By: Stephanie Farr
SCORES OF people – many of them elderly, with small, rickety carts in tow – began lining both sides of 62nd Street near Cedar Avenue in West Philly at 4 a.m.
They sat on milk crates and boxes one Monday this month, waiting for hours for someone to bring them what they need most this holiday season: Food.
Philabundance truck driver Jackie Cooley Jr. pulled up shortly after noon – as he has every Monday for three years – and beeped his horn.
The crowd cheered and parted.
“We love you, Jackie!” screamed one woman.
“Jackie is the man!” shouted another.
Cooley, 56, smiled and waved.
“I feel like I’m Moses coming through here,” he said. “I can’t take nobody to the promised land, but I can feed them.”
Cooley is one of 11 Philabundance truck drivers responsible for picking up goods from the nonprofit food bank’s vendors and delivering them to the more than 400 agencies it serves in the nine-county region.
Glenn Bergman, Philabundance’s executive director, calls its truck drivers “ambassadors.”
“They see the back of the grocery stores, they deal with the people at the Acmes and ShopRites, then they go to the agencies and drop the food right off,” Bergman said. “These truck drivers could work at other places and make more money, but the thing is, they do it for the mission.”
‘I sell myself’
As Cooley drove his truck to the rear loading dock at the Acme on Baltimore Pike near Bishop Avenue in Clifton Heights around 11 a.m., he was already six hours deep into his workday.
Cooley had schmoozed with workers in the back of three other Delaware County Acmes before he hopped off his truck at this one and began joking around with the staff as they brought him crates filled with bread, dairy, vegetables, meat and other items with sell-by stamps for that day.
“When I go to different stores I sell myself and apply myself to let people know that I need more than what they’re giving me,” Cooley said. “If I don’t explain to the people at the stores what we’re doing, they won’t have the dedication to do it too, so I let them know the people appreciate them and give thanks.”
Cooley – who carries two types of thermometers in his pocket – checked the temperature and condition of the donated goods before carefully loading the food onto his refrigerated truck.
“I try to get a lot of healthy food so that people can’t complain: ‘Where’s the candy?’ or ‘Where’s the cakes?’ ” Cooley said, as he loaded a carton of milk onto the truck. “I ain’t trying to buy that. I’m trying to keep them healthy.”
As he pulled down the rear door of his truck and prepared to head to his two drop-off locations, Cooley turned and paused.
“Your heart is going to feel some type of way when we get to the last stop,” he said. “You’re not going to believe this type of need exists.”
Cooley’s first stop was the Neighbor to Neighbor Community Development Corp.’s food cupboard in Sharon Hill.
“Here’s Mr. Charmer,” said Linda Eldridge, director of the food cupboard, as Cooley got off his truck. “We missed you the last two Mondays.”
“Well, you know I had to go to the VA,” Cooley said.
Cooley rarely takes a day off from work, and when he does, it’s to volunteer at the Philadelphia Veterans Affairs Medical Center.
“These are the people that fought for people like me to have their freedom,” Cooley said. “So it’s the least I can do for them because I’m not a fighter, I’m a food-giver.”
At the food cupboard, volunteers helped Cooley unload half of the truck and bring the goods in through a red door in the rear plastered with fliers. The food was to be handed out during the cupboard’s Thursday distribution.
Between 75 and 100 people show up each week to get the food that Cooley brings, Eldridge said. Some may abuse the program, but it’s a small price to pay, she said.
“Some people are very humbled by it and very thankful, and then there are always people who kind of take things for granted,” Eldridge said. “But the people who are really thankful and appreciative make up for any people who just expect that you should be doing it for them.”
Cooley said his goodbyes to the volunteers and promised to be back the following week. Eldridge smiled.
“When he doesn’t come, we definitely miss him,” she said.
By the time Cooley blew his horn at the Church of Christian Compassion, at 62nd and Cedar, more than 100 people were lining both sides of 62nd Street waving and cheering.
That’s just six blocks from his own home.
“The people that I’m feeding here I know, because they live in my neighborhood,” he said.
“Jackie’s a very good guy. We hear him before we see him. He lets us know he’s coming,” said Pearl Kemp, 60, who volunteers with the church. “If he doesn’t beep that horn, we think that something is wrong. If that truck pulls up and we don’t hear that beep, we know Jackie is not on it.”
Cooley stopped the truck, and at least a dozen volunteers in purple shirts formed an assembly line and began unloading the goods and placing them on folding tables, separated by food groups.
Each Monday, between 160 and 200 people line up for the food that Cooley delivers there.
One of those people is John Blackwell, 57, who attended elementary school with Cooley at St. Elizabeth’s.
“The first time I came out and I saw him delivering, I’m like, ‘Wow! He and I were in kindergarten together!’ ” Blackwell said of Cooley. “We are still the same. He’s still a lover.”
Blackwell, who has prostate cancer and is on disability, gets food for himself and for the five other people in his home, he said.
“They only give me $40 in food stamps a month, so this helps out with feeding my family,” he said.
Phyllis Harris, 67, one of the people who gets in line at 4 a.m., said Cooley brings “the best of everything, year-round.”
“His personality is also second to none, everybody gets a hug and he always has a smile,” she said. “He takes the time to come down the line and speak to people, which makes us feel good, very good.”
Richard Washington, 78, a Hurricane Katrina survivor and an ailing Army vet, said he was in line for food because his Social Security is “not half enough” to feed the eight family members who live with him.
“Where I come from, this means a lot. This is beautiful,” Washington said. “And Jackie, he is good people.”
‘Paid through my heart’
At the end of his shift, Cooley watched people move through the line of food he’d brought. He took off his dirty work gloves. Underneath, his hands were soft and warm.
They are hands that lift and carry and deliver, but they are also hands that hug and hold and comfort.
Cooley uses his hands to help sick veterans, to play the piano and to put on a Santa suit when he visits nursing homes at Christmastime. He even uses his hands to quilt, a craft his grandmother taught him when he was a child because he talked too much.
“I talk in abundance now,” Cooley said. “Philabundance.”
Cooley, a divorced father of three, came to Philabundance through a temp agency when he was laid off after 20 years as a quality-control inspector at a Lansdale electronics plant.
On his first day, he didn’t know what to expect because he had never heard of Philabundance.
“I didn’t know what Philabundance was about,” he said. “But when I got there and saw the happy faces, I said, ‘I like this job.’ ”
It took just two days before Philabundance gave Cooley a T-shirt and just three months before they hired him full time. That was three years ago.
Although he’ll never make big bucks driving trucks for Philabundance, Cooley said it’s a meaningful life.
“This ain’t a job that I make gallons of money on,” he said. “But I get paid through my heart.”