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Second-Hand Sara

The piles of clothes fit neatly into the trunk of my car. So do the cartons filled with coffee mugs. But when it comes to the crates of Kleenex and the boxes of miniature shampoo bottles, things get a little tight. Sara Cohen juggles things around a little. Finally she slams my trunk lid shut. This load is just one of the many that people deliver to Cohen’s door every week. This week mine contains a few weird items, like the mud-brown sake cups. But Cohen, 59, accepts anything—dental adhesive, antacid tablets—that can make life a little easier for the homeless of Chicago.

Sara and I head for the Irving Park Food Pantry. As requested, I have contributed grocery bags for our trip there. I ask why Sara had said that the bags absolutely must bear the names of neighborhood supermarkets. Cohen responds: “You’ll soon see.”

At the food pantry, a young mother furtively helps her little girl to a brownie from the platter set invitingly on the counter Other visitors, with gritted teeth and eyes fixed on the floor, head for the tables loaded with cereal boxes and cans announcing themselves as “gifts of the U. S. Government.” The young mother chooses each item with care, hefting its packaging to calculate the maximum number of servings she can stretch from it. Finally, her “shopping” complete, she slides all her items into a couple of the plastic grocery bags that Cohen has just delivered, takes her daughter’s hand, and heads for the door.

The mother raises her eyes to glance to left and right as she steps tentatively into the street. It’s now mid-morning, and the street is thronged with shoppers, several of whom carry grocery bags identical to hers. If any also contain “gifts of the U.S. Government,” nobody can tell. Her head comes up and she strides on.

Cohen’s donations flow in from many places: friends, or friends-of-friends, or factory rejects which find their way to her through letters she has sent, or phone calls she has made, or notices she has tacked to temple bulletin boards. She is also not above asking for packs of tissues or cough drops when she mails out her holiday cards.

Every sweater or dish is catalogued in a set of well-thumbed cards stowed in Cohen’s “office,” an orange plastic box that sits on her kitchen counter next to the telephone. A second set of index cards even more thumbed-through and curling at the edges, holds a never ending series of wish-lists from agencies, respite centers and soup kitchens. These boxes have sat there for 30 years, ever since Cohen first noticed the desperate poverty among her many homeless clients at the Chicago-based tuberculosis sanitarium where she worked.

Cohen doesn’t expect accolades for her work, but like everyone else, she enjoys a little appreciation. One especially prized award is an Orrefors crystal bowl, which she received in 1990 from the Raoul Wallenberg Committee. She was delighted to receive it, but true to her own feisty form, spoke her mind while making her acceptance speech. “Would Raoul Wallenberg have felt that we are doing enough to help the poor?” she demanded of her audience.

She herself thought not. To women all over the country, she offers simple suggestions: “Look in your local yellow pages,” she urges. “Pick out a couple of agencies not too far away from you, and call them to see what they need most.” Next, she says, pick a manageable project, like the plastic bags for the food pantry. “I care about how many homeless people there in the huge city of Chicago, but I don’t focus on that. If I did I’d never manage to help anyone at all.” And she’ll tell her dinner hostess: “You don’t need the wine or flowers that people will bring as gifts. Tell them to bring toilet paper and soap, or toothpaste, for the homeless shelters.”