I’ve been writing about London too much lately, so I decided to get a little more centered—to focus on what’s right here in the Panhandle/Haight-Ashbury area of San Francisco. I moved to this neighborhood two summers ago, seeking peace and sanity after a traumatic roommate experience. Finding a church where I felt at home was a top priority. I knew immediately that St Agnes was the right place after hearing cantor Scott Grinthal and the choir sing, led by music director Frank Uranich. I don’t know why church music is so important to someone who is so unmusical, but it’s crucial to me. Not that I sing along. I move my lips, but I’m actually just listening to all the beautiful voices. Last September, I volunteered to help out two mornings a week in the church office for the food bank. It was supposed to be temporary, but I enjoy it so much, they are now stuck with me.
The food bank gives out 500 bags of food a month. About 300 bags are weekly lunches, given to the mostly homeless people who live in Golden Gate Park and on Haight Street. These food bags contain things like granola bars, fruit cups, cans of tuna, juice boxes, and other food that doesn’t need a kitchen to prepare. We also distribute about 200 monthly bags to people with kitchens, filled with staples like pasta, beans, rice, soup, peanut butter, and canned vegetables. Parishioners of St Agnes donate both food and money, and it continues to expand. There may come a point when we have to turn folks away, when the food runs out before the end of the month, but we do what we can with what we are given. The actual “food bank” is a row of storage cabinets in a wide hallway at the back of the rectory. When I’m not organizing and re-stocking the cabinets, I’m putting together the bags, as many as I can manage so they won’t run out before the next volunteer come in. Folks ring the front doorbell, and we mark their names in a card file and give them their food. We get some fanciful names and some colorful characters coming to the door. Now when I walk down Haight Street or through the Panhandle, I recognize a lot of the homeless people, and I think they recognize me, too.
Volunteering has given me the chance to get to know cantor and church secretary Scott, since we chat over coffee breaks. He and I had similar goals back in high school. We both had dreams of working on Broadway. He wanted to perform, I wanted to be a stage manager. It all began for Scott when he auditioned for The Music Man. He tried out for Harold Hill, and he was cast in the ensemble. Not bad for someone who’d never taken singing seriously before. After years of playing trumpet in school bands, he realized that girls are much more impressed with guys who sing and dance. He was hooked, and by senior year he was playing lead roles and getting lots more attention from the girls. Then came college. His parents urged him to do a “sensible” major, but instead, he majored in voice and minored in drama. He spent ten years singing and performing for a living, doing everything from equity roles to singing telegrams. Not all of it was glamorous, obviously, but you do what you must to pay the rent. I asked Scott if he ever thought he’d be a church cantor. Laughing, he said it wasn’t something that you plan in high school. He’d been away from the church for a while when he applied for the job at St Agnes in 1996, but he was surprised to find he still knew the music. He now leads two masses a week, although sometimes it’s as many as four. In addition to working in the office and leading us in song, Scott is also a substance abuse counselor, working two to three evenings a week for his certification. If that weren’t enough, he also sings in a wedding band. They perform less often now than they once did, since everybody is so busy. I honestly don’t know where Scott finds the energy to do it all. He’s an inspiration, and he’s also a pretty fun guy to be around, as long as you don’t mind being teased mercilessly!