By Jake Rossen
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It starts at precisely 10:00 in the morning, four days a week, with a cup of coffee, tea, or organic juice. It's a schedule that never changes. The weather is no deterrent, nor is the number of volunteers who show up to the tiny Sister's Camelot storefront office on 36th Street and Chicago Avenue in south Minneapolis. There's no round table here—just a couple of couches and chairs, a computer, and a refrigerator. Though Sister's Camelot will feed the poor this Tuesday, they won't do it here.
The real office, in some sense, is the bus with the freak-flag paint job. But more on that in a minute. Today, there are six Sisters: Eric Gooden, the driver; Michelle Miller, the cook; Rob Czernik, the ad-hoc organizer; Trazy Steidl, the brawn. The four vets are joined by the dreadlocked Birdie and the moon-faced Hannah (first names only, please), two joined-at-the-hip second-timers from Bloomington who sit quietly as their elders talk about plans for the day's "food share."
Share. Everyone involved with Sister's Camelot prefers it to words such as "distribution" or "food shelf." As Czernik explains on our way out the door, "that's the first thing you learn to do as a kid. You learn to share."
After a short meeting, the crew climbs onto the huge converted Sacramento Transit bus with the green, Day-Glo designs that has become a fixture at Minneapolis art and political gatherings. The crew has endured arrests on drugs and/or rabble-rousing charges ("Dark Days for Camelot," CP, 8/9/00) and an abrupt decision by one crucial surplus provider to pull the plug on its donations to the Sisters ("Something Rotten," City Pages, 09/15/04). But this workmanlike a.m. trek from the city to the suburbs feels as peaceful as a class trip.
Nowadays the bus can be seen most mornings at Peavey Park on Franklin and Chicago, where it parks and distributes free organic fruits and vegetables to anyone in need. But first, a few thousand pounds of lettuce, grapes, lemons, melons, and other organic produce must be picked up from co-op partners in St. Paul and Mounds View. Gooden wheels the bus onto 35W toward I-94 East as a couple of his fellow Sisters share a self-rolled cigarette. Long ago, the bus was gutted of all but six of its seats, and now the long, empty hull yawns in wait.
"I love Minneapolis," says Czernik, an affable worker bee, nodding toward the Foshay Tower on the horizon as the bus pounds over Lake Street. "My family was in the military, so I've lived everywhere. When I was in Chicago, I started reading [Twin Cities-based anarcho-punk bible] Profane Existence, and I thought Minneapolis was this mecca. Then I came here and started working with some of these people, and it was true, like this mentality of, 'Yeah. We're not gonna wait for something to be given to us. We're gonna create it ourselves.'"
Founded in 1997 by Jeff Borowiak and others who were inspired by the Highway 55 protests, Sister's Camelot is now a "cast of thousands," run by a core of about eight people. (The name, by the way, comes from The Mists of Avalon and its fantasy-feminist retelling of the King Arthur legend.) The sextet today is a relatively small crew, but volunteers are generally plentiful. The Sisters have come to be seen as a traveling spiritual extension of such high-profile hippie gatherings as Harvestfest and the May Day parade, so recruiting isn't necessary.
In that spirit, Czernik is reluctant to be cast as any sort of spokesman for the group. Sitting up front near the driver in jeans and a T-shirt, he could be just another slacker waiting for the great leap forward into his next burrito. But when he puts down his daily newspaper and opens his mouth, what comes out is something like a mission.
"We see this food that's going to get wasted, and it just feels good. It's sort of a way to leave a mark, I guess," he says. "Everyone here would tell you something different. I don't like to be defined by what I do for a job. People ask me what I do, and I like to say, 'I like to listen to music, garden, and hang out with my cat and work with Camelot.' I did a lot of quote-unquote activist work, and you get stuck in this sort of mind ghetto. It makes it too easy to get disappointed. This is so much more tangible than just trying to work on fighting this or fighting that."
Gooden turns the big bus onto University Avenue with the expertise of an MTC express driver while Miller entertains the back-of-the-bus troops with tales of her organic wine experiments from the night before. Steidl wonders aloud why the short-dreaded and patchouli-pungent Miller is wearing jeans today, accustomed as the family has become to her sundresses and homemade skirts.
"We're actually going out four days a week and picking up food and providing for people," Czernik continues. "Next year it will be 10 years. We've been through a lot. We've had a lot of ups and downs, personal problems, financial problems, and we're still doing it. There's disappointment, but instead of always talking about what needs to be done, we're actually going out and doing it. We're not quibbling over our different politics or identities or issues. When we're doing this, we're all for Camelot, and all for sharing food."