We made the food for hours. Well, I didn’t make a thing, I just showed up. Judy must have been cooking all day. There was pasta with tomato sauce, a huge container of rice. Spilt peas, it was more than soup, but less than stew. The last thing she made was boiled cabbage with carrots. Marta made two pounds of dried chickpeas and then made a fabulous hummus. She made an enormous fresh salad, carrots with raisins. Steamed broccoli and she washed tons of fresh spinach. Then she bought about nine or ten loaves of bread.
We gathered at this very nice apartment in Harlem. I’m not sure exactly whose apartment it is, the woman lives in Seattle, but maintains it for the Seva group to meet and cook the food. Judy cooks her part there; Martha brings hers in a sturdy shopping cart after she prepares it at home. Judy’s uncle Abel helps with the cooking, does the heavy lifting and the dish washing when it is all done. Lakshmi wears plastic gloves, does crazy drawings and helps to make the sandwiches. I think I took her job last night, but she helped anyway. Lakshmi is six.
When I arrived most of the cooking was finished. Martha was on her way. When she arrived, we laid out the bread, slathered on hummus, and topped it with fresh spinach. Jon and I shared one of the sandwiches and mighty tasty it was. As we made the sandwiches and put the salads together Judy and Abel began to pack the dinners. Usually they don’t made up Styrofoam containers of food, but because of the weather and our India meeting afterwards, they packed up individual dinners. Normally they serve the food from large containers and ladle it out, so that the people have a choice of what they get. But, the weather was raw and they took the expedient route and packed the food in advance.
Then we piled into Neil’s car, I tried very hard not to step into a slushy mess at the curb. The thought of a wet foot in that cold was ore than I could handle. We drove the six blocks to the corner. When we arrived, everyone jumped out and started grabbing bags of boxed dinners. Two banquet tables appeared from I know not where. The food was piled on to them and from another unknown place three cases of bananas and one of oranges arrived on my end of the table.
People gathered and wanted the food. But, no, we had to say a prayer first. A young African-American boy volunteered, it was simple, to the point and quite lovely. We prayed too, of course, even though Martha prayed ‘Om ni ma shivia’ as she mixed the salad and I joined in. We prayed again.
All that cooking that lasted hours, all the carting, the magic tables that appeared out of nowhere, the fruit; gone in less than seven minutes. Hungry faces and eager hands snapped it up and were gone. It all happened so fast, that I didn’t have time to engage self-congratulatory thoughts of all my good works, ponder the plight of those who are hungry or really even to look hard into the faces of those who needed food. I felt like it was a well-choreographed dance, in and out. The group tries to avoid the gaze of the wandering police. Martha told me that they police said as long as no one complains or gets sick, they will look the other way, perhaps which is the source of their need for speed.
In the end, I saw that the tables weren’t magic at all, a shopkeeper allows the Seva group to store the tables in his back room. So, everyone helps in a way.
Can I take this home from New York and do it in Philly too? How much love and prayer went into making the food last night! I tried last year, I made food for the homeless a few times, but their faces haunted me. How selfish of me, to be haunted. No one in the Seva group thought they were hot stuff; no one was smug or superior. There is a need which they fill. It is common sense.
I’m not sure why I stopped cooking, but I think I will start again.