Life on the line | Bus 19: Fields Corner to Kenmore

At large on a network of need

Iris Soares is one of the regulars on Bus 19, as it rumbles across a broad swath of Boston — poor and prosperous, but mostly poor. Her day takes her from food pantry to food pantry, as she struggles to feed her family. Disability took her from the workforce years ago; getting by remains her full-time job.

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By Billy Baker
Globe Staff / July 17, 2011

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First in a series of occasional articles chronicling the people, and the world, of Bus 19.

Iris Soares is an uneasy person when her cart is empty, and it is empty now. But it is just after 6 in the morning. The cart is always empty at this hour.

She had risen before light, as she does most mornings, to get to Fields Corner Station. She wants a seat on an early Bus 19, and she’ll push to get on first. If she can just get to the church in time to claim a good place in line, she will calm down.

She sits upright and fidgets nervously with the wire cart, like an athlete between plays, as the bus heaves out of the station and along Geneva Avenue toward Grove Hall. The people who board this time of day, mostly sleepy high school students bound for Latin Academy or the Burke, don’t pay her any mind as they squeeze past. To them, she is just the big woman with the anxious face and red Raggedy Ann hair whose cart is blocking the aisle. On the 19, people like her are an everyday sight.

The route of the 19 tells a story of this city. For much of the route, nearly a third of all residents live in poverty. Then the bus travels on to world-class hospitals and museums. For those struggling neighborhoods of Dorchester and Roxbury, the 19 is a lifeline. People rely on it to get to second and third jobs, to get to those hospitals, to get to a check-cashing place, or rehab.

Soares is headed for a door that is a half-hour ride across Dorchester and Roxbury, past weedy lots, well-kept shops, storefront churches. When at last the bus turns onto Warren Street and heads toward Dudley Square, her movements gain purpose. She reaches up and hits the yellow call strip.

She is already on her feet, hands gripped firmly to the cart handle, when the bus snorts and hisses to a stop at the stone facade of the Twelfth Baptist Church. As soon as the door snaps open, she is out with a clatter of her wire cart, huffing as fast as she can across the church parking lot toward a lone squat building and the door.

That door leads to the church’s food pantry, one stop on a circuit of pantries Soares visits each week to find enough to feed herself, one of her grown sons, and a grandson. It doesn’t open until 10, and food won’t be distributed until noon. But crowds at food pantries have gotten larger in the last year, and more unruly. The church has tried to assure the two hundred or so who show up each week that they do not need to come so early, to wait so long. But they do not listen. For Soares, it is a chance she cannot take. This is not just a food pantry. It is an everyday emergency.

This morning, she sees just one man waiting.

“You’re late,’’ the man says, grinning triumphantly as she nears. She doesn’t reply but hustles past him to stare at a row of plastic grocery bags weighted with rocks on the concrete walk outside the door. Others have come already, leaving the bags as markers of their places in line.

“One. Two. Three,’’ she says, still panting from the exertion of the final push across the lot. She kicks a rock, judging that it’s only a rock, and makes her way to the final plastic bag. “Six.’’ She points a finger at the man, “Seven,’’ and then at herself: “Eight.’’

Eight is good, she says. Eight means she is guaranteed at least basic groceries for the week. She breathes; breathes like she has not since she woke. It’s nearly 7. For the next three hours, all she has to do is wait.

■ ■ ■

This is the start of Soares’s workweek. She thinks of it as a job, and prides herself on doing it well. She keeps in her head a roster of pantries across a swath of neighborhoods, along with their schedules and offerings. Many are small operations that give out food just once a month.

For her - and the 325,000 others in Massachusetts who are so poor they live with hunger but not so poor they can get federal nutrition assistance - food pantries are more than emergency help. They are a long-term necessity. The work of getting to them, for those who fall into that gap, is literally their living.

And as numbers of “food insecure’’ grow, it gets harder.

“Each pantry only gives you a little bit,’’ Soares says, “because there are too many of us.’’

Soares wears around her neck a lanyard with a clear plastic pouch of essentials that she thinks of like another person might think of a wallet or purse. But it contains no credit cards or driver’s license or grocery store cards. Instead, there is a discount CharlieCard she uses to navigate a web of bus routes to reach the pantries. And there is a stack of paper registration cards issued by the pantries that she must present to collect her food. There is cash in there, too, but always very little.

Each day has its own schedule. Some are 10-hour slogs. Others are light and give her time to come home early to sit with her boyfriend, who is legally blind but likes to come to her apartment and watch TV, sitting close to the screen. Sometimes her sons drop by with her grandchildren; she has eight of them. They love her cooking, she brags.

That is how it has been for the last five years: Empty cart, ticking clock. If she doesn’t go out, doesn’t put in a long day almost every day, she doesn’t eat.

If she could, she would work a paying job, like she did for 40 of her 58 years, even while she raised five boys on her own. Three of those boys are deaf.

She remembers the day she discovered her first child was deaf - a day long ago when he was a boy and darted into the street in the middle of a police chase, oblivious to the sirens and his mother’s screams.

And she remembers with gratitude the help she got, how social workers came and put her deaf boys in special schools and took special care of them. “I love this country,’’ she says. “Every four years, they call me for jury duty and I like that. I like to serve America if I can. They help me raise my kids. They treat me very good when I get sick and I can’t work.’’

She came from her native Cape Verde in 1966, still a teenager and glad for whatever work she could get. She married young. Started a family. When the fifth was just 6 months old, she discovered her husband was cheating on her and she left him.

For years, she worked several jobs at once, consuming nights and weekends. She had paid $30 a week for a ride in a van with other immigrants each morning to a meat packer in Norwood. It was hard, exhausting work. But she reveled in it. “I was a strong lady,’’ she says now. “They put me to work with the men.’’

But then one day five years ago, while butchering pork, the stairs were slick with fat, and she slipped. The fall knocked out teeth, wrenched her back, and destroyed a shoulder and a knee, requiring artificial replacements. Now, she walks with a halting gait and once a month she takes the 19 to a medical office in Kenmore Square for an injection to help her cope with the constant sear of pain in her back. The $1,100 she receives monthly from workers’ compensation and Social Security is quickly sucked up by rent at her Section 8 apartment, utilities, and medical bills. Doctors tell her she needs more surgery. But she worries it would leave her in a wheelchair with no one to take care of her, no one to get the food.

■ ■ ■

“Sometimes, they have good cardboard in the dumpster,’’ Soares declares, shuffling toward a nearby garbage pile. The hours-long wait ahead of her at Twelfth Baptist means that she must find some way to ease the pain in her back. The worst thing for it, she says, is to simply stand still. She wants to find something to make a comfortable seat.

She rummages through the pile. She wants cardboard to lay over a flower planter in the parking lot, providing a little support and cushion. But today, all she can find is a cheap plank of palette wood. She places it across the planter, but gets up after an uncomfortable minute and paces.

The crowd in the parking lot has now begun to grow, and as time slips by groups appear and stand in clusters near the door. Some eye one another warily. There can be tensions in the pantry lines, Soares says. Some people carry personal grudges against others they feel have wronged them. Cape Verdeans and Haitians, in particular, sometimes chafe at one another and argue, though they cannot understand each other’s Creole dialects. Disputes erupt over spots saved in line.

In line is a woman Soares has encountered before - a Haitian woman she doesn’t trust. She guards her spot cautiously.

As 10 o’clock nears, the chatter in the line suddenly stops. Faces get tense, and the crowd surges forward. A pantry volunteer, an older gentleman in a Panama hat, has appeared behind the glass front door and is cautiously pushing it ajar. “No pushing,’’ he says. “Who’s first in line?’’

There are shouts as people push and shove. Soares gets into a heated argument with the Haitian woman, who is trying to muscle by her. The man in the hat tries to keep the peace by handing out slips of paper with numbers on them, signifying the order in which they will get their food. Soares emerges a few minutes later, her curly red hair appearing amid the crowd, carrying the number eight.

“It’s always like that,’’ she says. “You have to be tough in this place.’’

But there is more work to do. With two hours yet before Twelfth Baptist begins calling numbers, Soares will drag her cart onto another bus, then another, rushing to a food pantry at a church in Uphams Corner that allows people to come for food once a month. She hustles back to Twelfth Baptist in time to hear a volunteer call out the number eight.

The first 20 in line are invited in. There is a prayer and a procession past tables where she can take three bags of food, one with bread, one with cans and boxes, one with meat and produce. Today the meat is chicken gizzards. Some grumble about it, but Soares never does. She believes beggars cannot be choosers.

Soon, she will get back on the bus to go home. She will cook a meal for her 12-year-old grandson, who will arrive by bus from school. Later, her boyfriend will come over to watch TV while she puts her feet up and rests her back and aching joints.

She will be thankful, for the food and for the exhaustion she feels. For Soares, such a day offers two kinds of sustenance. She gets the feeling of food in her belly. And, in a small but necessary way, she gets the feeling of having earned it. She would have likely gotten the same food that day if she had slept in and come two hours later. But she would not get that feeling.

■ ■ ■

Over the next eight days, she will visit five more food pantries, fight in lines, squeeze on buses, live with the pain, take whatever she is given, and keep going because there is no other choice.

On the ninth day, she is on a bus motoring through Codman Square, where a billboard reads: “1 in 6 Americans Struggles with Hunger.’’ It has been a rough morning. It rained. Her knee is killing her and she’s thinking about calling the doctor again. It has been four years since her surgery, “and still,’’ she says, “I cannot kneel in church.’’ And the line . . . the line got bad.

At 6:30 that morning, she arrived in the courtyard of the Berea Seventh Day Adventist Church on Humboldt Avenue in Roxbury. Ten people were standing outside the door to the food pantry in the pouring rain, and they were not happy about the 16 markers that were already on the ground in front of them, newspapers in plastic bags that had been left in the middle of the night, ringing the courtyard.

“It’s not fair,’’ someone had yelled at Soares as she arrived and picked up one of the bags, taking her place. It had been left for her by a friend. There was more yelling in Creole.

Soares doesn’t like such ugliness. She thinks of herself as a happy person. She is a magnet in pantry lines around the city, jabbering in Creole and drawing people to her. It helps pass the time, and people feed on her exuberance.

“I’ve always been a hugger,’’ she says. But in each line, as the time approaches, the mood always changes.

On this day, she had simply ignored the yelling, pushed her cart into the spot, and begun to wait just as the rain turned heavy.

At 8 a.m., when the doors opened, there were more than 100 people in line, squashed torso to torso, pushing against one another, yelling. It was tense - as tense, Soares says, as she has ever seen it.

From the street, it looked like a National Geographic photo of a far-off land after a natural disaster, when people are desperate for food and water. But this was not a far-off land. It was the city of Boston on a Thursday. Berea has been operating a food pantry in the community for 45 years; they say people seem more desperate than ever. At the check-in desk inside, the volunteers heard a phrase over and over that day: “Primera vez.’’ “Primera vez.’’ First time.

But it’s over now. She gets off the bus and pushes the cart up the hill to her apartment and sits at the kitchen table. She breathes heavily. The morning wore on her, and then one of the wheels on her cart seized up on the way home and she had to drag it from the bus stop. She hasn’t had that moment yet, that deep breath of relief, because she has another food pantry to go on this day. There is always another food pantry, always another line.

She gets up and puts the kettle on and unpacks the food from Berea. Milk. Apple juice. Dried cherries. Rice and beans come out and go in a pile; there is always rice and beans at the food pantries. As she unpacks the cans, she is happy to see canned corn. It is her favorite. She will have that for dinner, with the chicken gizzards she got from Twelfth Baptist, she decides, and goes to a deep freezer to get them out.

The freezer was a Mother’s Day gift from three of her children, a little something to maybe make her life a little easier. The freezer, like the cabinets, is well-stocked; she keeps everything topped-off, makes sure the onion rack is always full, the potato rack is always full. Because, she knows, some day in the future will be the day when her body breaks down and she cannot go any more. Food and time; it is a life dominated by food and time.

Her youngest son, David, walks into the room. He’s 36, deaf, and he’s confused by the presence of a reporter. His mother tries to explain to him what is going on, but it is not going well and she doesn’t seem to have the energy to follow through. He nods but clearly doesn’t understand. She never learned sign language. “I had to work,’’ she said. “They learn to understand if they watch my lips.’’

The kettle starts to whistle, and as she gets up to take it off the stove, she is visibly dragging. In a few minutes she will have to leave again, scoot to Fields Corner, take another Bus 19 to another food pantry.

Her heart is not in it, and she knows that most of the people she fought with this morning will be there as well. But she needs the food. She has to eat, she says again. She has to eat.

Billy Baker can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @billy_baker