Merli Gonzalez enjoys a free meal with daughter Keli, 3, at the Fred Jordan… (Gary Friedman / Los Angeles…)
The plates were foam, the gravy in plastic pitchers and the disposable tablecloths brightly colored. The scorching sun beat down, and live gospel music blared from the makeshift stage. Sikhs passed out bags of fresh produce alongside Lutherans giving out hand-knit wool caps and wooden crosses.
So went Thanksgiving on skid row, where more than 2,000 people -- homeless, jobless or just down on their luck -- lined up at the Fred Jordan Mission in downtown Los Angeles for a free feast of turkey legs, sweet potatoes, rolls, cranberry sauce and pie.
Across Southern California, from a Hollywood comedy club to a hockey arena in Orange County, thousands turned up for free Thanksgiving meals. Some events offered eye drops and glasses, others school supplies. Still others served up laughter alongside a traditional meal.
Many at the downtown mission said they were first-timers who had never imagined they would line up for a free meal until they were hard hit by the economic downturn.
One of those was Norma Cervantes, who was among the first in line. The single mother of seven, who works as a cashier, said she had been waiting since about 1 a.m. to ensure she would be able to get some new clothes and shoes for her 6-year-old daughter. There were eight families with young children already lined up by the time she got there, she said. She managed to get about an hour of uncomfortable sleep on the pavement on a blanket a homeless man offered to share with her.
Cervantes, 46, said she had heard about the free meals every year, but she had never thought she would be eating one.
Then she became burdened with mounting debt and guilt for not being able to buy anything new for her children.
"I just need a little bit of help right now," said Cervantes, who said she hoped that next year her situation would have improved enough so that she could come back as a volunteer.
Willie Jordan, the mission's president, said ovens were going all night to prepare enough food for about 3,000 people after hundreds were turned away last year.
"Everyone is hurting this holiday time, but people are reaching out to help those hurting more than they are," she said. "Families have a hard time putting a meal on the table."
Jesse Godoy, 51, a machinist who was laid off in September, eagerly dug into his turkey drumstick. He said this was the first proper meal he'd had in a week. Many others at his table, Godoy said, were also first-timers who said they had been somewhat embarrassed to show up for the meal.
"I used to say to myself, 'They can work; they can get off the street,' " said Godoy, who is living in a garage in Eagle Rock with his twin brother, who also recently lost his job. "I know now it can happen to anybody."
One of his fellow diners was a longtime veteran. James William Curtis, dressed in a navy-blue pinstripe suit with a checkered light blue tie and a matching pocket square, said he has been going to the meals provided by the mission since 1965, when he was a 14-year-old boy living on the street with his aunt and uncle.
Now 58, he has long been off the streets, has five children, a college degree and a mortuary business. But he still comes back for the meal.
"This is my family out here," Curtis said. "It's always the best meal in town."