Learning to ride, falling down, getting back on
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In Guangzhou, China, I once saw two men row through the muddy waters of the Pearl River to pick up floating leaves of cabbage. Now, a few years later, that’s what I do: make the scavenger’s run.
Every weekday morning one of us from the Family Kitchen visits a half-dozen groceries and restaurants, picking up what others left behind. By 4:30 p.m. we are serving one or two hundred people a free meal in our downtown soup line. We ask no questions and preach no sermons. We don’t even practice, to my mild dismay, a moment of silence before the meal.
I make the scavenger’s run three days a week, usually with my toddling daughter, Amara. We often refer to it as “gleaning.” But that’s a mite genteel. It is the most ordinary work, going through garbage — a humble job, simplicity itself.
I’ve learned a lot , though. I’ve learned that the smell of rotten onions and potatoes can nearly make you vomit. Cucumbers grow the most disgusting molds, citrus the prettiest, cabbages the slimiest, and sweet potatoes the fastest moving. I savor the opportunity to rescue the merely ugly, the broken and the dented, the slightly bruised, and the firm but aging. I’m especially happy when I find some cut or potted flowers. Bread and begonias! Ah! It is a fine feeling, saving the deserving from oblivion.
Daily I am reminded of our society’s wastefulness, but also of the generosity of this land and its people. As I drive the rounds, I nibble cracked-wheat baguettes donated by the deli at the “natural” grocery store. Amara likes the cinnamon rolls from the politically correct bakery. We live largely off the food that we collect; our lifestyle is voluntarily simple, and sometimes elegant. We have managed to avoid the involuntary and graceless poverty of those whom we serve and with whom we share the discarded bounty.
Though in theory I adhere to the injunction to carry neither gold nor silver, and to travel the open road lighthearted, unpocketed, and free — and though, at various times, I have experienced unstinting generosity from destitute people — I find it easier to be open-handed when I possess abundance. I shudder to think how dependent our generosity is — the generosity of the nation, as well as my own — upon our position as global aristocrats.
I often choose a few of the choicest items for our community house. I like to delight everyone with honey-sweetened eggnog that didn’t sell, overstocked but perfect organic broccoli, unsulphured molasses that spilled out of the self-dispenser, sweet carrots whose only sin is crookedness, live clams whose time has come but not quite gone, a few pounds of pecans donated for unknown reasons, full-tasting mushrooms barely edged with dark brown ripeness, a bag of succulent mixed citrus found out of place and too much trouble to sort.
We deserve it , of course. We’re volunteers. Educated. Six of the seven who collectively run the kitchen are white and the other one — me — is what my black compatriots refer to as “high yellow.” We could be making millions, for God’s sake.
We’re an ornery bunch. We actively support boycotts of General Electric, Morton-Thiokol (table salt), grapes from California and Chile (even those donated), and the top fifty military contractors (when we have a not-too-painful choice). Unlike most Catholic Worker-inspired programs (all totally autonomous), we accept government commodities — grateful for the butter, cheese, hamburger, canned meat, flours, grains, cereals, and beans. Not surprisingly, we squabble over details and haggle about what’s right. That’s another reason we call it the Family Kitchen. We do the work that needs to be done, but pragmatic ambiguity prevails.
Since the Kitchen was begun spontaneously, without institutional support, we are beholden to no one but ourselves. Only two founding members remain. In thirteen years, the Kitchen has grown considerably. At the end of the month, when everyone’s checks from pensions and welfare and Social Security have run out, we near our capacity of 250. The whole thing runs on the honor system, and it is an honor to be part of it.
We pride ourselves on our fresh produce, and make special efforts toward nutritional balance and eye appeal. We call the Kitchen, perhaps unwisely, “the best free meal in town.” Actually, it was an anonymous woman who stood up one day in the welfare office and proclaimed: “The Family Kitchen is the best free meal in town!” We’ve silk-screened the slogan on T-shirts and pullovers — morale boosters that we sell at cost. My ambivalence stems not from the boast, but from the bruiting of “the best.” Its irony hits too close to home.
The Catholic Worker position, from which our Family Kitchen derives, calls for “a harsh and dreadful love.” It calls for blurring the distinction between the server and the served. It calls for a total restructuring of, in Dorothy Day’s famous dictum, “this filthy, rotten system.”
Mine is, at times, a contrary spirit. I enjoy eating off the bottom sometimes. But often, as I said, I bring the best stuff home. Some also gets picked out by volunteers during preparation, before it goes through the windows to our “guests.” (Of the thirty volunteers who work once a week, some are poor, some not.) All this self-rewarding pilferage still does not amount, amidst the cornucopia, to a hill of beans.
The core of all ethics, it seems to me, emanates from the charge to take personal responsibility for whatever problem is at hand. Our economic system runs on the premise: seek ye out, at least cost, the best stuff! A bargain hunter is what every consumer conspires to be. “Hey, Jack,” jives the man in the sharkskin suit, “I’ve got a good deal!” He is showing me something bright and shiny, though nondescript. “Something better, man! And cheaper to boot!”
The adman expounds our culture’s formula for progress. No matter that he is selling oil at the price of our soil. No matter that the man’s bananas hardly come from a “republic.” No matter that his cheap flight is a horribly noisy plane thundering over billions of living beings who have ears. No matter that all his flights — and all his massive uses of energy — inexorably, under the law of entropy, exact terrible unmitigatable tolls over great distances. No matter that his automobile entices us away from enjoying and improving our own neighborhoods, that it spreads pathogenic fumes, and that politicians are planning wars over the price of the fuel it demands. No matter that his herds are destroying rain forests so we can have cheaper hamburgers, since we’ve already permanently eliminated vast portions of the North American temperate forests for their grainfields. In purely materialist terms, the “free market” man’s code — “the best for less”— is a cover for thieves.
In The Gospel of Swadeshi, Gandhi asks for an economic principle of neighborliness. He asks that transactions between producer and consumer be as short and direct as possible — in order that all the consequences of manufacture and delivery be clearly known. He asks that one’s neighbor be patronized even if the goods are inferior and even if they come at a higher price.
I have yet to accept this fully, much less to act upon it consistently. I am highly sensitized to the dangers of cronyism and to the shoddy depredations of the make-a-buck crook. I admire and support craftsmanship. My wool Navy pants, for example, are durable and well-made. They were a gift, bought at a local surplus store for two dollars. At the other extreme, my wife Barbara and I spent more than two thousand dollars on our bicycles and accoutrements (trailer for cargo and daughter, halogen night-lights, panniers, and clothing). Figured over a ten-year period, that comes to about three percent of a Mercedes or ten percent of a junker — and does not account for the diametrical differences in environmental impact or personal health.
Common sense and common decency are overwhelmed by the ubiquitous, voluminous propaganda of advertising and diplomacy. We can’t see the neighborhood forest for the multinational trees. In the pavilions of banks and markets, sybarites play shell games. Little men huddle, hoarding money — bits of paper, shreds of trees. They chortle that they own the forests.
But we scream, “Soon there will be no forests! There will be only specimen trees, props for the urbanites!”
The little men’s noise machine laughs on cue. They keep playing in their pavilions, shouting at each other: “Trade balance!” “Debtor nation!” “Budget deficit!” “Deterrent defense!” These tailor-suited men get to shout these slogans because they consider themselves the progenitors of a developed nation.
But what does that mean in light of Swadeshi? At one grocery store (a cooperative) where we scavenge, the produce that we discard is set aside for a city woman who uses it for compost and to feed her ducks and geese. This, I would say, is one sign of true development.
“The best free meal in town” skirts an abyss. On the one hand, it takes the adman’s pitch to its absurd extreme. For this, we are to be congratulated. (Catholic Workers have been accused, by the ill-informed, of not laughing enough.) On the other hand, the slogan demands superiority — back to that shout: “We’re Number One!” Unfortunately, “America, First and Best” means “The Rest of the World, Last and Worst.”
Why not give up that race? Why not give away more, lots more, and lower ourselves further? What would it be like to be “the worst”? The saintliness of Simone Weil or Layman P’ang or Francis of Assisi? Or another ego trip? Ah, well, seek the middle path. It would do us, and the world, a world of good.
Anyway, what is “the best”? The composer John Cage contends that every seat in the concert house is “the best.” Two hundred years ago, only the poor of London were deemed socially low enough to eat the then-abundant oysters. In the lowland tropics today, white potatoes are a sign of prestige. “The best” often means “the fashionable.”
At the Family Kitchen we have introduced rice cakes, whole wheat bread, raspberry kefir, peach yogurt, crème fraîche, raw goat’s milk, and chocolate-covered bars of gourmet ice cream. At the end of every meal, when leftover perishables are distributed, there is occasionally a mild crush for these things, which are now considered “the best.”
We are choosy beggars. We must be. The white powder on the pears I picked could have been mold, dust, or pesticide residue. We ask questions and wash everything. Our final criterion is that we use only what we would eat in our own houses.
For our benefactors — the grocers, bakers, and restauranteurs — the Family Kitchen is probably as much a helpful blessing as it is a noble cause. We are reducing their garbage bills. One store even gets paid for recycling the cardboard boxes we toss in their compactor. But we’re also a bother. Lucky for them — and us — that the state protects their charity with a Good Samaritan law: giving with an open hand and a good heart is exempt from lawsuit.
For some, we are a convenient dumping ground. One woman gave us her quarter-of-a-cow and half-a-pig because she decided that she didn’t like frozen meat. I do not denigrate her motives; my own are similarly suspect. But for the guy who donates locker space in his freezer (to keep the cow and the pig), for the newlyweds who direct all of their nuptial endowment to us, for the local ice-cream company that buys us a nearly-new van, for the hundreds of others who give their money and their time — for those, I can think of no payback other than the joyful knowledge that they labor for the love of humankind.
So what’s in this for me? Room and board — the equivalent of about four dollars an hour, including Barbara’s work as coordinator of volunteers. And time. Time to write, time to make family masks for Mardi Gras and Halloween, and time to sit still. Time to practice a mix of Gandhian bread labor, Zen attentiveness, and Christian beatitudes. Time for composting, knitting, basket weaving, gardening, making music, and being peaceful. Time to walk and to bicycle.
As humbling — and fearful — as it is for me to say it, there is, however, no merit in what we are doing. No failure in this life, no success. At the fundament, we could be making bombs and still redeem ourselves. The work’s deepest joy is simply being able to say, in the name of so many others, “Thank you” and “You’re welcome.”
What we do is bandage the system’s walking wounded. We treat symptoms, not causes. There are some who criticize this as “charity,” who say that in the long run this extends suffering. “Bread lines should have ended in the Thirties,” these adequately fed critics say. “Let it bleed.”
Bread lines are, no doubt, a disgrace. Hunger, it is widely agreed, can be abolished. All it takes is the political will. But in the meantime, with our stew and bread and salad, I don’t think we have anything for which to apologize. To someone who is hungry, critical distinctions are moot, if not obscene.
I don’t know how much longer my family will be a part of the Family Kitchen. It is a luxury, I know, to spend working hours accompanied by my daughter. I can take her on a side trip to see the toy store’s pirate ship. Holding her hand as she “helps” me carry a bag of surplus cookies down basement steps, I can go at her speed and work at my own — delighting in the moment, meeting the challenge of whatever presents itself, mindfully, slowly.
But despite best intentions, despite the good work, I sometimes act the drudge. Once, to pull myself out of the doldrums, I embroidered the Family Kitchen’s child-drawn logo onto an apron that Barbara had sewn for me. Later, I added “Scavenger Dave” below. Still, I’m nagged by the feeling that dependence on discards is parasitic — even if parasites are indispensable to life, even if our “recycling” is righteous, even if we do it for the benefit of others. Maybe I’m tired of cleaning up what seems like somebody else’s mess.
Being enmeshed in the metropolis is part of our problem. It is a problem of spiritual connections, of land reform, of controls. We’d rather be teaching Amara how to make a shelter, how to grow more food; how to survive in harmony. Is it hopelessly romantic to yearn, on a cloudless night, to see the stars? After three years at the Family Kitchen, and four years amidst concrete, we want to return to rural land, to dig in, to take root.
I am privileged to be able to walk away. When I’m old and decrepit, who knows but that I might be there again, serving myself.
I hope never to walk away from it altogether. I intend always to have one foot standing at the back door, to be the lowly beggar next to the stinking dumpster, empty cardboard box in hand. I intend always to have the other foot walking away in disdain from the can’t-beat-it deal, to be the do-gooder nobleman supporting a neighborly, perhaps more expensive trade.
We’re all scavenging parasites. We’re all glorious nobles. Let us be.