A NIPPY OCTOBER morning finds Charlie Wilson slowly -- carefully -- backing a three-quarter-ton refrigerated truck into the loading dock of a Jessup produce wholesaler.
Massive 18-wheeler trucks surround him, as does the rattling of moving forklifts and the smell of rotted vegetables. Men in checkered flannel shirts, blue jeans, dirty work boots and hard hats scurry around, lifting bags of Idaho potatoes here and pushing cases of celery and bananas there.
It's the first stop in a busy day for Wilson, who delivers food to soup kitchens and shelters for Second Helping, a non-profit organization that distributes leftovers donated by caterers, food companies and restaurants.
He jumps out of the truck and converses with Edward Rahl, owner of Edward G. Rahl & Sons Inc., the produce wholesaler. They have grapes for him -- 69 cases of grapes, or about 1,800 pounds that never made it to market; nearly one ton of grapes that are beginning to brown and grow mold.
Guess who has to carry them?
"It's a lot of loading and it makes you stiff," says Wilson, 53, who, from all appearances is still going strong. "But it's getting the people fed and getting the job done."
After six years as driver for Second Helping, he's used to all the lifting and loading, but it doesn't get any easier. The grapes, though, will do good. Some will be delivered to soup kitchens and shelters across Baltimore city and others will be deposited at the Maryland Food Bank, where volunteers will come to pick them up and pass them out to the needy.
Wilson will take any edible food anybody will give, like the 107 cases -- or 2,500 pounds -- of wilting Boston lettuce he picks up at the next stop, produce wholesaler Tony Vitrano & Co.
"Every little bit helps," Wilson says. "We don't turn down a chicken leg."
By the time he finishes bending and picking and loading, stacks and stacks of grapes and lettuce are piled higher than his head. They've taken up all the space and weight the truck can handle.
"The best thing about this job is helping [those] less fortunate than I am," he says. "If I didn't care, I wouldn't be doing this job. It's as simple as that."
Last year, Wilson and Second Helping delivered more than 284 tons of food to the city's 40 soup kitchens, shelters and churches that serve food to the needy. The food rescue agency runs on a budget of about $100,000 a year, thanks to a grant from the UPS Foundation and other donations.
The city's health department started Second Helping in 1986, but turned it over to the Maryland Food Bank -- an independent organization -- in 1990 because of budget cutbacks, according to Sandee Tramer, coordinator of Second Helping. However, the city health department still supports the program by paying the $20,000-range salary for Wilson, a 22-year city employee.
"Charlie knows his way around," said Tramer. "He's been working with us for six years, which is quite a long time in this business."
Time to head back to the Food Bank on Franklintown Road to drop off cases of lettuce and grapes to make room for other pickups. The Food Bank is a big warehouse of mashed cracker boxes, crushed potato chip bags, dented soup cans, and mayonnaise jars and salad dressing bottles with ragged labels -- damaged packages, the types of food that don't get second glances from supermarket shoppers. When he reaches the Food Bank, volunteers from Project PLASE Inc. and the Jonah House check inventory on loading docks, cram day-old bread loaves into plastic trash bags, push boxes of canned soup, fruit juices and other food items into 4-by-4 pickup trucks and passenger vans.
After Wilson finishes unloading, he leaves for the USF&G building downtown, fighting the lunchtime traffic, stopping at what seems to be a red light at every corner. He's to pick up empty food trays -- donors use them to store food for Second Helping -- but when he gets there, ARA Food Services employees surprise him with a case of Ocean Spray cranberry juice boxes and a carton of Folger's coffee. He's more than happy to take it.
He never knows what to expect when he makes his daily runs, but there are regular givers. He can expect fresh pastries, for example, from Au Bon Pain in the Gallery downtown. "They don't sell anything older than six hours," he says. "Can you believe that?"
Wilson looks at his watch and says he has to go to H & S Bakery on Fleet Street to pick up some bread -- 900 loaves, as it turns out.
Time to unload again. He heads for the nearest soup kitchen, the Dunbar Multi-Purpose Center, where 150 people are served dinner Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays. He drops off two cases of grapes and 10 racks of Jewish rye and burnt raisin