Harry of the Ark's food. "She was a terrific cook, and I'm not saying that because she's my wife."
"You can't have everything," says Rose, his wife of 62 years, who at times seems distracted, as if listening to music far away.
"She's got her ailments," Harry says.
Both agree that Abe Ginden is as important to them as the food.
"The best," Harry says. "He's a doll. There's not enough he can do for us." Harry's voice drops to a conspiratorial whisper: "He'll bring in extra rolls. I don't know if it hurts him with the company, but he brings us bagels. Sometimes, a challah."
"It's such a nice service," Rose says. "And this kid here; they don't come any better."
Harry was with Globe Glass for 40 years, and fought as a 60-mm. mortar gunner in the Pacific. "Five hundred and seventy-five went in and only eight came back," he says.
Ginden chats for a while, then returns to his route. Many of his customers have grave illnesses.
"Cancer," Ginden says of a client before ringing the bell. "He's all cut up. A nice guy. It should happen to a dog and not to him."
But the cancer patient greets Ginden at the door and updates him on his situation while accepting the foil pans of warm food.
"Forty days in the hospital," he tells Ginden. Of the food he says: "Very good."
The service is not free; clients pay as little as 50 cents a meal and an average of $4. "It gives them pride to pay something," says Edna Traube Feldman, the Ark program's coordinator.
—Originally published in the Sun-Times, Jan. 4, 1998