As volunteers dished up corn flakes and egg-ham-and-cheese sandwiches for breakfast at Trinity Cafe the morning before the hurricane hit, the question broke their hearts a little.
People asked if the cafe might spare a few trash bags. If I can't get into a shelter, they said — and they were filling up fast — at least I can try to stay dry out there tonight.
Slowly, those of us firmly on the grid inch toward post-Irma normal — neat bags of branches stacked at our curbsides, chain saws buzzing, power restored. At Trinity, a nondescript building at the edge of downtown Tampa where they serve hot meals to the homeless and hungry, life is getting there, too.
Really, it never stopped. The cafe served breakfast to 110 people hours before the storm Sunday. Lunch Monday for 201 after it passed — simple tuna or turkey sandwiches, cookies, chips and apples, since they didn't know if they would have power. But by Tuesday, 251 people showed up for what Trinity does best, a full sit-down meal of salad, pasta with a rich meat sauce, vegetables, cookies and fruit, served by aproned volunteers.
They came from hardscrabble homes crowded with people taken in for the storm, from rooming houses without power, from the streets. Families brought toddlers and teenagers sporting earbuds. And naturally — as Stand By Me played from the loudspeaker and volunteers swooped in to pour iced tea — they talked about what everyone was talking about: the hurricane and how it hit them.
John Hollis and Kelly McAloon, here from Nashville, low on funds and nowhere to stay, were trying to find work picking up the branches that were everywhere. "I'd be willing to do any kind of cleanup, I don't want to ask for handouts," Hollis said. A father tucking into his pasta said the kids were scared when Irma came through, which they promptly chorused from the other side of the table was not so.
"Thank God everything is okay," said Kenneth Webb, guiding his wife, Mary. They've been coming for years, him in his suit and red baseball cap, her in a dress, part of the family. "A blessing," he called this place.
Outside waiting for a seat in the dining room, Lamar Bryant told me about weathering the fierce winds and pelting rains that night, burrowed in his blankets on a concrete slab under a pavilion at a day care center when he couldn't get into a shelter. He told me how the sky turned purple.
"That storm was meant to wash me away," he said. "But it didn't."
"Five star" is how a grizzled man described the food, and it's true chef Benito D'Azzo's previous gig was at the high-end Straz Center for the Performing Arts. He laughed when I asked the difference: "I've been here a year and a half and I haven't gotten my first nongluten request."
I asked volunteer Trisha Kelly why she comes. "I get a lot out of it — more out of it than I give," she said, off again in the bustle of it all.
Rolling silverware into napkin bundles as fast as volunteers could grab them, assistant coordinator Phyllis Brumfield told me she really wanted to be here this day. "To make sure everybody's okay," she said.
Finally the doors closed, the last little boy juggling three apples and a bag of cookies. Then a cable repair guy working outside poked his head in. This elderly man out there didn't make it in time for lunch, he said — maybe you have some bread or something for him?
A tiny, scruffily dressed man was ushered in. Trinity executive director Mandy Cloninger went off to ask the kitchen to rustle up one more hot lunch. "Thank you, thank you," the man said over and over, having again found shelter from the storm.