By 10 a.m. the line stretched along West Chippewa Street, from Elmwood Avenue nearly to Georgia Street, two-thirds of a city block. People waited on the sidewalk for the truck. They held empty plastic bags or grocery sacks on a chilly, gray morning, in the shadow of City Hall.
It is a sign of the times, a sign of hard times. They say this economic meltdown is the worst since the Great Depression. Thursday morning, the evidence was in plain sight.
There were older ladies with white hair and lean shoulders. There were middle-aged mothers, some with kids swirling around their legs. They came by car, by bus, by Metro Rail. They came for one reason: the "food truck."
For years, the Western New York Food Bank's truck has made monthly stops in various places. Thursday was the truck's first visit to the parking lot at Community Services. Word spread. Friends called friends. Folks came from as far as Amherst and Cheektowaga. The lure was a free bag of groceries, no questions asked.
By 10:20, minutes after the truck -- loaded with bread, energy drinks, potatoes and pudding cups -- pulled in, 123 people stood in the damp chill.
It reminded me of black-and-white pictures of bread lines in the 1930s. Only this was Buffalo -- in 2009.
Ada Hayes is 49, a nurse's aide with three kids who cares for her sick mother.
"A couple of days ago, I took $10 and went to the grocery store and got a gallon of milk and a package of chicken," said Hayes, who drove in from Amherst. "I didn't have enough, so I had to borrow change from somebody in line."
Like a lot of folks, she makes too much to get food stamps or public assistance, but too little to get by. "I pay rent and bills," Hayes said, "and by the middle of the month, I'm scrambling."
I talked with about a dozen people. Some of them work part time, some are laid off, some live on a Social Security or a disability check. Most of them rent, but some -- including James, 57, a disabled construction worker from Cheektowaga with a working wife and three kids -- are trying to hang onto a house.
A granite-jawed guy with graying hair, James wore a topcoat, stood with shoulders back and declined to give his last name. Hanging on to your pride is a big part of hanging on.
"I'm here to get what I can," James said. "You gotta put food on the table. I'm not going to go out and rob somebody."
In the back of the truck, Jeff Williams hauled cases of soda pop and bags of potatoes. Sweat beaded on his brow. The Food Bank coordinator said about 180 people line up at most of the truck's stops. Last year, the number was 120.
"The response is way up," Williams said. "We're getting a second truck."
It is the winter of 2009 in America's third-poorest city. Our habitual hard times have been further pummeled to a pulp by the recession. A lot of us feel the pain in vanishing retirement accounts. Others get the knife right in the gut.
Need is nothing new in Buffalo. Still, I was startled to see a food line barely a block from City Hall. It made me thankful to have a job. It brought home how thin the line is between the folks waiting for food and the people driving past. A job loss, an illness, an accident -- any of it can crack the ice beneath us.
Yvonne Bauer, 35, stood with her 4-year-old son.
"A gallon of milk costs more than a gallon of gas," said Bauer, a child-care worker. "We eat leftovers, we don't go out to eat, we cut back everywhere. Everything is going up, except your paycheck."
She stood near the end of the line. It would be another 20 minutes until she got to the truck. No matter. She had a bag in her hand and was not going anywhere until it was filled.