He's a large man, with thick, muscular arms and legs that seem better suited for a bouncer at a Bourbon Street bar than a humble volunteer cook. As we walk into the BridgeHouse, (an alcohol and drug recovery center) he greets us with a smile and an invitation into the "Cage" where food is kept for distribution.
"This's where ah live," he says with a wink, as he pulls the chain-link gate open. As we walk in, we see boxes of crackers, granola bars, canned goods and countless other food items stacked from floor to almost-ceiling. He explains to us that BridgeHouse receives far more donated food than they can use, so they share with the churches and shelters in the community whatever they can.
"That's what y'all'r here to help me with," He says, leading the way into an enclosed room in the Cage. As soon as we walk in the room, the smell of old milk and the disorganized jumble of food containers assaults our senses.
"Ah've gotten a lil' behind," Bruce says, somewhat shamefacedly, leaning down to pick up a can of tomatoes off the floor.
Like most "Big Easy" natives, he likes to talk, and as he tells stories about BridgeHouse and New Orleans, we set to work on the disarray. He openly shares that he made some bad choices, which is how he ended up in BridgeHouse. He's been here five years off and on, and is proud of his sobriety and management of the kitchen. He talks almost nonchalantly about his old "using" lifestyle, saying, "I'm allergic to Cocaine, I break out in handcuffs."
When one of our team - still overwhelmed by the stories we're hearing - fails to smile, he points a meaty finger her direction with a playful grin. "That was funny!" He says, chuckling at his own joke. His laughter is infectious and we all join in.
He decides that since we're "from the big city in California an' all," we probably like hip-hop rather than the country radio station he had playing. Soon, scratchy hip-hop beats is blasting from his ancient boom-box, and we laugh. He's constantly being called away for questions and advice, and deals with everyone who comes by with grace and dignity. When he comes back to the cage from one such call, he is shocked to find us sweeping up rat droppings, hauling boxes and throwing away bad food, every now and then taking a few-second dancing break when the mood strikes.
"Whoa!" He says, trying to imitate some dance moves and laughing at us good-naturedly. "Too bad they don't got this piped through Naw'lans, or y'all'd 'ave the whole city rebuilt."
Bruce is trying to get his cooking certification through a local culinary arts school, and these dented, donated cans mean much more to him than someone's leftovers. He taps the labels, planning menus out loud for the residents of BridgeHouse and the homeless community they feed every Tuesday and Thursday. "We eat a lot o' that," he says, waving a case of peanut butter back onto the shelf. He comes over with a case of canned peaches. "Take this'n out, ma'am," he says to me. "They need these at that church."
Within a few hours, we've loaded two church vans and a small school bus with food, cleaned the cage and taught Bruce some sweet moves as an added bonus. He gives us (and anyone else who comes by) some cold bottles of Sunny D-type stuff, and we take a break to cool off and talk, sitting around on cases of green beans and lounging against metal shelving.
Like most people from New Orleans, Bruce is a drawling storyteller with a wealth of life experience and colorful characters to liven it. We're drawn into his tales, not just because they're interesting, but because he shows such a depth of faith. His stories casually reveal that he's had some tough times, but we don't hear bitterness or "why me?" - just a desire to keep others from the same mistakes.
Before we know it, it's time to leave the Cage for lunch. It's touching to help the men of the BridgeHouse serve a hot lunch to the homeless men and women - who are daily, flesh-and-blood reminders of where they come from.
Bruce is a gentle giant and seems to be everywhere at once. He's kind and caring to those whom he serves, greeting everyone with hearty handshakes and easy-going generosity, but willing to throw his weight around if necessary. When he feels one of the BridgeHouse guys gets "fresh" with a girl on our team, it's clear that he doesn't take any guff.
Redemption is a running theme with Bruce and those at the BridgeHouse. The homeless who are there for a free lunch, the men who have checked themselves into BridgeHouse to "get clean" the church volunteers who come to pick up food, all have a story of how the old is gone and the new has come. In this place, Christ is not a pie-in-the-sky, unreachable, church-nut God. He is here, making red beans and rice, handing out fake Sunny D, in our "how are you, sir?" and our smiles.
It takes courage for us to bridge the age, cultural and racial gaps that seem so broad at first. There are moments when I don't know what to say or how to feel. When we're done, Bruce gathers us, with bear hugs for the girls and strong handshakes for the men.
"Y'all come back anytime," he says, giving us each a stern look in the eye so we know he means it. "Ah had so much fun with y'all..."
We take a picture together and he insists that we send him a copy, telling us that he has a few, and they help him remember to pray for people. I don't feel worthy of his praying for me.
As I write this, I want to go back. I feel like I don't do enough in my everyday life, like one trip wasn't enough. I want to see people as valued children of a living God, no matter how they've squandered that gift (in my oh-so-holy opinion). I want to look into people's eyes and really listen to them. I want to look at my pictures and pray for the people I love. I want to use these moments for good. I want to never forget how a burly ex-alcoholic made me feel.