hen James Wilson, armed with soup, sandwich and a smile, arrives at Mary Taylor's house in Southeast Washington, she is waiting.

"I couldn't do without the lunch," said Taylor, 83, standing in the doorway to her cluttered living room, struggling to balance two lunch packages with her one good arm.

Disabled by diseases that twisted her spine and shriveled her left arm, Taylor, who lives alone, is physically unable to prepare her own meals. The last time she tried, she burned herself.

Wilson works for the Senior Citizens Counseling & Delivery Service, a city-funded agency that takes meals six days a week to 80 homebound elderly people in Ward 8. Saturday packages include a hot meal that can be eaten immediately and a cold one to be refrigerated until Sunday.

But Wilson brings good cheer as well as nutritious food to his clients, many of whom he considers dear friends. Mary Taylor is one.

"Other people might have days when they are a sourpuss, but not Ms. Taylor," he said. "She never complains about her neck or her arm. You just have to love a person like that."

Wilson and Taylor are part of a larger drama that plays out every day along dozens of city streets, enabling thousands of the city's oldest residents to remain independent and in their homes rather than relegated to costly nursing facilities.

To them, the meals and workers such as Wilson are a lifeline.

"These programs bring good, solid nutrition to the senior citizen on a daily basis," said Concha Johnson, director of the delivery service. "But it also puts the senior citizen in touch with other people -- the delivery people -- and affirms that someone cares about them . . . someone who can bring help if needed."

A half-dozen city-funded programs deliver meals to about 3,500 homebound residents age 60 and older. Recipients are asked to contribute toward the meal cost, but no one is denied food because they can't pay, D.C. officials said.

Last year, the D.C. Office on Aging channeled about $800,000 in local and federal funds into homebound meal delivery. But money can't buy what Wilson brings.

Pulling up to a red brick apartment, he reaches for a lunch package for Catherine Shuler, 69, then talks lovingly about this friend, sightless for 25 years, who has grown to depend on him.

"She is a blind lady, and we have to give her time to get to the door after we knock," he said. "You'll hear her coming to the door, tapping her cane and bumping into things trying to find her way."

But the first sound is actually the gospel music from Shuler's radio turned up so high that Wilson has to rap several times.

"Who's there?" she calls, then unlocks the door.

"I am by myself and glad to have someone to talk to," Shuler said. A home helper comes most mornings and makes her breakfast. And she relies on a relative or a friend to "drop by and fix something" in the evenings. But for lunch, she counts on Wilson.

Wilson, 64, is the father of four and the grandfather of four. Before he retired from the U.S. Treasury Department in 1982, he worked 37 years for the government, including his "time in the military." Two years ago, he heard from a friend that the delivery service needed help and he applied for the job.

"Once I got on it, I loved it," he said. What he loves, he said, is "how the seniors greet you every morning . . . . And it gives you such a feeling to know that you are helping."

Besides, Wilson said, only partially in jest, "someday someone may be bringing me a meal."

His day starts at 6:30 a.m. when he leaves his home in Northwest Washington to ride an hour on a Metrobus to the delivery service at 2500 Martin Luther King Jr. Ave. SE. There, he picks up the van and a helper and drives to Nutrition Inc., the nearby food plant where the meals are prepared and packaged. By 8:30 a.m., he is on the road, and by 2:30 p.m., he is usually finished.

Predictably, some of the people on Wilson's route know each other from earlier days. And Wilson does everything in his power to keep them in touch, passing messages from one to another, even couriering small treats and supplies between them.

"Ms. Taylor has a friend, Lugenia Russell, who stays over on Sumner Road {SE} and I go by there in the morning or maybe she will come by the {delivery service} center, and she will give me some money to stop by the store and get Ms. Taylor whatever she needs," Wilson said. "Louise Ball, another friend of Ms. Taylor's, will send things to her too.

And what does Ms. Ball send Ms. Taylor?

"Ms. Taylor is crazy about chicken franks. And ice cream."

In a ground-floor unit in a battered apartment building, Anna Compton, 75, is admiring her three cats when Wilson arrives. "The cats come first," she said. "The way I do, I give them a little taste of the meal and then I eat some of it. Then I put it in the refrigerator and feed them. And then I fix me something to eat."

Compton worked 37 years as a salesclerk at the candy counter in Murphy's five and dime store downtown. "I stopped when I was 65," she said. Separated from her husband and with no children, she has been alone since her mother died in 1968. Three years ago, her right leg was removed because of complications from varicose veins. Now that she uses a wheelchair, she can't reach the stove to cook. Compton said Wilson sometimes brings along a bag of groceries from the delivery service food program: canned goods, rice and flour.

"I share the flour with the lady upstairs; she makes bread with it and brings some back to me," she said.

Wilson's helper this day is Alfred "Joe" Elzie, 63, a retired printer and a snappy dresser in a white sleeveless sweater, white touring cap and sunglasses. The two have worked together before and maintain a running palaver much like radio disc jockeys.

"We are senior citizens ourselves," Wilson said. "No, we are recycled teenagers," countered Elzie. Wilson stays at the wheel, climbing in and out at each stop. Elzie sits in back, assembling the packages: a plastic bag with milk and juice, a second bag with bread and butter, an orange, and the lunch of split pea soup, a turkey and cheese sandwich, a cucumber salad and a carrot-raisin salad.

Elzie joined the delivery service in 1987, the year it won the contract to become the lead agency to provide services to the elderly in Ward 8. The meal program expanded immediately, and it was Elzie's job to map out the larger route. He quit formally earlier this year, but sometimes shows up to go with Wilson because he likes to stay in touch with his old friends.

"One time, when he went to deliver a meal, he noticed that the woman's foot was blue," Johnson recalled. "He urged her to see a doctor, but she resisted. He came back to the center and got the social worker to go look at the woman. When she saw the foot, she called an ambulance. The doctor told us later that the woman would have lost that foot if there had been a further delay."

To reach their clients, Wilson and Elzie followed a winding route across Ward 8. Some clients live in tidy red brick homes with flowers out front. Others live in tumble-down housing amid piles of their own trash and the sharp odor of urine. Still others reside in sprawling public projects in high-crime areas.

"I tell Joe that if I'm not back in a few minutes, he should come after me," Wilson said.

At the entrance to one project, Wilson slows to ease the van through a narrow street filled with parked cars and several young men standing around a fancy new car. Nodding politely at the men, Wilson sighs with relief as he reaches the next block. "They shouldn't have blocked the street like that, but I was afraid to say something. They might have weapons. And they will shoot if they do."

Up ahead is the big old house where Hilda Meredith lives. Both Wilson and Elzie get out to make this delivery. Meredith, 86, is seated at her kitchen table, her white hair pulled up and tied with a bright red bow.

As a young woman, Meredith was a stenographer in the House Office Building. She never married and has lived in this house, built by her father, since she was 9.

"I had a brother who was a doctor, and I thought he would be able to help me when I got older, but he died in 1981," she said. Mentally alert, but physically disabled by ulcers on her legs, she can walk with a walker but moves slowly. She spends much of her time reading large-print Reader's Digest books.

A home health aide sent by the city comes weekdays to look after her, and the aide's daughter often stays with her at night. She has a few relatives in Maryland, "but they are afraid to come and visit me."

Which is why her eyes light up at the sight of the lunch van.

"And Mr. Wilson. {He} comes most every day, and he is very nice," she said.