By Marcus Day
Pinch the baby, pinch the baby …”
I kept muttering these words to myself as I folded scores of brown paper bags containing hot food destined for children and staff at Sidney Street School.
They became my mantra, echoing instructions from Nico Avery-Weitzel, a staff member of The Salvation Army.
We were in the main room adjoining The Salvation Army kitchen, during the final stretches of frantic preparations for Friday’s hot lunch program.
It was probably a bit like being behind the scenes for a big Broadway production – lots of mini-dramas, expressions of anxiety and encouragement.
Whatever happened the curtain would be going up on time. Or, in our case, the meals had to be delivered well before the noon lunch hour at Sidney.
Our equivalent of a theatre director was Major Ed Dean, who constantly sought reassurance that the operation was running smoothly, and rapidly, both inside and outside the kitchen.
“Pinch the baby,” Nico said as she showed me how to turn down and smooth the top of each brown bag.
She and Phyllis Henderson were responsible for packing food being cooked and cut by Major Ed, Dale Groves. Nicole Hammerstedt and another young volunteer. On the menu were pasta, tomato sauce, cheese, carrots, celery and oranges.
How did I become involved?
I’m not sure. The transition from photographer to volunteer seemed to happen very naturally in the context of a busy environment that got busier by the second. One moment I was on the periphery of the action, taking sneaky pictures of people doing something useful. The next moment, I was being useful.
“Marcus, could you seal the bags,” someone – I think Nico – called out.
It was a strange, disconcerting, yet ultimately uplifting experience. When had I last been useful?
Before I go on, I should make clear that I entered the proceedings extremely late.
Work had started at 7am and I didn’t arrive until about 10.30am. I probably didn’t begin being useful until 10.45am. So my contribution was minimal.
Nevertheless, minimal is better than merely taking photographs.
I wonder whether any members of the Sidney Street family observed the way their paper bags were folded.
Not that I always achieved a perfect crease. To start with I seemed to have too many fingers and thumbs, which is how the “pinch the baby” mantra came in handy, helping me discover a rhythm.
Unfortunately, it could do nothing about my biggest blunder.
Over-eager to be useful, I began stuffing the brown bags into a much bigger, insulated bag.
“How many are in there?” someone asked.
“I … I’m not sure. I wasn’t counting,” I stammered.
“There should only be 12.”
The insulated bag had to be emptied and refilled. The damage? About 90 seconds.
Worthy of a stern reprimand from Major Ed, but hardly a firing offence. Well, at least not in my chaotic world.
My other assignment last Friday, in fact my first one, was closing the clip-on seals of the insulated bags, a surprisingly tricky task.
Again I seemed to have excessive fingers and thumbs, all getting in the way of each other.
Come 11.15am, the meals had been loaded into The Salvation Army’s Community Response Unit ready for transportation to Sidney Street School. My 30 minutes of usefulness were over.
It had been fun while it lasted.
And I now have a new skill for my resume … pinching the baby.