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Backstory: Most Nutritious Assignment


Published December 27, 2017 at 10:00 a.m.
Updated December 27, 2017 at 10:03 a.m.

Desserts at the Salvation Army - MATTHEW THORSEN
  • Matthew Thorsen
  • Desserts at the Salvation Army

I spent weeks thinking that "Sally's" was a Burlington diner I'd never heard of — until a source, a formerly homeless man, suggested we eat there together. At the Salvation Army, dinner is served six days a week — free of charge, no questions asked.

I started going weekly, after work. At the inconspicuous Main Street building, I got a warm meal with enough vegetables to satisfy even me.

And I liked the anything-goes, anyone's-welcome vibe around the dingy cafeteria, where I occasionally got news tips and story ideas. More frequently, I left with life lessons.

I realized early on that people who eat with their jackets on and hoods up, hunched over, staring at the television overhead, aren't necessarily unfriendly or antisocial; their posture is a form of self-protection. By the end of the meal, most of them would be sharing the most intimate details of their lives.

Over a series of weeks, I spoke with men who have been homeless and dining at Sally's longer than I've been alive. I noticed another group that showed up at the end of the month when food stamps ran low. I met people passing through Burlington en route to greener pastures, as well as those who complained about the city's homelessness policies but couldn't bring themselves to leave Burlington.

The regulars quickly informed me about life in the street: what happens if the police find you sleeping in the bank ATM (you're kicked out); the key to surviving on Vermont's coldest winter nights in a tent (a lantern for heat); and the best places to buy big, cheap beers.

There were tricks to eating at Sally's, too. Show up early or late — just not on time — to avoid dinner lines, they told me. Head quickly for the coffee; it runs out quickly. Ditto dessert.