I remember the last meal I had in Paris. I was with my sister on a two-week tour of France and England in 1998; we’d been visiting our friend Mia who was from our hometown but had since left to live the lush life in the City of Light. We met Mia and her boyfriend at a chic resto called Homo Sapiens somewhere near the Eiffel Tower.
The napkin rings were sections of oxtail bone. There were abstract skeleton paintings on the walls. My sister the attorney looked around the basement restaurant with no fire exits, with just the one circular iron staircase leading up to the street, and proclaimed it a liability nightmare. And yet, the food – to die for.
We ate the magret and we ate the truffe, we sopped up the au jus and savored the gravy, we ate the fish and the artichoke and the consommé, and the potatoes with the little bits of jambon and the creamy sauce, the crusty fresh bread and the fruity red wine that Jean-Christophe had ordered. By the time the cheese course came, I should have said no, but didn’t, and I was done in, stuffed beyond healthful consumption and more than a little drunk on the wine that coursed through our veins.
Jean-Christophe drove us around the Arc d’ Triomphe to show off how it could be done, and I learned just how and when to use French swear words as he negotiated the traffic. When we pulled up in front of the Hotel Marignan on the Left Bank, we fell over one another in drunken, weepy farewells. My camera and purse spilled into the wet street and I scrambled in my new Parisian dress and heels after them, while behind us some impatient oaf leaned on his horn and mocked us, “Adieu, adieu, ooh, hoo hoo!”
The next morning I was ill, so very ill. We had to catch a city bus to the Gare du Nord to take the Eurostar to London. Green of face, I pulled my suitcase up the street to the bus stop, my sister inexplicably chipper beside me. On the bus there were no seats and I swayed palely while a young man spoke to me in French about the architecture of the buildings in the 16th Arrondissement. His steady, quiet narrative kept me from losing my last Parisian meal all over the aisle. At the station, I smiled a wan farewell and we boarded the train. I swallowed two Dramamine, hoping to quell the volcano that threatened to erupt while the train slid from the station. As it picked up speed, I closed my eyes, drugged and thick, and vowed never to eat so much again.
Strange how one gets what one wishes for.
* * *
Forward this life story to three years later, just after I became a single mother with no income and three daughters to feed. On this date in history, I stand in line at a warehouse that was once an airplane hangar at a former military base in Northern California, and wait. It is late winter, chilly, with the cutting wind that never seems to stop blowing at the far side of town.
It is surplus food-giveaway day, held once a month by the good people of the local Food Bank, and I have duly provided my information: my address, my utility bill, the number of mouths to feed at my house, my income, and received a printed list of what I might have to eat. I may choose from the items proffered: canned spinach, canned corn, canned tuna, crackers, rice, oatmeal, dry pinto beans. The beef stew and canned salmon are two items I have learned to avoid. Instead, I load up on canned fruit, chili and the strange and amazing occasional treat like the pound of frozen blueberries that I used to make smoothies, or the two-pound sack of roasted almonds or the chocolate pudding cups that got me through deadlines.
Ahead of me in line, however, two homeless men discuss their favorite selections – the very items I refuse. It seems that beef stew and canned salmon are best to eat when you don’t have a stove; a can opener and a fork are all one needs for a solid meal. I see their dirty feet in shoes without socks, I can smell them, see the blackheads sprouting on their necks, see the grime of the streets on the creases and folds of their clothes and skin – and I hate to be here, hate all the reasons why I am here.
But I don’t hate them. Those in line ahead of me – they are people, we all are – not statistics or germs or garbage in the street. I’m not so different, and any slip in circumstances brings me closer still. There but for the grace, I think, just a step away. We are polite to each other in line, wait our turns and are not greedy when we pass through the warehouse.
The kind people of the Food Bank always speak respectfully, warmly, to us, the hungry. They see my kids and ask if we’d like the sweetened cereal, the pudding cups, a lollipop. They give me an extra ration of oatmeal. They carry my box to the car. They say “Take care now.” It is almost more than I can bear. I get in my car and drive away, lucky to have a car, lucky I don’t have to take the bus to the warehouse and home again on a raw winter day.
* * *
In this story, I am an educated woman whose circumstances have placed me in jeopardy. My children are hungry, too, so they get the free lunch at school, a fact that just a year before would have made me squirm with shame. Rather, I’m grateful to the school district; I am grateful to the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the county and state and the federal government for their lunch programs and surplus food.
We, the working poor, are not helpless – we don’t get food stamps, we aren’t on welfare; we’re getting by, trying to build a business, a future. My kids wear clean clothes and see a dentist and we read books and make do with what we have. If I had a place to grow a garden, for tomatoes and green onions and zucchini, I would, but our backyard is concrete with a little bit of dirt that the cats in the neighborhood have fouled.
Instead, every Wednesday when the sale papers come, I read through the drugstore ads and see where canned vegetables are on sale, where I can get a case of Top Ramen for $2 or Pop-Tarts for a dollar. I go to the bakery outlet over the bridge and get their Flav-R-Ade, which at a dollar for 12 packets is cheaper than Koolaid and much cheaper than juice. I get the cheap white bread instead of the healthy whole grain because that’s what I can afford. I keep my eye open for the man selling the sacks of oranges or watermelon from his truck, and debate over whether I should get two bags for $5 and how fast we can eat them, or is it worth the risk of spoilage? Because $5 is a lot to spend when there is no budget for food.
I go to the Food Bank when it’s my turn again, and I appreciate the good people of Trader Joe’s, whose generous donations offer the pleasure of Greek olives, hummus, sushi and edamame to hungry people who might enjoy an occasional break from the endless starch that is our diet. Sometimes there are houseplants or bunches of flowers; I can’t tell you how many times my kitchen was brightened by a slightly bruised bouquet from Trader Joe’s, courtesy of the Food Bank.
This is not a sob story. This is just a face on the reality of hunger in your town. The hungry are not nameless strangers with dirty clothes and unkempt children. They are working right alongside you, turning down your offer to buy their coffee because it feels too much like charity. There are hungry people in your child’s classroom, who take the free or reduced lunch because it is there, and they are grateful to have it, but not proud of it. There are hungry people in your neighborhood, who are blessed by the kindness of the angels at Meals on Wheels or the congregate meal sites at the senior center or the local church.
There is hunger all around us, in this city, or there in your town, and though I am glad to say we are not hungry anymore, we will never forget the kindness and dignity offered to us at the Food Bank.
Please give generously to food drives this holiday season, and make your donation something you’d like to eat if you were hungry – or even if you weren’t.
Find your local food bank here.