She dishes out an extra helping of confidence

Mixing kindness and tough love into her recipes, she's more caregiver than cook.

By DONNA WINCHESTER, Times Staff Writer
Published July 20, 2007

ST. PETERSBURG - Rose Law hears it all. On her shoulder, men cry about lost wives, homes and jobs. Women confess that they've lost track of babies, of mothers.

"You've done it to yourself," she will say. "Nobody put a gun to your head."

Then she will offer up a helping of homemade peach cobbler or a serving of fresh-from-the-oven bread pudding.

"They made a mistake and they're paying for it," she says of the addicts and alcoholics she cooks for at the St. Petersburg Bridge, a residential treatment center that is an alternative to jail for nonviolent offenders. "You don't kick someone when they're down. You pick them up."

- - -

At 10:30 a.m., it's already hot in the basement kitchen. Ms. Precious, the first-shift cook, pulls two bubbling pans of macaroni and cheese from a cavernous oven. Old-time gospel from an ancient boom box blares above the clang of pots and pans.

My poor heart aches sometimes . . . I don't know why, Lord, but I'll find out by and by.

The woman everyone calls Ms. Rose arrives with her purse tucked under one arm and her breakfast - McDonald's pancakes and sausage - under the other. She ties on an apron and checks the menu on the bulletin board to see what she'll be cooking for supper.

Chicken and rice and carrots.

She imagines the three dozen cooked and seasoned birds piled in the walk-in cooler waiting to be deboned. So much for her breakfast. She checks to see what's on hand for tonight's dessert. Some days, she finds enough leftover peaches or candied yams to whip up something special.

Not today. From a tall shelf, she unpacks a dozen boxes of Betty Crocker Super Moist Dark Chocolate cake mix.

She dumps the mix, two boxes at a time, into a 20-gallon aluminum mixing bowl.

If it were up to her, she'd make everything from scratch. Barbecued ribs, collard greens and black-eyed peas every night. But in the 30 years she has worked for agencies on fixed budgets, she has learned to cook from cans and prepackaged mixes.

She draws the line at measuring cups. Measuring, Rose says, just takes up a lot of her time. She's equally unimpressed with parsley and other "green stuff" chefs use on TV cooking shows. If it doesn't add to the taste, why bother?

She transfers the batter to two sheet pans, wipes up some sloshed cake mix, and pours what's left into cupcake tins. She pops the pans into the oven and glances at the clock: 11:20. Time to serve lunch.

She grabs a fat key ring and unlocks the elevator. "We're gonna walk on the wild side," she says.

- - -

It seems to Rose that she was born cooking. Before coming to the Bridge last fall, she cooked in school cafeterias and nursing homes, for disabled people at the Pinellas Association of Retarded Citizens and for inmates at the maximum-security wing of the Pinellas County Jail.

In each case, she tried to be "the best thing that's shining in their life." It's the same at the Bridge, which opened in 2001. The clients complete two months of intensive treatment and counseling, then remain in the program for four more months while they go back to work or complete GED classes.

"When I hear their problems, the things they're going through, it makes me glad I never went down that road," she says. "I never did drugs, except for my blood pressure pills. I'm glad the Lord fixed me so I wouldn't have to get in no predicament like that."

- - -

While her chocolate cake bakes in the belly of the building, she greets several men lined up outside the second-floor dining room waiting for lunch. Most are young, and all are thin, their pants hanging low on their hips.

"Ms. Rose, did you know today is my birthday?" one asks.

"No, honey, I didn't," Rose says. "How old are you today?"

"I'm 29."

Rose sings a snippet of Happy Birthday and wonders if she can scare up a couple of candles.

It's not Rose's job to listen to the clients' problems. But many of the men and women at the Bridge seem to gravitate toward her. They tell her how angry they are, how frustrated, how sad.

She watches for opportunities to offer a kind word, even to those she calls her "rebellion children." Recently, she noticed one of the clients wasn't eating. She found out he was thinking of leaving the Bridge before his time was up.

She encouraged him to stay, and he did. Now Rose uses him as an example to other clients who struggle. But she can use tough love too.

"They tell me how their wife divorced them, that their girl's got another baby, that somebody else is raising their kid," she says. "I tell them, 'The only thing you can change is yourself.' "

She used to give the clients candy when they got through a week without getting into trouble or when they moved from one level of treatment to another. The higher-ups reprimanded her for that.

Now, she tries whenever she can to brighten the clients' day with a special dessert. She transforms bread heels and leftover yams into bread pudding and turns powdered sugar and water into cake frosting.

"When I see the chance to do something for someone I take advantage of it," she says. "I like to sleep good at night."

- - -

From 2 p.m. until quitting time, the kitchen is all hers. For these four hours, she can keep all the ketchup bottles turned with the labels facing front and make sure the cans of spaghetti sauce stay separate from the tomato paste.

On chicken and rice day, she drags the three dozen carcasses from the walk-in, pulls on a pair of plastic gloves, and with a butcher's skill, inserts a knife into the first one. She sings along with the radio as she works.

The trials and tribulations we're going through, it ain't nothin' new . . .

Rose worries about the clients on her days off. Most Sundays, she stands up at her church, Mount Zion Disciples of Christ, and asks that the men and women she cooks for be added to the congregation's prayer list.

Every now and then, she gets attached, even though she knows better.

"There was one who was preachin', but he was not practicin' what he was preachin', " she says. "He was not three weeks out and he relapsed. It was a disappointment."

She's happy when a client graduates from the Bridge.

"It makes me feel good," she says. "I think maybe it's my mission to be here."

- - -

By 5:15, the chicken and rice is cooked, the carrots are tender and the cake is iced.

"This is the best part of the day," Rose says. "This is the end of the rainbow."

As the cart moves down the hall toward the dining room, the aroma of a home-cooked meal rouses the clients from their rooms. Rose makes sure everyone gets a fair portion.

"Give that one more carrots, please," she says. "Put some more rice on here, please."

The men speak respectfully to Rose as they leave the dining room.

"Thank you, Ms. Rose."

"That was good, Ms. Rose."

"Thank you for making my favorite, Ms. Rose."

Among the last to leave is the man who told her earlier it was his birthday.

"Thanks for the birthday cake, Ms. Rose," he says.

Rose pats him on the shoulder. "You're welcome, baby."

She still has the smile on her face a half hour later as she climbs up from the basement carrying the pancakes she brought for breakfast.

Donna Winchester can be reached at (727) 893-8413 or winchester@sptimes.com.