Thursday, September 3, 2009

Thinking About Eating



I have never before seen something like this. Okay, you can accost me for living in fancy neighborhoods and under relatively privileged circumstances, but remember, I have been in and around Manhattan (arguably the richest large city on Earth) since I was 18, and that was a LONG time ago.

The other morning, on my way to Penn Station, in a hurry to catch the 7:14 train to Princeton Junction to (I hoped) finalize the major oral surgery that has plagued me for more than a decade, I saw a huge phalanx gathered outside Saint Francis of Assisi Church on 31st Street just east of 7th Avenue. I ordinarily take the subway but early in the morning and/or when running late I optimize my cab ride by having the driver drop me off at "31 and 7." This usually takes less than 10 minutes from my place at Broadway and 11th Street and I have taken this route at least 100 times throughout the years.

So back to the long line waiting at the church. My first presumption was that all these, relatively well-dressed people were waiting to attend early-morning Mass. But this seemed strange since I had never witnessed it before. And the crowd was definitely not your usual street mongers, who often look like rejects from a leper colony. My curiosity was intense, so risking missing my train, I asked a well-dressed gentleman why such a large group (hundreds) was congregating this particular morning. I was expecting any answer other than the one I heard from him. "Sandwiches" he said. "Sandwiches." For Christ's sake, this was a genuine food line with more than a hundred patrons, right in Manhattan's mid-section. Let me remind you that a giant bagel with butter costs a whopping $1.17 at Zaro's in Penn Station across the street. I went and boarded my train, but I promised myself that on my return trip, I would investigate further, which I did.

I returned to the church at about 2PM, with my left cheek swollen like a pumpkin from the implant surgery, which incidentally, probably cost more than it takes to feed these people for a month (no insurance applies on this.) I spoke with the bookstore manager who explained that St. Francis operates chronologically the longest-running breadline...since 1928...in the city. He admitted that many patrons are mental patients, but they sure didn't look that way to me...I didn't see a single shopping cart loaded with myriad belongings and I did indeed espy some very well-dressed people. The manager confessed that "yes, there are some people with $400 Brooks Brothers suits" and that the line has grown four-fold during the past year. Apparently, St. Francis now serves 300-500 people per day. And there is another place, further uptown that provides lunch. Yet another, even further uptown that handles supper.

To conclude this chapter, I am seriously considering not only donating my money to this endeavor but also my time. Candidly, I was absolutely shocked by my observations.

No great lesson can exist without extrapolation. If our government, our President, our economists want to proclaim wonderful economic victories, we can let them try to convince us, but not without having them stand and beg for food in New York; and yes, despite my previous naivete, I now realize that there are profoundly large (and growing?) food lines in New York, and if so, most likely everywhere else. The people standing in these queues are not indigent slackers; they are just hungry. To put this into perspective, New York can be the most expensive place on Earth to eat (Le Cirque) or it can be extremely cheap. This morning, I just bought a bialy with a fried egg on it for less than $2. I can get a totally loaded falafel pita for less than $4 and I won't suffer a nutritional breakdown on that...besides, I don't require many calories. If you think that I have gone totally nuts, please read the recent pieces about people waiting in places all over the country for food handouts...I don't even need to provide links...these stories are all over the place.

But our country is suffering economic meltdown and nutritional stress. Let the obstreperous BS politicians from Washington step aside and join me at 31st and 7th, with very decent people, and then we can calibrate how well this country is doing. Pretty crappy is my assessment...wait in line for an hour for what Zaro's will give you for $1.17...that's a pretty low minimum wage.

Boy am I hot about this one.


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