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Get on the Bus

Anyone care to wager whether the kid could eat both carrots without puking?
Tony Nelson

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."

They're also for working their asses off. The bus pulls up to the dock of the Co-Op Partners warehouse off of University Avenue in St. Paul. In a flash, Gooden and Czernik pop open the front windshield and place two ladders with rollers up to the warehouse dock. The warehouse workers are ready, and begin wheeling forklifts of pallets filled with day- or days-old groceries over to the rollers. Everybody on the bus swings into action and starts hauling cartons of decent-looking grapes, melons, yams, beans, carrots, head lettuce, and the day's big score, 500 pounds of lemons.

"When life gives you lemons, make lemon merengue pie," chirps Miller, a 31-year-old earth mama and real-world mother of three. She works every Tuesday with Camelot. As she and the other women grab clipboards to inventory the day's haul, Miller holds forth excitedly about cooking organic soups and stews for the upcoming Halloween bash in Powderhorn Park. After 20 minutes of nonstop loading, the crew pulls up the ramps and the bus hits the road again, headed for Mounds View. As Gooden traverses the familiar route, several drivers look up at the bus and the decidedly non-suburban crew inside.

"I come from a family of 12 kids. I'm number 11," says Steidl, a lanky 34-year-old farm kid from Miltona, Minnesota. "It's straight out of Sinclair Lewis. I was looking for a family other than my blood family because my friends outside my blood family listen really well. They understand me more. My confidence has grown since I've been with this family, because my real family was like, 'Your opinion isn't worth anything. You don't matter.'"

The bus pulls up in the West Bank area of Minneapolis. Camped out in the parking lot abutting the 400 Bar and Mixed Blood Theatre is Everybody's Kitchen, a traveling school bus run by two like-minded vagabond cooks. Inside, two frantic hippies cook a free lunch for anyone who shows up. The Camelot crew hauls some of today's vegetables into the tiny aisle.

Late arrivals to the first Twins-Oakland playoff game are rushing toward the Metrodome and a lunch of dome dogs and nachos. Meanwhile, a small crowd of non-English speaking Minnesotans gathers—Somali, Mexican, and Chinese. The Chinese family takes its share of groceries and then some, and they're obstinate about wanting more. Gooden, who realizes "a lot of these people just got out of refugee camps," tries to explain to them that "we aren't sharing here today, we're just dropping off groceries so they can make lunch. We'll be sharing at Franklin and Chicago later."

The brush-off seems harsh (Miller gives apples to a boy and a man in a wheelchair), but from experience the Sisters know that some hungry people will take as much as they can get. If there isn't a semblance of organization and some rules, the worst in human nature will take over. After a small row with the Chinese family ("weird, most of the homeless in Minneapolis are really polite," says one of the Everybody's Kitchen cooks), it's on to Peavey Park.

Gooden pulls the bus up to the curb on Chicago Avenue, where a 30-deep line of people toting grocery bags awaits. The crew closes the bus doors and hustles to organize the produce for easy access. Everybody knows the drill: The doors open and the shoppers walk through, four at a time. They're all business—young and old, singles, married, and parents with toddlers and infants in tow. They check out the quality of the produce and then stuff their bags.

As Gooden descends the bus, he lights a cigarette and heads to a spot on the lawn where for the next hour or two he'll watch the fruits of his labor. A husky dude carrying a "Subway Eat Fresh" plastic bag and a giant soft drink walks by. "Free organic groceries on the bus, man," says Gooden. "Fruits, vegetables..."

"Nope," says the guy, and keeps walking.

Jim Walsh can be reached at 612.372.3775 or [email protected]

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