In a gymnasium filled with collard greens, sweet potatoes, fruitcakes, white bread, canned food, turkeys, chickens, and the cacophony of ringing telephones and scores of chattering volunteers, a woman's voice hollers: "Can I have some fellas! Some men, please. Some men!"
The gym falls silent, then laughter kicks up. Ma Green blushes and the men line up before her: police officers, fire cadets and assorted others. Ma Green needs their help, to get the food out of the gymnasium at the Anthony Bowen YMCA on W Street NW, onto the delivery trucks waiting outside, and into the mouths of thousands of men, women and children.
Welcome to Project Harvest, a holiday food distribution operation in its 21st year. Lillian Gertrude Green, known affectionately by her family of workers as Ma Green, founded it and, each year, keeps it running.
She cajoles and quips, a crumpled pack of filterless Camel cigarettes always at the ready. She is a community services worker, a single mother of five, grandmother of 12, great-grandmother of two who each year plunges into the task of feeding Washington's needy for Thanksgiving and Christmas.
She does it, she says, because the need is there. A letter soliciting donations projected that 25,000 people will be fed this year.
"That's what other people say," Ma Green said. "Lillie Green don't set no goal. Lillie Green wants to feed as many people as possible."
She is a small woman, up in years -- old enough, she says, to be able to sit home and do nothing, except that she would go crazy watching soap operas -- with chronic bronchitis and arthritis. Still, with her endearing manner and no-nonsense approach, she is the empress of the food giveaway.
Food pours in from places as diverse as churches and the Pentagon. Most is donated; some will have to be paid for from cash donations. This year, she'll give away more than 1,000 turkeys and more than 300 chickens.
In the gym, Project Harvest's headquarters, food is constantly in motion, and so is Ma Green. One minute, she's circulating around the packed gym, where volunteers are busy bagging greens and filling boxes with canned goods. She troubleshoots and gives instructions.
"See, for the senior citizens, you can put one can of beans, a couple cans of soup, a can of corn and the celery" plus a chicken and the greens. "When you get them ready," she tells the volunteers, "I'm gonna give each one a fruitcake."
The next minute, she's on the phone. People call asking for food, unaware -- but about to find out -- that Ma Green has her own particular method of distribution. A caller told her "he didn't like my attitude. I hung up on him," she said.
The system, intended to prevent duplication and to prevent nonneedy people from getting free food, goes like this: Social service agencies submit index cards with the names of clients who are to receive food. Ma Green's volunteers cross-check the names against those from other agencies, weeding out the duplicates. The agencies then pick up the food boxes and distribute them to their clients. Ma Green does not give food to people who walk in off the street.
When a social service worker comes in with an order, Ma Green counts the cards to make sure they're not getting more food boxes than she promised them.
Sitting behind a desk at the door of the gym, her legs covered with a pink blanket, Ma Green puts on the eyeglasses hanging around her neck and scrutinizes the cards submitted by Rudy Sherill of Family and Child Services, a United Way agency.
"I'm sure I didn't do any more than you promised me," Sherill said. "I want to stay on your good side."
"You're wise to stay on the good side," Ma Green quipped.
Those who venture onto her bad side know it, quickly. Last Friday, a group of volunteers from RAP, a drug treatment program, hauled boxes and boxes of canned foods left over from last year to the gym from Ma Green's basement. She paid for their breakfast, and while figuring out how much they would need for lunch, it was mentioned -- in jest -- that one of the men had eaten five Big Macs for breakfast.
"Who ate five Big Macs?" Ma Green said, loudly. " 'Cause whoever he is, I want him to stay at RAP and I'm just as serious as I could be." The volunteers chuckled at the joke.
Along with volunteers from RAP, there were workers from Potomac Electric Power Co., the police and fire departments and various schools, plus individuals who come in on their own.
"I've seen them come in with Mercedes and minks, and I'm riding a Metro pass," Ma Green said. "When you cross that doorsill, your job title stops. People come and help me who make $60,000 a year, people who I would never be in their peer group if it wasn't for Project Harvest."
Officer Sterling Robinson of the 3rd District's community services unit said Ma Green "has goo-gobs of adopted children" and that's why they call her Ma.
"She's the type of person everybody is drawn to," he said.
Ma Green was born and reared in Washington. Her mother was a laundress who worked with a scrub board; her father was a janitor. "I never knew what it meant to be hungry and cold till I got to be a grown woman and my parents were dead," she said.
Never married, she describes herself as a single mother "when it was a disgrace." Before she joined the United Planning Organization 23 years ago as a manpower development specialist, she was a bartender and cocktail waitress -- "one of the best mixologists this city ever had," she said -- at some of the hottest nightspots of the time: the Red Circle, the Capitol Pleasure Club and the Pirates Den.
Her job with UPO, which administered the antipoverty program in the District, put her face-to-face with some of the city's worst problems: hunger, joblessness, crime. "So Lil got to know a lot of the problems that were occurring in Washington and she really wanted to do something about it," said William Brockenberry, a longtime associate of Ma Green's, who is with the city's Youth Services Administration. "People would come to her to get food and Lil helped a lot of those people. She just got involved."
In the early days of the food drive, before food contributions began pouring in, "we used to have to go out to the meat companies and beg for food," Brockenberry said.
Publicity brought more response each year, to the point that food companies, schools, corporations and government agencies now conduct Project Harvest food drives of their own. Some of the donations came through the WHUR Project Harvest radio telethon, which was held all day Tuesday.
Yesterday, Ma Green's mission for Thanksgiving was almost over. She hadn't yet decided what she would cook today for her own family at her home in Le Droit Park in Northwest Washington, but Green and her volunteers were going great guns making sure others were fed.
When volunteers finish their work and leave, some plant a kiss on Ma Green's cheek and say, "See you next year, Ma."
"If I'm still around," she sometimes says, then flashes that sly Ma Green grin.