Each day at daybreak, two men set out on foot for the Trenton Area Soup Kitchen: Maximino “Mike” Mendez from South Trenton and Bruce Howard from the north. After an hour’s walk, trekking through all kinds of weather, they meet at TASK’s building on Escher Street, ready to get the soup kitchen’s day started.
By 6:30am, in the quiet before the clanging of pots and pans, Bruce starts the coffee, makes the juice, sets aside the fruit, snacks, and juice for meals that will be delivered outside of our main location, and puts out breakfast for the adult education students who come in early. Next, he helps prepare the cooks’ work stations by laying down thick, black rubber floor mats.
In TASK’s dining hall, Mike sets up the chairs, cleans the tables, empties the trash bins, and prepares the bathrooms, making sure there are hand towels and soap. Last, before staff and patrons come in, he sweeps and mops the floors — a job he’ll do twice more throughout the day.
As the cooks start preparing the noon meal, Bruce says, calm eyes peeking out from under a pale blue baseball cap, “I start on the pots. I jump on those, get them cleaned up. I don’t like to see them sitting over there [in the sink].” Never mind the 800 large, orange plastic meal trays Bruce shepherds through the dishwasher daily.
Bruce is the TASK dishwasher extraordinaire and Mike is TASK’s custodial supervisor par excellence. A transplant at 16 from Puerto Rico, Mike was on the job 18 years when Bruce showed up. Mike took Bruce, who grew up in the Wilbur section of Trenton, under his wing and showed him the ropes.
Mike, who has worked under every director TASK has ever had, remembers back 31 years to some of the soup kitchen’s earliest days: “We go to the market, buy the bread, and with a little wagon we pick up the meat and cheese for the sandwiches, then we go to a church — they got a machine to cut the meat. A couple volunteers, old ladies, cut the meat for the sandwiches. We wrap up the sandwiches in paper and put them in a big box and take them out to the parking lot. The people come to the parking lot, we give the bags to the people. No place to sit down. If they want to sit down, they gotta sit on the ground.”
Today, TASK is different. Now with a spacious dining room, lots of tables and chairs, 13 satellite locations and serving a more substantial meal, Bruce and Mike have watched the soup kitchen grow from serving 150,000 to 292,000 meals annually and, over the years, they have proven there is no job too big or too small for this pair, as they tirelessly work to keep TASK running smoothly.
Nowadays, Mike talks about his concern for patrons who need to find meals when TASK isn’t open. He also likes to help orient shy patrons who come in for the first time. Bruce is especially worried for the young people out running the streets at night, homeless. He gives them bagged lunches when he can. They call him Uncle Bruce.
Mike, who has 14 siblings and likes to watch boxing, and Bruce, who has 11 brothers and sisters and likes listening to rap, each impart a quiet, steady presence amid the daily bustle of the soup kitchen. The two have forged a deep bond of mutual respect and friendship. When Bruce said, “Mike is my mentor. I have a lot of respect for him,” Mike was quick to respond, “Bruce is a good man. Good work, quiet. We’re like family.”
About TASK, Bruce nods in agreement when Mike says, “It’s like my house. I gotta be there.”
Bruce (left) and Mike have worked together at TASK for 13 years to make sure patrons and staff are comfortable and have everything they need. Thanks for all you do, fellas!