Soup Kitchen Seamstress
By Shifra Mincer as told to Elizabeth Rusch
Published in Guideposts for Teens, January 2003
I wish I were back in Israel. That was my first thought when I stepped into the art room at Ramaz School in Manhattan, N.Y., the first day back after I’d been living in Haifa for a year. My dad, a physicist, had been on sabbatical at a university in Haifa. My life that year was so different; I spoke only Hebrew and I wore dresses all the time like everybody else. People there, even the kids, seemed more serious –but I really liked that. I didn’t realize until I stepped into my classroom how well I fit in Haifa –and how out of place I felt at home.
I certainly didn’t look like I fit in at all. I was wearing a dress, all pink and cotton, with white sneakers. All the other girls were wearing tight jean skirts or black skirts with fitted shirts and black clunky shoes. I felt like a misfit among all these teenagers.
“Take a seat please, Shifra,” the teacher said.
I glanced around. None of my friends were in the class. Worse, there were no open seats. The teacher pointed across the room at a stool. The last thing I wanted to do was walk through all those kids to the other side of the room. I hated to be the center of attention. All those eyes on me… But there was nowhere else to sit. Ugh. I shuffled across the room, stepping over kids’ feet and squeezing through the tables. I hardly looked up. I felt so small and timid and shy.
“Are you new here?” a girl asked.
“Uhm, no, I was away last year,” I said. “I’m Shifra.”
“Oh, hi” she said. But I didn’t say another word.
A few weeks later, my teacher posted a sign in the hallway inviting students to volunteer at a soup kitchen. “We should go,” said my friend Rebecca, who was in another class.
“Oh, I don’t know,” I said. I can barely relate to my classmates, how can I talk with homeless people?
“Yeah, come on Shifra, we went last year,” said Elizabeth, “It’s kind of cool.”
So there I was, spooning stew and rice onto plates at a soup kitchen in the basement of Hebrew Union College when someone asked the volunteers: “Does anyone here know how to sew?” I looked around to see if anyone answered.
“Can anyone here sew?” the man asked louder.
Sewing is part of the fabric of my family life. One grandmother hand-made all her children’s clothes. My other grandmother owned a tailor shop. My dad is handy with a needle and my mom repairs the all our clothes and sews curtains for our apartment. I could sew, too, but I hated to stand out in a crowd.
“Uhm, yeah, I know how to sew,” I whispered, raising my hand a little.
My teacher heard me and nudged me with her elbow: “Say it louder. You can sew."
I shuffled forward, eyes down. “I can sew,” I said.
The man handed me a broken little box with a few spools of thread and a couple needles and buttons. He directed me toward an empty chair and table right in the hallway where homeless people file in. Someone announced: “If you need anything sewn, bring it here!” Oh, no, I thought, all these scary people will be coming up to me and I’ll have to talk with them. I wanted to crawl in a hole. But instead, I sat down and threaded the needle.
“This seam is torn,” a man said, poking his finger through a hole in his filthy tattered jacket. I didn’t look up at him as I stitched his jacket. I could only see his worn shoes and the dusty cuffs of his pants.
“Can you sew this button back on?” a woman asked, handing me a blouse. I was surprised to notice that she seemed completely at ease, as comfortable as someone buying a blouse at a check out counter in a store. Why do I feel like the whole room is watching me?
Word spread through the 150 or so people eating that someone was repairing clothes for free. As I sewed I could sense the people huddle around me. I could hear their breath and the sounds of their feet shuffling around me, but I barely looked up. I don’t know how many holes I stitched, how many bags I mended, how many buttons I replaced before my teacher came to get me.
“Shifra, we have to go now."
I looked up at the faces of the two women still waiting to get their clothes mended. I saw so much disappointment there. “I’m really sorry, I have to go,” I mumbled. “But I promise I’ll be back next week.”
The next Monday, I rode the subway to West 4th Street. The same thing happened. Time was up and I really, really had to sew more things and I felt so bad about it. So I returned again and again, staying until 7:00 at night, even after my teacher and the other students left. I still felt really awkward having to make conversation, but stopping was not an option. All these people needed their clothes mended. If I didn’t do it, who would? I continued going every Monday, even after the teacher stopped bringing kids a couple months later.
At first, I really focused on my work and tried to ignore the bustle of people around me. I’d sew jackets, pants, shirts, and blouses. I’d stitch up baseball hats and reattach the sole of a shoe. I’d mend worn out bags, taping them together when they were too far gone.
People would try to talk me, but I’d give one-word answers.
“Where’d you learn to sew?” someone asked.
“Uhm, my mom,” I said, never looking up from my sewing.
I had no idea how to talk with homeless people. They seemed so different from me. What could I say?
Some of the people didn’t want to leave their prized possession with me while they ate, so they hovered over me while I worked. I felt so uncomfortable and rushed.
A few even took their anger at the world out on me. They’d say impatiently: “Fix this, fix that.” One man was really obnoxious. “This is a very expensive leather jacket,” he said. “Don’t ruin it.” After I stitched a seam he yelled at me. “You didn’t do it right!” And when I redid the seam he grumbled: “You finally got it right."
Lots of people were really nice, saying: “Thank you so much!” But even that made me feel self-conscious.
One day, a woman named Linda headed toward me. She was neatly dressed in a turtleneck and nice pants and with her clean, brushed hair, she reminded me of my grandmother. But I’d seen her eating here before and I knew she was homeless.
Linda dragged a chair over next to me. “Let me have a needle and thread,” she said. Her words sounded abrupt but a warm smile spread across her face.
“Can you thread it for me?” Linda asked.
I did, and then went back to my sewing.
Linda was sewing her own clothes, but she leaned toward me, her eyes squinting. “What are you doing there?” she said.
“I’m sewing a button."
“Hmm. Why are you going from hole to hole randomly?” She took the shirt from me and started pulling out my stitching. “You should always go through the holes in the same pattern so your thread makes an 11,” she said as she sewed the button on. I took the shirt back from her and thanked her. Maybe she can teach me how to sew better, I thought.
A few minutes later someone held out his umbrella toward me.
“Can you fix this?” the man asked. The fabric flopped freely, unattached to the metal sprongs on one side.
“I’ll try but I’m not sure,” I mumbled.
Linda snatched the umbrella from the man’s hands. “Sure she can.” A volunteer leaned over and whispered to me: “That Linda is one a mean one, and a busy-body."
But Linda, she showed me how to make a sheath of fabric to slip over the metal rod. It was pretty cool.
“Thanks,” I said.
One old man -- I don’t think he was totally sane –hovered around me almost every time I was there. He had white disheveled hair and wore filmy glasses and a shabby jacket that only covered half of his forearm. Every week he called himself by a different name, but he used the name Larry a lot, so that’s what everyone called him. Larry came up to me that day, too.
“You are my sweetie,” he said. “You wanna marry me?"
I tried to ignore him. Maybe if I don’t say anything he’ll leave me alone.
“Run off to Las Vegas with me,” he said.
“No, I can’t go with you, I’m too young,” I said, hoping he’d go away.
“We can walk there in five minutes!” he’d say. “Or we can fly! I’ll hide you away in my bag!”
I felt anxious about him coming over. It was really unpleasant. Seeing my distress, the security guard came over. “Let me know if he makes you uncomfortable,” he said. “But don’t worry, Larry’s really harmless. He doesn’t even eat here, he just comes in to talk.”
Between 8th and 9th grade, I went away to camp for three weeks. I enjoyed myself, but something was missing. I started thinking about the people at the soup kitchen -- the man with the hump-back and the fellow who’s very, very short and thin. The big guys in leather jackets and a roller-blader with colorful stickers on his helmet. The disheveled men and women who look worn and lost. There are faces that I just know I’ll see every week, even if I don’t sew for them.
When it rained, I’d think of them. When it was hot and humid, I hoped they’d find somewhere cool to sleep.
When I returned to the soup kitchen, people rushed around me as they filed in the door. Normally, I would hate to be the center of attention, so I was surprised at how happy I was to see them.
“Our official Seamstress is back!"
“Oh, I was afraid you would never return!"
“Shifra’s back! Shifra’s back!"
“Sweets for the sweet,” said another, handing me a candy bar.
Linda cracked a smile as she settled into the chair next to me.
Before long, Larry, the crazy old man, shuffled over eyeing me. He said to Linda: “You know who my sweetheart is? You know who I’m going to marry?” He grinned sheepishly at me.
“You get away from her,” Linda said.
“It’s O.K. Linda,” I said, “He doesn’t mean any harm.” Linda scowled but went back to her sewing.
“So how about it,” he said, nudging me.
“I’m sorry, I can’t,” I said. “I already have a husband and a thousand grandchildren!” Larry chuckled and wandered away.
Then another man approached me. I’d seen him before but I’ve never spoken with him. He was very small and very quiet. He stood over me and stared at me without blinking, like an owl, and clutched a shirt to his chest as if he were afraid I would touch it and break it. “Can I take a look at it?” I asked softly, seeing my own shyness reflected in his expression. As I eyed the U-shaped outline of threads where a pocket used to be, I thought about how my life is so different from when I first returned to the United States. It’s so much fuller now. I can really relate to all different kinds of people –even people I’ve never met before. I know I’ve given a lot at the soup kitchen -- my time and my sewing skills -- but I’ve gotten so much more back.
The man reluctantly handed me his shirt. “The pocket,” he mumbled.
Linda peered over my shoulder. “Mmm, tough job,” she said.
The shirt was ragged and threadbare, but I knew I could fix it -- and I might even be able to draw him into conversation. “It may take me a while, but I can make a new pocket for you,” I said. He looked worried so I held his shirt out to him. “It’s up to you, but I promise I’ll be really careful with it.”
The man stepped forward, paused, then stepped back. “O.K.” he said, nervously. “Thank you.”
I looked him square in the face and smiled. “Thank you,” I said.