The Montrose Center serves up more than just meals for Houston’s LGBT seniors
by Brandon Wolf
Photos by Brandon Wolf
The Montrose Diner, on the first floor of The Montrose Center, has no neon sign outside. But inside, there is plenty of nutritious food and a wonderfully warm and accepting atmosphere. The Diner opens its doors on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday mornings starting at 9 a.m., and a free, well-balanced lunch is served at noon for LGBT seniors who are sixty and older.
There are no strangers at the Diner—first-timers are instantly made to feel welcome and part of the group. As part of the Center’s outreach to seniors, it is designed to help fight the isolation that older members of the community can often fall victim to as their own social networks begin to dwindle.
The Diner is relatively quiet during the morning hours. Some people come to work puzzles, read, or just chat with each other. People come and go as they wish, but the largest concentration begins to build as lunch time approaches.
During lunch, there are lively conversations at each table. It takes relatively little to ignite table chatter—the mention of a former bar, a favorite bartender, a special event, a particular person, or a specific city. People enjoy sharing favorite memories that usually evoke laughter, awe, questions, and tears.
One woman remembers when lesbians risked arrest for dressing in blue jeans with a fly in the front. A man recalls how he made two separate attempts to become part of a religious monastery, but always ended up finding it too confining.
Another woman talks about her days as a local special-education teacher, when she had to keep her sexual orientation totally secret or face termination. “But sometimes, a student and I both knew the other was gay,” she says. “We just couldn’t come out and say it. Some of those students still call me, and want to know if there is anything they can do to help me, now that I’m retired.”
When someone mentions Austin, a man is soon laughing as he recalls a small bar there that decided to have a “pre-premiere” party for the lesbian classic The Killing of Sister George in 1968. “The staff had planned for about seventy people. They were shocked when seven hundred lesbians showed up!”
Conversations don’t just dwell on the past, though. People talk about vacations they just took, or are about to take. Their lunch partners might suggest places of interest, or out-of-the-way places to stay. Just as easily, the lunch talk can swing to current events such as the recent Supreme Court marriage equality rulings or the Houston mayoral election.
People love to help others, too. If someone mentions a problem they are experiencing, others offer to help out or simply provide encouragement if there is nothing they can do except show that they care.
Diner organizers make good use of people’s time. Speakers are invited to make presentations of interest to seniors, such as basic home safety from the fire marshal or nutrition tips from the Houston Food Bank.
Other speakers talk about relaxation techniques, estate planning, and health concerns such as Alzheimer’s disease. Once a month, a case manager or therapist from the Center leads informal discussions about issues that seniors often deal with.
HIV testing is offered regularly. At the beginning of hurricane season, a special survival kit of non-perishable foods was distributed. A local art instructor recently guided those interested in the creation of colorful glazed tiles.
The Diner is a part of the Center’s larger SPRY (Seniors Preparing for Rainbow Years) program for LGBT seniors. SPRY activities are often scheduled so that it’s easy for the Diner crowd to stick around and participate. There is a monthly movie starting at 1 p.m. The most recent film shown was Cloudburst, the story of two senior lesbians who run away to Canada to get married.
People are also made aware of the other SPRY offerings such as men’s and women’s support groups, computer classes, a monthly potluck, and myriad other offerings on the Center’s schedule. Recently, a community “town hall” was held to discuss the issue of LGBT retirement facilities.
Special bus excursions have taken people to such places as the George Ranch in Richmond and a winery in Santa Fe. A holiday bus trip is being planned to visit Dickens on the Strand in Galveston. The Diner provides box lunches for the bus trips.
“Isolation is a serious problem for seniors,” says Brittany Burch, the SPRY program coordinator. “It can lead to depression, which is often self-fueling. Isolated people need connectedness, but once depression sets in, they don’t have the motivation to go out and be with others. We want people to know there are options available to them, like the Diner.”
Diner coordinator Jim Jackson says that LGBT seniors, and especially gay men, face additional issues. “Gay men value youth and attractiveness. Seniors can often feel rejected and unappreciated in the larger community. The Diner is very affirming.”
People who enjoy the Diner come from all walks of life. “There are retired professionals whose friends are still working, have moved away, or died,” says Jackson. “There are also people for whom the Diner is the best meal they will get that day—perhaps the only meal.”
The meals served at the Diner are all nutritionally balanced. Entrées include meatloaf, hamburgers, chicken strips, ham, chili, and tacos. A variety of vegetables is served along with bread and rolls, dessert, and a choice of beverages. Once a month, birthdays are celebrated with cake and ice cream. Jackson says a recipe book is in progress, so that people can make nutritious meals at home.
As part of his Diner coordinator duties, Jackson does community outreach to attract new participants. “I look for places where socially isolated people might turn to. I go to bars at eight in the morning and chat with people. When someone is drinking alcohol that early in the day, they are probably lonely and looking for comfort. I don’t do a lot of talking—I listen and then make them aware of the Diner.”
Jackson also asks bartenders and church contacts to watch for seniors who seem emotionally adrift. One night each week, he sets up a table at the Midtown Spa. “I go on the discount night, because that’s when seniors can most afford to go.”
Making the Whole Thing Work
Jackson is himself a gay senior. He was once a married high school English teacher who became interested in real estate and moved to Houston, where the market was more active. His life began to crumble after he came out fifteen years ago, and then the financial crash of 2008 left him struggling. “I was doing what I could to survive—even sausage demos in grocery stores.”
The Diner was looking for a coordinator, so Jackson interviewed and got the job. He manages food preparation, volunteers, special presentations, and outreach.
A typical Diner day starts about 9:30 a.m. when the food is delivered. These meals are a joint project of Sheltering Arms Senior Services and Neighborhood Centers, Inc., and the deliveries have to be tested for proper temperature before they can be accepted. Hot foods go to a steam-table console, and beverages are stored on ice.
Trained volunteers begin serving lunch at noon. Those who take on this duty have to attend special training in food safety, cleanliness, and people skills.
The Diner is also supported by the City of Houston and the Texas Department of Aging and Disability Services. SPRY began in 2005, but the Diner is only about a year old—the result of a graduate-studies practicum by Mike Ator, a staff member who is focusing his studies on issues faced by LGBT seniors.
Praise for the Diner
Diner regulars are happy to express their appreciation. Tim Campbell says, “It has been more fun each time I attend. I’ve picked up a bridge game. I’ve gotten to know lots of gay men my age [in their seventies] and reveled in stories from days gone by. Jim Jackson, and his volunteers Fred Reninger and Ken Schroeder, are so genial—and we don’t have to tip!”
Frank Parsley agrees: “It’s great camaraderie. We have fun conversations and stories. We all seem to be in the same boat as far as being old and having aches and pains, so we can empathize with each other. It’s a great way to network.”
And as Bob Briddick points out, “The Diner is a relaxed environment for conversation, friendly interaction, and just plain fun. I hope in the future it can be five days a week instead of three!”
Brandon Wolf also writes about The Nice Winery in this issue of OutSmart magazine. Wolf, a gay senior, first visited the Diner to work on this writing assignment, but he has since become a Wednesday regular.