It is 6:45 on a rainy morning in Compton, a city where nearly a third of the adults live on welfare and many of the children go to bed hungry.
Bill Earl quietly moves through the warehouse that is home to nonprofit South Central Food Distributors. By all rights, he shouldn't be able to stand, much less walk. After his car was smashed by a drunk driver five years ago, doctors said it was inevitable that his right leg would be lost.
But they were wrong, as is anyone who underestimates the determination in this smiling, 62-year-old man.
"When I was laid up in that hospital bed, I told the Lord that if He let me out I'd go to work for Him," Earl says. After distributing food through a local church, he joined South Central two years ago as its $350-a-week coordinator.
On this morning, he displays a steady gait as he surveys row after row of bundles and boxes, some stacked 10 feet high. Surrounding him is roughly 5,000 pounds of food--from staples like powdered milk, cheese and butter to less wholesome nacho-flavored chips, picante sauce and 3 Musketeers. To the poor, any food is healthy if it's free. And to South Central, one donation is welcomed as gladly as another.
By now, more workers have drifted into the building, which is owned and shared by the Compton school district. To an outsider, the air is disappointingly stale. No grocery store aromas here; cardboard boxes smell like cardboard boxes, regardless of what they contain.
The first truck, a bright red pickup from Rakestraw Memorial Community Center, has backed up to the dock and is taking on a week's supply. Boxes glide down a conveyor line of metal rollers that ring like a muffled telephone; flour, 600 pounds, corn meal, 510 pounds, Star-Kist tuna, 150 pounds . . .
South Central buys the commodities from a food bank in Vernon, then resells them at the same 10 cents a pound to about 20 "pantry" groups such as Rakestraw. At the end of the line, the food is given to some 14,000 needy people from Long Beach to Bellflower to South-Central Los Angeles.
On this day, the loading is done by a handful of hard-faced men who seem too lightly dressed for the inclement weather. They volunteer because they can find no paying jobs. And in this case, helping the community not only feeds the soul, but also the body. On Wednesdays, all get a box of food for their effort.
Wearing a navy blue overcoat and battered gray homburg, Earl directs the flow of heavy pallets as they are hoisted over a wooden floor splintered by years of traffic. His wife, 62-year-old Fanny Coates Earl, a local legend in her own right, stands scanning an inventory list as another unpaid employee.
A short woman with a long smile, she taught in Compton elementary schools for 23 years. The city attorney was one of her students. A city councilwoman was one of her principals. In 1979, she retired because of an injury to her right knee. It still looks swollen, and she can no longer climb stairs.
Yet, most mornings Fanny is up before dawn to walk two miles for exercise. And many a night she stays up until 2 doing paper work for South Central.
Bill has much the same energy: "I can't stay in that bed after 4:30" in the morning, he says. "I know somebody out there needs us."
Crew leader is burly Leroy Smith, a father of 12 who goes by the honorific title of Elder because he also ministers to a small Compton church congregation. Despite his own poverty, he describes himself as unusually fortunate because "not one" of his children has ever landed in jail.
Of the Earls, Smith says, "I see them push and put so much time in, at their ages, and it motivates me."
Once, someone bought $1,700 worth of food with a check that bounced. Bill covered it out of his own pocket, leaving his home mortgage unpaid for three months. Before South Central had its own trucks to haul food from Vernon, he loaded up his 1980 Chrysler and ruined the shocks.
Such complications sometimes drive the Earls to threaten resignation, but they never follow through. They live mostly on her retirement and the savings he built years ago as a tailor in Berkeley.
"We could go on one of those $700 trips to Mexico," Bill says. "But we've decided to stay here." The nightly news often shows people starving in Africa. But "right here in Compton," he says, "there are some of those little kids . . . that you don't see on TV."