Serving dignity along with dinner

By SUE CARLTON, Times Staff Writer
Published November 17, 2007

They come drifting up to this place behind the Salvation Army hefting backpacks, bedrolls and blankets - pretty much all they own. Already, good smells are drifting from inside.

Volunteers are setting the tables upstairs. In this space off Tampa's road-worn Florida Avenue, they serve about 200 people on weekdays, homeless or just hungry, doesn't matter, everyone's welcome.

This place, Trinity Cafe, is no soup kitchen. The dining room is painted cheery yellow, with eight round tables set with plastic flowers and checkered cloths. Mellow music - Just The Two Of Us, at the moment - plays softly. People who come here will be seated and served.

It's about dignity, volunteers pulling on their aprons will tell you, about a little respect and courtesy for people who probably don't see much of that.

Rheda Bloom, a grandmother, has been volunteering long enough for some people who come in to hug her or ask about her team, the Pittsburgh Steelers. At home she has saved a piece of paper given to her by a boy who ate here. Will you be my friend? it says. You're always so nice to me.

"Every one of these people started out as somebody's little boy," she says, pulling on plastic gloves for the day's shift in the kitchen. "Most of them would be happy to work."

The volunteers get a pep talk - have lots of sugar packets, this crowd likes their sugar - and a prayer. Then it begins, the rush of people filling tables, more waiting outside, servers swooping in with ice tea, steaming bowls of soup, baskets of multigrain bread.

In the kitchen, Alfred Astl is giving the spring vegetables the critical eye. A serious chef at fancy restaurants, he seems no different here, whipping a thermometer into a soup bowl and frowning. Ask where he's worked and he says, "Everywhere," and you smell what he's making and believe it. Today it's meatloaf in a rich sauce, spring vegetables, baked potatoes with butter and sour cream.

Working the door is Leonard Bloom, Rheda's husband. "Enjoy your lunch," he says, and "Have a nice day." He sees new faces and regulars. Sometimes, he says, "they just disappear."

At some tables there is debate over whether Eddie Murphy is really funny or not, talk of the Dallas Cowboys, and a lot of "please" and "thank you" as food comes and goes. Others eat silently hunched over plates. Nearly everyone wears a baseball cap, protection from sun and rain and cold. Some have sunglasses they do not take off.

Anthony Morris says he came here when work dried up in Orlando. He's looking for a warehouse job, a construction job. He's tired of the streets and says he appreciates not having to stand in line here. "I like to sit down and eat my food," he says.

Each table has one chair left empty so a server can visit when things slow down. I hear one of them ask a man with an American flag on his shirt if he's a veteran. "I was in Desert Storm," he tells her.

The lunch rush winds down and the last diners stand to gather their backpacks. Some call out goodbyes; others shuffle silently out. A small man in a too-big suit coat stops at the door.

"A nice meal," he says, bowing a little. "I thank you." Then he shoulders his bedroll and disappears into the world.

For more information on Trinity Cafe, visit www.TrinityCafe.org.