The Night Shift with Alvin Siekert
It’s 10:30pm on a Saturday night when I arrive at the small restaurant in Pacific Grove, California. The town closed for the night an hour ago. Lonely cars break the darkness as they pass by the shops and restaurants, heading to nearby towns which remain open deeper in the night.
Alvin Siekert greets me at the door of the darkened restaurant that he rents and begins the evening by hurrying to his next task. He will work at this pace until
midday tomorrow, having fed over seventy of the area’s dispossessed. He asked me to photograph the night’s work so “people learn about us and the job we do here.”
I met Al about a month ago when I saw him at The Window on the Bay next to Del Monte Beach. He was surrounded by a cadre of volunteers supporting him, giving food to anyone who walked in. We talked and later met at a café so I could learn more about him and his work.
Like many of us, Al was born to a dysfunctional family and has spent most of his life wandering on his own. He suffered with bad health as a child and his family moved to Washington State where his father followed work as a photographer in Richland, Washington. The family broke up when his father left. Al tried to follow him, but his father sent Al to his grandparents. His mother remarried to a kindly man who worked for the family.
Al left home early in life and never looked back. He spent “years in wandering, if you will,” from a Navy aircraft carrier to civilian towns, to “hobo camps,” where he learned comradery in order to survive. “I can’t keep score of the number of towns I called home.”
While on his odyssey he found work as a rodeo clown, cowboy, poet, singer, restaurant owner, and other jobs. Al owned a boat service company that evolved into a marina dock with a connection to a Del Webb business.
Later, Al settled in Monterey and started a catering business and maintaining boats. He now works full time helping those in need of a meal, a smile, and a handshake. He told me the parable of the Buddha and the bamboo tree, how it doesn’t grow for the first five years in the ground. Then, after watering and feeding it through the years, the bamboo grows eighty feet in six weeks. Al works now to provide the nurturing and care until the shoots grow to maturity.
Two women arrive and begin the job of unloading boxes of vegetables, large aluminum pans, cooking utensils, and cleanup gear. For the past several weeks Beverly and Mariah volunteered to help Al. Both young and energetic, they spend the next two hours slicing, dicing, and chopping pounds of squash, potatoes, sweet potatoes, and pablono peppers. Al orchestrates the night while also working on a chopping board.
The hours are spent in relaxed laughter, mostly at mistakes all of us make. The atmosphere is loose, even in the close
quarters. All of them tolerate my camera and the contortions necessary to make pictures in the small kitchen.
As each pan is filled Al sprinkles the prescribed spices and herbs necessary in the dish. The oven will hold only four of the six large plans, requiring at least another three hours of baking.
After two and a half hours Al thanks all of us and tells us to go home. “I will stay through the night while the food cooks.” Mariah and Beverly leave but I linger and ask if I can help. “No, I will sit here and get some rest until the food is ready.” I tell Al that I will see him when he serves the meals tomorrow. (The next morning I learn that Al finished his cooking at 7:30am on Sunday.)
I leave at 12:30am. Outside, even the few stray cars have disappeared. A slowly driven PG police patrol car passes and the officer watches as I drive away, leaving Al to his long night sitting next to the oven.
Two weeks later I return to meet and photograph Al’s usual kitchen assistant, Glenn. Glenn shares the easy going nature Al shows as he works. Both men have a relatively easy night as they prep only two large hams. Other volunteers prepare and cook portions of tomorrow’s food in their home kitchens. We finish early while Al stays to tend the hams.
(More later from tomorrow’s serving.)