The food won’t come until 8:30 a.m., but by 6:45 a.m., a dozen people have started to crowd the hallway.
Every other Thursday they come to the apartments at 10 Marshall St. waiting for the mobile Foodshare pantry, and every other Thursday, George Brice is there.
As a volunteer with the program for more than 10 years, he has never missed a day, save for a few when recovering from surgery or illness.
“Rain or shine, we’re there,” Brice said.
This particular Thursday falls into the former category: stormy, wet and dark. This should mean fewer visitors to pick up their bag of food, but it’s also the end of the month, the time when people most need the extra help. The number of people seeking food could range from 60 to 200.
Brice is responsible for checking people in and handing out numbers for recipients. Usually, the first person to arrive, often hours before the food drop, gets a ticket to be the first in line for food.
On this day, however, a new supervisor has told Brice not to hand any out numbers until she arrives around 8 a.m., a change that causes confusion and annoyance from visitors who woke up early to get a prime spot. As visitors walk in, Brice has to tell each of them about the new rule.
“8 o’clock,” he says, over and over.
Brice, 59, first got involved with Foodshare through an acquaintance from bingo. She worked for Community Renewal Team, which runs the Retired Senior Volunteer Program, and she persuaded Brice to get involved.
By then, diabetes, gout and other illnesses had forced Brice to start using a wheelchair and stop working. The Foodshare program became one of the most important ways for him to stay social and busy.
Now, everyone who frequents the food drop knows Brice. People stop him on the street to chat or ask him when the next drop will be, and he keeps extra supplies in his apartment on Sigourney Street to act as a sort of miniature food bank for others in the neighborhood.
He also often cooks huge meals for friends and neighbors who need the help.
“I just need to cook for one person,” he said. “But I usually cook enough for four to five people, sometimes 20.”
On drop days, Brice tries to beat recipients to the apartments to make sure he can keep things smooth and orderly. He wakes up around 5 a.m., a time so early he chooses not to use his CPAP machine the night before a drop because it can cause him to oversleep.
The clients at the drop greet him with a handshake or a smile, even if they don’t speak the same language.
One of the first men to line up on this Thursday speaks mostly just Spanish but that doesn’t stop Brice, who only speaks English, from cracking jokes with him.
He and the crowd move into a garage, and a few minutes later, something in the back of the garage falls with a loud crash.
“Your fault,” Brice jokes to the man.
“No, you,” he replies, pointing and laughing.
Five minutes before 8 a.m., the new supervisor isn’t there. The rain left her stuck in traffic on the highway, but no one knows that because when she called a few of the volunteers at their apartments, none picked up.
Instead, 30 people crowd in and around the garage waiting for Brice to sign them in, and more people arrive every minute.
The Spanish-speaking man puts his cell phone near Brice’s face as the time on the display change from 7:59 to 8:00.
Brice sighs and gets out the numbered tickets and a clipboard to sign people in, and the crowd descends on him, hands outstretched for the clipboard as they push past one another to get to his chair.
“Cool it down,” he says. “Cool it!”
The people continue pushing in, and a latecomer grabs the clipboard. Brice retrieves it when he’s done and hands it to someone who’s been waiting since about 6:30 a.m. for his spot in line.
Moments like this are what make Brice more than just your average volunteer, says Theresa Strong. She manages the Retired Senior Volunteer Program, and she said people like Brice are hard to find: someone who shows up consistently, makes people comfortable and can handle it when tension starts to rise.
“He has a knack for handling the clients,” Strong said. “He has a calming effect.”
Soon the early arrivals are signed in, and more people stream in through the rain as the clock ticks closer to 8:45 a.m., the designated drop time. They keep coming and coming, and Brice signs in almost 100 people by the time the truck pulls away at 9:30 a.m.
Within minutes, the crowd is gone, the volunteers disperse and Brice sets off, rolling his way back home.