On a crisp, mid-December evening, Michael Guidone opened the passenger door of his little red Nissan and invited a rider to witness a miracle.
“First, we’re going to the green, the New Haven Green,” he said. “We’re going to United Church on the Green, where there’s about 20 families waiting for food.”
As he drove from Long Wharf, Mr. Guidone, a parishioner at Holy Trinity Parish in Wallingford, talked nonstop about how, more than 27 years ago, he started the Midnight Sandwich Run, a nightly foray into the crevices of New Haven to bring food to discarded people.
“I’m a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America in New Haven,” he said. “I was a chef for Nelson Rockefeller, and I was a chef at the Ocean House in Watch Hill, Rhode Island. I went into the Navy, and when I came out, there were no jobs around, so I took this job as a food and beverage director. Long story short, I worked my way up to general manager and was transferred from Meriden down to Charlotte, North Carolina, as a GM to a multimillion-dollar hotel spread out on 20 acres.”
He interrupted his story to stop the car near the steps of United Church on the Green, where men, women and children huddled or paced, trying to shrug away the cold. A gap-toothed young boy, maybe 7, unzipped his jacket to show off his T-shirt depicting a colorful superhero, someone he perhaps aspired to emulate one day.
Another car arrived, and Loretta Merlone and Wiley Rutledge unloaded 20 sandwiches and snacks prepared at St. Vincent de Paul Parish in East Haven. Speaking over the church bells tolling 8 p.m., Ms. Merlone said, “We have two or three other families or groups who do 20 or 30 sandwiches apiece, and then the confirmation kids tonight put it together. It’s the second Monday of every month that we do it.” Other groups fill in on other nights, she said.
“Watch yourselves,” Mr. Guidone warned, “there’s another car coming in.”
Soon there were half a dozen cars, all with food and water from various churches and other groups. A young girl named Arianna from the confirmation class at St. Vincent de Paul said, “This is our first time doing it. It’s nice. It’s nice seeing a lot of people show up.”
Timothy Yankee, a young man from North Branford Congregational Church, said he had been volunteering for about six months. “It’s always good to give back to the people who are less fortunate than you. We’ve all been down there. We all have needed help in some way,” he said.
Mr. Guidone packed up the leftovers and piloted the Nissan past Christmas lights on Whalley Avenue toward a shelter on Grand Avenue. He resumed his story.
“In Meriden, before moving to North Carolina, I was making $18,000 a year,” he said. After his first year as general manager of the hotel, the IRS called him.
“I said, ‘Am I arrested? Do I owe any money?’ And they said, ‘No. We just never had anyone in the history of the IRS making $18,000 one year and then $150,000 to $200,000 the next year.’”
He said he stayed at that lucrative position for 16 years and became entangled in the life of the super-rich.
“I had a brand-new sports car, and I bought a sports car for my wife. And then one day — OK, here we are,” he said, pulling to the curb in front of a long, low building that looked like a school or a warehouse. A sign above the door stated, “Emergency Shelter Management Services.”
The rest of his story would have to wait.
This shelter on Grand Avenue was started in 1989 under the name Immanuel Baptist Shelter with a soup kitchen and 75 beds for homeless men. On this night, 58 men of all ages and ethnicities lined up for sandwiches and toiletries donated by more than 15 individuals and groups from North Branford Congregational Church, North Branford High School and more. It was all coordinated by Mr. Guidone.
As soon as everyone had been served and was eating at tables, Mr. Guidone said, “All right, everybody, let’s wrap it up. See you next week.” The room erupted in applause for him.
Back on the road, Mr. Guidone quickly picked up the thread of his story.
“Down in North Carolina, I was driving down the street one day, the same street I drove every single day for 16 years or whatever, and all of a sudden out of the corner of my eye I caught a glimpse of a sign, a big sign: ‘Confessions 4 o’clock.’ And I don’t know what made me do it, it was a divine intervention thing. I stopped and walked into the church.”
The church was empty. The priest stepped out of the confessional and said, “I’ve been sitting in that booth for two hours. You’re the only one who showed up. You mind if we just walk up and down the aisle?”
Mr. Guidone said to the priest, “Do you have about five hours? Because I am going to unload on you.”
After Mr. Guidone confessed, the priest pointed up to the church’s high ceiling. “And we both said, Alleluia!’ because that’s what it said.”
When he got home, he told his wife, “Pack up, we’re leaving.”
“Are we going on another vacation?” she asked.
“No, we’re going back home to Connecticut,” he told her.
His sudden reconnection to his Catholic roots and the resulting upheaval of his lifestyle led to a bitter divorce, with squabbles about money and custody of the children. But it also led to some soul-searching, and one day in 1989 he and a friend decided, almost on a whim, to do something about the burgeoning problem of homelessness in the New Haven area.
Mr. Guidone and his friend, Ralph Dykes, now deceased, loaded a car with food they’d bought themselves. Risking their lives, they scoured the alleyways along York Street, asking homeless people if they wanted a sandwich.
They handed out all the food, but they couldn’t feed everyone. Mr. Guidone knew he needed to keep coming back, because government was not doing the job, he said.
A friend warned him against waking up homeless people, many of whom carried guns. Now he plays it safer, distributing food and clothing at designated, well-lit stops, where the danger of being attacked is minimal. He feeds between 800 and 900 people a week, he said.
His story was nearly complete, but the Midnight Sandwich Run had one more stop — Amistad Catholic Worker on Rosette Street. This time it was just Mr. Guidone and his rider. A sign outside Amistad stated, “ADDICTS & DEALERS, Please Get HELP!” Mr. Guidone, 75 and still full of energy, carried in boxes of coats and scarves, as well as food.
Amistad is a “community of faith dedicated to the daily practice of the works of mercy, voluntary poverty, personalism and prayer,” according to its blog, amistadcw.wordpress.com. Mark Colville, founder, said he lives there and serves meals five days a week to up to 60 people. He occasionally gives temporary shelter to homeless men.
“We get lots of help from area parishes, particularly St. George’s in Guilford, and tonight at the Mass we had a priest from St. George’s. St. Mary’s in Branford makes a dinner for us,” Mr. Colville said. “St. Mary’s makes the food and brings it here. And now Michael comes with his Midnight Run stuff, and we will have breakfast tomorrow morning.”
“I think I’ve been coming here for 18 years,” Mr. Guidone said.
Asked why he does what he does, Mr. Colville said, “Because I’m Catholic and that’s what we are called to do. It’s the path to joy, right? Service moving toward solidarity with the poor is the path to joy. At least, that’s what the pope is saying.”
On the road back to Long Wharf, where his rider had parked his car, Mr. Guidone talked about his other passions: his woodcarving that has earned top prizes at the Durham Fair, his love of cooking, his past ownership of a professional football team and his gift of healing that he discovered through Life in the Spirit seminars.
But the Midnight Sandwich Run is probably how most people will remember him. Someday, that 7-year-old boy at United Church on the Green may realize that the cartoon on his T-shirt is just ink and cloth, and that a real superhero handed him a sandwich, a drink and a snack on Dec. 12, 2016.
WANT TO HELP?
Contact Mike Guidone at 860.573.9513
8 p.m. every Monday at: United Church on the Green, 270 Temple St., New Haven
YOU CAN BRING:
• Wrapped sandwiches
• Donations of warm clothing (coats, scarves, gloves, hats, etc.)