“I have, like, five minutes to talk and we gotta move while we’re talking. I’m late, hop in.”
It’s Wednesday, and Charles Wade is on his way to pick up 40 pizzas from a west Baltimore mom and pop joint and get them to Baltimore’s Penn Station before protestors disperse. We arrive, load the pizzas, and are in and out in two minutes flat. The total: $500, plus tip. The guys from the shop throw in a couple sodas for free.
“How slow is your business if you can crank out 40 pizzas in an hour?” Charles asks. He says supporting local businesses with his mammoth pizza orders is a win-win. “We pump money into a neighborhood that needs it,” he says, and doing that gains him trust and help from residents. “A drug dealer saw what we were doing and paid for ten pizzas,” he says.
His team is called Operation Help or Hush. Charles and his business partner Tasha Burton began in Ferguson, providing protesters and residents with basic necessities like food, water and safety supplies shortly after 18-year-old Michael Brown was shot and killed. The group has laid down roots in St. Louis, Missouri and is now concentrating on a transitional housing program. But Charles drove through the night to offer on-the-ground support in Baltimore…and pizza.
After some Baltimore stores were looted Monday afternoon, the Baltimore City Public School system announced schools would be closed the next day. Eighty-four percent of Baltimore students are eligible for free or reduced lunch. Eating at school, for most of Baltimore’s youth, is crucial.
So the first order of business for Operation Help or Hush when they arrived Tuesday was #BaltimoreLunch. On that first day the organization provided 110 pizzas and 1,000 snack bags to Baltimore children and families.
“Just keep the $40! You worked hard enough,” Charles barks on the phone. It was the ice cream truck man on the other line. He’d forgotten to give Charles change earlier in the day when Charles hired him to show up at Gilmor Homes, the housing project where Freddie Gray grew up. Penny-pinching, says Charles, isn’t how he does business. “People are giving up a latte or two to give us money,” he says, and running after $40 when he has to get 40 pizzas to hungry protesters is not his priority.
Operation Help or Hush raises all of its funding on Twitter. Charles said they’ve spent about $7,000 since coming to Baltimore.
We arrive at Penn Station and unload the pizzas, but the protesters are on the move. We’re in the wrong place. “Pack it back up,” Charles bellows. He grabs a pizza and gives it to an older homeless gentleman and some kids, who help us load the pizzas back up into the cars.
We beat the protesters to city hall. A relief.
We unload, set up shop, and wait. Charles asks me if I can keep guard. I stick around for another hour, and become an unwitting volunteer, throwing empty boxes to the side, calling out “one slice of pepperoni here!” I never see Charles again.
But he’s back on Twitter. Today, he’s out giving away diapers and formula.
Collier Meyerson is a reporter at Fusion with a focus on race and politics. She lives in Brooklyn.