Shirley, who goes by just her first name, arrived at 7:30 a.m. Thursday. Joan Tolliver appeared at 7:31. Freddie Fields showed up a few minutes later, followed shortly by Don Williams.
By 9 a.m., about 200 hungry and homeless people had joined them on the sidewalk outside the Super Junior Market downtown. By 10 a.m., 400 stood with them, a line now snaking down Seventh Street and around Broadway. When dinner was served at 11 a.m., volunteers began handing out the first of 700 hot turkey and ham dinners.
The hunger and patience of those in line were evident. "It'd be nice if they'd hurry up and start feeding," said Tolliver, an older woman dressed in a tattered woolen overcoat. "I'd be thankful if they'd start serving."
Food smells wafted from the back of the market and the basement. The meal is how Victor Salem and his employees--the majority of them immigrants from Iraq--showed their gratitude for the blessings of America on this Thanksgiving.
A team of six chefs and assistant cooks worked for almost three days, preparing 22 turkeys, 40 pounds of stuffing, three cases of vegetables, five cases of yams, branches of broccoli, rolls, chips, hundreds of Cokes, napkins, spoons, forks and more.
"If they're hungry, let 'em eat," said Henry Carmichael, the head chef, busy keeping the food warm. "If they're hungry and come through the line twice, we'll feed them twice. Who cares?"
Shirley and Tolliver and Fields and Williams. They cared.
Shirley was in a holiday mood. White-haired and with deep long lines in her face, she has lived on the streets of downtown San Diego for 23 years she guessed. She reminded everyone crammed in close around her in the line that her sister had once been a beauty pageant winner, Miss Oregon of 1955.
Happy About Thanksgiving
Shirley beamed. "I was so happy to come here early this morning," she said. "I'm really happy to see all these people alive, and we're going to have a nice Thanksgiving today."
Tolliver, originally from Kansas, was flat hungry. "How much longer till we eat?" she asked.
Salem first handed out free meals to the hungry five Thanksgivings ago, outside his market at 1036 Seventh Ave. He left Iraq and came to this country in 1971 and became a citizen in 1979. He has run the market for 11 years, hiring mostly newly arrived Iraqis as clerks and stockers. He helps them learn English and settle their families in San Diego. He also helps them get established and started in more prosperous careers.
"This is the way I thank people," Salem said of his annual Thanksgiving feeding of the downtown downtrodden. "If you make a good living from this community, why not give some of it back to those who help you all year long?"
Most of those in the line outside were praising Salem's feasts.
"I came out to eat," said Fields, a handicapped young drifter who wants to get back home to St. Louis. "I only eat in lines. 'Cause mission food can be so bad, that's why everybody is here."
Tolliver hung her head. "Food ready yet?" she asked?
Salem and his crew and a phalanx of volunteers began carrying the trays to the booth set up in front of the market. Frederic L. Link and his young family had come down to help serve the food.
"A lot of these people are my former clients," said Link, a San Diego Municipal Court judge. He has in the past met many of the homeless standing before his courtroom bench on charges of vagrancy and public drunkenness. Now, he was standing before them, dishing out meals.
'Warm, Good People'
"Look at their faces," he said. "Look in their eyes when they pass through this line. These are people like all of us, warm, good people. They are thankful, too."
Tolliver need wait no longer. She and Shirley were presented their turkey dinners; they were the first in line and the first to amble away in the late-morning sun.