LEXINGTON – The Monday nights when The Community Table hands out drive-thru takeout meals have grown cold and dark. Long gone are the twice-a-week meals served in a gesture of dignity and solidarity to all who came, ragged or spruce, and sat together to eat and talk. For years, those tables were elegantly set and served with a multi-course meal. Gone is that restaurant-without-a-cash-register. No more soft live music. No more teams of volunteers from local churches. No more long tables and busy kitchen in the building that used to house Lexington’s emergency rescue ambulances and firetrucks. The pandemic shut down those meals in March.
Then the summer came, and inspiration blossomed. A new form of community grew outdoors in the sunshine. Kenney’s and JAM Dawg, Good Karma and other local eateries packed healthy meals and sold them to The Community Table at a discount. TCT board members handed them out through the driver’s window, everyone in the exchange wearing a mask and smiling eyes. It was in the local paper. Every other Monday, a fortnightly freebie.
The cars square danced around the Rockbridge Area Relief Association building to pick up healthy free meals (donations welcome!) for every soul in the car. The first meal, July 6, drew only 50, but soon it grew to as much as 150. When too many meals were ordered, the extras went up the hill to the front-line workers at the hospital (which had yet to treat a Covid-19 case early in the summer). Or to idle firefighters at the station on Main Street.
Now it grows dark even as cars begin lining up an hour before the 6 p.m. start. Around the country, food pantries report rising demand. The long line here includes many large late-model cars that may have been affordable with zero-interest loans before the pandemic, but the owners seem to have entered a more desperate stage.
Board members and a couple of church volunteers have moved into the RARA food-pantry warehouse on the upper level. To hold on to the little warmth there, they dare not open any of the large bays. They hardly know each other in the smudgy light, in masks and wool hats. Masks are available for those in the cars who need them. With stricter rules now, everyone in front seats must be masked when windows are rolled down to record demographic information and receive the meals.
In Rockbridge County and its two small cities, seven have died of Covid-19. It seems worse across the land, but the numbers here have been spiking since Thanksgiving. On a per-capita basis, since March, little Lexington’s number of reported cases – 408 – is more than a third higher than the national number per 100,000.
Outside, cars wait in a snaking line to the end of the street, nearly 1,000 yards away. Headlights are on, motors running for heat, exhaust fumes whipped by bitter wind and lit by the cars’ red and white lights like smoke from an infernal region. An American flag on the pole in front of the food pantry strains toward the Blue Ridge in the night blast.
A passenger unrolls a window to say a woman without a car is standing in line with the waiting cars somewhere back there. She had walked from the subsidized housing unit a half mile away, to get meals for herself and two others. She is invited to come into the RARA warehouse. Her glasses fog above her mask and she misses a curb step, falling forward as if in slow motion. She gets up slowly, insists she’s ok. It’s a dark cold night. The cars are let into the drive 10 minutes early. The 125 meals run out with four cars left in line. Accustomed to disappointment by now, they drive away as calmly as the many cars that drove away with meals.
Doug Cumming is an associate professor of journalism at Washington and Lee University and a member of the board of The Community Table. from The Roanoke Times, Dec. 12, 2020.