February 8, 2009
It's morning, technically, but the San Fernando Valley sky is black as a stone. Art Siegel, with 80 years on the clock, is trolling the lonely predawn avenues in a white van, casting about for his daily catch of donated bread. ¶ "Bagel Brigade," says the sign on the van. ¶ I ask about the quantity of stale goods Siegel and his buddies gather every day and give to people in need, and his voice drops. ¶ "I don't use the word 'stale,' " Siegel says. "I use 'day-old.' " ¶ It won't happen again. ¶ "You see this guy coming out to us right now?" Siegel asks as we stand in the parking lot behind the Gelson's on Van Nuys Boulevard in Sherman Oaks. "He's going to give me a full basket of bread."
David Orozco, who works for a bread distribution company, has just stocked fresh goods on Gelson's shelves and now he's giving yesterday's stuff to Siegel. Orozco's shopping cart is heaped over with bagels, croissants and loaves, and Siegel digs in like he's going after gold bullion, transferring the booty to the Bagel Brigade van.
"He's here every morning," Orozco says, "right on schedule."
Feels pretty fresh, I tell Siegel after squeezing a few loaves. "That's what I'm tryin' to tell you," he says. "People crave this stuff."
I'm making the rounds with Siegel because his wife, Frances, asked a favor of me. The Bagel Brigade, begun 17 years ago by Herman Berman and run entirely by volunteers, needs some fresh horses. Berman still does what he can, but he's going on 88 and uses a walker now.
"They just lost two volunteers to cancer," says Frances Siegel, referring to guys in their 90s. And then there's Pearl Fischler, who had been a reliable driver but had to quit the brigade when she hit her 90s. "If you could find it in your heart to run an article, maybe someone will read it and offer help."
Art Siegel, a long-retired wholesale garment salesman, says recruiting fresh blood is no cinch. New guys tend to go through the motions for a day or two, but then they come up with an excuse. This hurts, that hurts, they're too old, they're too busy.
"It makes me angry," he says. "If I didn't want to do it, I wouldn't. But something pushes me out here. We've got the homeless we take bread to on Lankershim, a lot of children in the needy schools, the drug rehab program. There's this one school with all the kids disabled. Breaks your heart. What am I going to do, sleep? Watch TV? Get fat? I'm not that way. I have to keep working."
The regulars -- mainly men and a few women drawn to this street mission by word of mouth and various forms of arm twisting -- don't seem to think of it as work, though, or even a hobby.
It's a duty.
"I feel that I'm being helpful to many people, especially children, and I have the time and I'm giving. What is life about?" asks Bill Holland, 86, a retired principal and longtime friend of Berman.
It all began when Berman retired from the jewelry business and wanted to do some kind of service for his B'nai B'rith lodge. With the permission of the manager at the old Hughes market at Van Nuys and Burbank, Berman left a basket near the checkout stands. "Donate Food to the Needy for B'nai B'rith," the sign asked shoppers.
"I went back the next day and the basket was full," Berman says.
The manager offered to begin handing over day-old bread, which is often donated, sold or tossed into the trash by supermarkets. Berman rounded up a few volunteers to visit other stores. Dozens of regular donors now include Manhattan and New York bagel shops, Solley's Deli, Panera, Whole Foods, Gelson's, Vons, Pavilions and some Ralphs.
After the pickups, Siegel and other drivers meet at 7:30 a.m. in the Costco parking lot on Sepulveda Boulevard to hand out their bread, frozen food and whatever else they can cajole out of the markets. They also collect used cellphones, sell them to a salvage company and use the proceeds to buy cereal for children.
Carmen Hidalgo, a parent at Sylvan Park Elementary, drives up to the brigade and they load her trunk with bread. Roxana More gets a stash for the family center at Van Nuys High. Frederick Ylaya rolls in from Hosanna Life Renewal Christian Fellowship. Gina Denike and Lauren Estevenin load seven chocolate cakes into their van for fellow rehab residents at Cri-Help.
"These guys are great and it helps out a lot," Denike says.
Volunteers Frank Shapiro and Steve Drabkin dole out the goods, and a rookie volunteer named Allen Botney, an 86-year-old retired attorney, is being broken in. The posse is 112 strong now, counting those who chip in at least once a week making phone calls or mailing letters. But it's always a chore coming up with people willing to work six-hour shifts for the daily pickups and delivery.
"To be honest, I'm getting tired," says Siegel, who's been at it seven years.
And I can see why.
At a Pavilions on Ventura, he picks up two shopping carts filled with bread and 24 cases of frozen dinners, loading heavy boxes into his van. On the way out of the store, he seizes up and stops cold, as if he's about to keel over. He reaches into his pocket for a small bottle of NitroQuick, and he pops a pill that opens his blood vessels.
"I've had two heart attacks," he says, but he's back in the van a minute later, as if nothing happened.
You OK? I ask.
"I'm fine," he says and he hits the gas.
The ranks of the needy are only going to grow, Siegel says, and somebody's got to do this. He doesn't question the need, never judges the recipients. This is his town, these are his neighbors, and charity makes a man whole.
He walks into stores in full schmooze mode: "How you doing, sweetheart" and "Hello, pal." The trick is to think of yourself as a reverse salesman, he tells me. You're taking, not selling, but you've still got to work it, "get a little camaraderie thing going."
At one store, he practically hijacks the Buona Forchetta bread truck as driver Juan Castellon pulls in with a predawn delivery.
"I'm not supposed to give the bread away," Castellon tells me, smiling at his own weakness as Siegel grabs all the loaves he can get.
After the Costco distribution, Siegel's still got some cargo, so we make four more stops: at the L.A. Family Housing shelter, and then on to Noble Avenue Elementary, Rosa Parks Learning Center and Panorama City Elementary, where the Bagel Brigade's donations are handed out to parents.
"We love having them and they provide a great service," Panorama Principal Sylvia Guzman says as Siegel bums us a couple cups of coffee.
Ysabel Rodriguez, who takes the bread for the school and hands it over to parents, presents Siegel with a late Christmas present.
"Why'd you do that?" he asks.
"Because I love you," Rodriguez says.
Siegel had to cut back recently from five days to three, but says he won't quit until he has to.
"Cast your bread on the surface of the waters, and it comes back to you," he tells me. "That's what this is."
(Anyone interested in joining the Bagel Brigade can call Herman Berman at  788-4230 or Bill Holland at  996-4811).
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