Serving Time on the Reservation

It’s coming up on a year that I’ve been working for the Shinnecock Senior Nutrition Program, serving lunches for the elders at the Family Preservation Center, washing dishes and setting tables. Shakespeare wrote that all the world’s a stage. If that’s so, then Shinnecock is like theater, television and the movies all rolled into one. It’s “As the Rez Turns,” and there are as many different stories and plots as there
are people.

In the senior lunch plotline, the lovely Mrs. E is the star of the show; she does the actual serving and entertaining, while Mrs. T, the director, Mr. B, who picks up and delivers lunches to the homebound, and I are her co-stars. But it’s Mrs. E who commands all of our attention, and who we all listen to, whether we want to or not, as we try to stay on her good side…although it’s anyone’s guess where that might be at any time on any given day. It’s a wonderful show, and every episode deserves an award.

The elders adore and love Mrs. E. They eagerly wait for her entrance from the kitchen, with a bon mot, chastising phrase or wry comment. When Mrs. E gives you one of her mischievous, dimpled smiles, it’s impossible to feel anything other than special and happy. Even guest speakers and presenters fall for her charms. It’s like Brooke Astor, Joan Rivers, Diana Ross and everyone’s favorite aunt wrapped up in one person, working a room.

As for me, I’m doing this gig in an effort to reverse whatever bad karma I might have incurred over the last fifty-some years of living, and to show my gratitude for having been born lucky enough to be Shinnecock. I call it the blessed curse. It ain’t easy sometimes, but it ain’t all that bad, either.

I’ve traveled the world and have seen how things are “out there”—and as far as I can tell, we have it pretty damn good. We own our land and homes outright; fish, clam, crab, hunt and enjoy a pretty good standard of living. A friend says we live like millionaires without the trappings—or traps—and I agree.

Sure, we don’t have the material wealth much of the population around us covets, but we do have a sense of community and belonging that can only come from being a tribal nation.

So I decided to humble and reward myself by working at what might be considered a menial job. I have college degrees and a professional license and have made more money, but I’m a lot happier this year than I have been for a long time, just listening to the seniors’ laughter and Mrs. E’s voice coming from the other room. It’s the sound of love and respect.

Lunch starts at noon, and even if you come in early, Mrs. E doesn‘t serve until 12 o’clock sharp, no exceptions. The senior lunch is provided by Suffolk County, and is quite good.

Mondays and Fridays are bingo days, which are loud and exciting affairs. Some people come in early to pick over the cards to choose just the right one. The prizes are nothing spectacular, but you’ve never heard people get so excited over winning a package of Oreos, hand lotion, dish soap, tissues, etc., or the most coveted prize, a bottle of SunnyD.

The main reason I’ve taken time out from the politics and grandstanding that have consumed Shinnecock recently is this: it takes me back to a time when Shinnecock people really did take care of each other, had a meal together while talking about their families and their history, or just enjoyed each other’s company, back when we still called ourselves a tribe. When we would lie in the warm road on summer nights in front of our houses and look up at the sky to count the stars and constellations and talk (there were fewer houses and cars then); when the beach was where kids and families would spend the day swimming and treading for clams; when the creek was the meeting place for teens to hang out and swim after working summer jobs. When manners and respect for elders and adults were the norm, and if you mouthed off or did wrong, someone would have called your mom before you got home. When you heard that call from different houses letting you know it was time for dinner.

It was a quiet, beautiful and, yes, peaceful place, for the most part. Quiet ruled the nights.

There was something special about being a tribal member, something not easily explained. But it seems to be slipping away.

Shinnecock is a microcosm of Southampton, America and the world, whether we like it or not. In the pursuit of material wealth, spiritual wealth, a sense of belonging, pride, respect and love for others and self often gets lost and can be hard to retrieve.
So I’m serving time in the kitchen, plating food, washing dishes, cleaning tables and following Mrs. E’s orders as best I can. The sound of chatter and laughter, the roll of the bingo ball, and Mrs. E’s voice coming from the other room makes for time well spent.

James Keith Phillips is the winner of the 2012 Dan’s Papers Literary Prize for Nonfiction. Click here to read his winning story, “Magic Shirts.”

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