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Sue Carlton: Humanity's new address

Published Apr. 26, 2013

They had just served the last hot lunch to the homeless and hungry that day at Trinity Cafe, had just closed the heavy door to the old building near downtown Tampa. Volunteers were scraping plates and mopping floors when somebody knocked.

He was a thin man, and Cindy Davis, the day's coordinator, had to tell him they were done and he should come back tomorrow. Then a little boy stepped forward. Don't feed me, the man said. Feed my son.

Davis, today Trinity's program director, remembers him years later, remembers so many of them. Somehow, Trinity served hundreds of thousands of meals to the hungry, and there are always hungry, inside that dingy, crowded space upstairs in a Salvation Army building. And not in a soup line, but at tables with steaming entrees set down by servers who pour drinks and make sure bread baskets don't go empty.

Maybe it's the basic decency of the goal here, meals served with dignity and without judgment for the single reason that people are hungry, that keeps volunteers coming back — some for years. Even a City Council member or two has tied on an apron at Trinity. Maybe this is also why, thanks to donations large and small, a new freestanding Trinity Cafe — a $1 million project — opens its doors Tuesday on the edge of downtown.

Not that it is for the faint of heart, this glimpse into the homeless and working poor, sometimes into addiction and mental illness and stories unbearably sad. One volunteer server bolted, saying it was too hard to hear. Regular diners with street-scuffed backpacks holding the whole of their lives become friends to Trinity workers, then disappear. As a volunteer I once sat with a man with an Alabama accent who talked about life in jail and maybe one day seeing his kids.

If you were ever inside the sad, old space with its single shared bathroom, the modest new dark beige building on Nebraska Avenue will be a wonder: Covered space outside so people won't wait in the blazing sun or pouring rain. Sunny yellow floors and soft green walls. A small stage, even, for volunteers to entertain. An herb garden under construction for the man in chef whites, Alfred Astl.

A five-star chef who these days gets raves for his rich sauces and his cheeseburgers alike, Chef Alfred now has enough freezer space to buy food when it's cheap and store it. (Money gets especially tight in summer.) He can no longer complain about a lack of heat lamps to keep the food hot. And when he shows me the shiny new garbage disposal — no more wet, smelly garbage to be hauled outside — he is a kid at Christmas.

The patchy, historic, urban neighborhood around the new digs is boarded-up bungalows next to beautifully restored ones, with residents understandably leery of Trinity and its clientele. But Davis says a couple have stopped by and said they might even volunteer. Trinity will do that to you.

That day years ago, the thin man and his son were brought in, and volunteers in aprons served them soup, the chef's hot entree and dessert. (Always dessert, the red velvet cake being a crowd favorite.)

Davis remembers the father showing the boy how to put his napkin on his lap and how to use his fork properly — and how everyone tried not to get too teary-eyed when he said, "Son, you're in a fine restaurant here."

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