One street. One block on one street. One hour on one block on one street. The disparity of modern society, the cavernous socio-economic gulf of big city life, smashed into my consciousness today like a giant frying pan. In a glaring microcosm. The day before Thanksgiving. Very fitting.
Around 4:30 on this damp, drizzly Wednesday, I lugged bags of donation items down to the Bowery Mission. Obediently following the requests on their webpage, I brought towels, linens, scarves and warm socks. Upon my arrival, I realized that I had chosen the worst possible day to drop off. The Mission was in the midst of preparing and setting up for pre-Thanksgiving dinner, which is served Wednesday night. Exhausted, aggravated from having done my shopping in midtown (stupid), and with wet, rain-soaked strands of hair pasted against my cheek, I went hobbling in with my giant shopping bags. Dedicated, harried Mission workers rushed around and whooshed past me, trying to keep the aims of efficiency and organization in their sights. From what I could see, they were doing a superb job of it.
“Can I help you with those?”. I turned to see who was talking to me. He was young, cute, energetic, wearing a t-shirt with no jacket on a chilly November day.
“Yes! Thank you!” I said, out of breath and handing him my heaviest shopping bag.
“Are these donation drop-offs?”
“Yes. But you’re all so busy! I think I came on a bad day. You’re serving dinner tonight.” Embarassed laughter.
“No, don’t be ridiculous! It’s fine. Donations are welcome any day, anytime.” A warm smile from the Mission worker.
He escorted me to the main desk, where the man running it was just getting off the phone. Cute Mission guy walked off. Bummer 😥 When desk man was done with his phone call he attended to me. I lifted my drop offs over to him.
“Oh this is wonderful ma’am!” he said as he took my bags. ” Just wonderful!”
“Well it’s just towels, twin sheet sets, washcloths, scarves, socks. All brand new.”
“Ma’am, thank you, thank you.” Desk man was sweet as can be. Warm. Solicitous. Glowing with the spirit of compassion and good will. “God bless you,” he said.” God bless you and your family. You’re an angel.”
An angel? Gee, I don’t know about that!! A reasonably fortunate person with a sense of moral obligation maybe. But not an angel. That’s waaay too much pressure!
The desk man’s phone rang. He answered it, but signaled for me to wait. Naturally, I eavesdropped on his conversation. I’m a compulsive eavesdropper! “Yes, we have all the food for tonight, but thank you.” he said to the caller. “Yes, we’re good for tonight. But we take food donations anytime.”
Another “angel” on the phone. Nice. Then desk man hung up, and he was free to give me his attention once again.
“Sir, I’m sorry, I know you’re busy, ” I said. “But I was wondering if you’re still looking for volunteer tutors? I saw on the website that . . .”
“Yes, YES!” he interrupted. “Yes, ma’am we are! Absolutely.”
He wrote down the number to call and handed it to me. As I folded the paper and tucked it in my wallet, I heard my own voice in my head, saying gleefully, “Take THAT Big Brothers/Big Sisters! Hahahahahaha!!!!!”
So my donations were all dropped off and my tutoring phone number procured. I was ready to leave, but had the impulse to ask one more question of darling desk guy.
“Do you have enough hands for tonight? I can stay if you want.”
“Oh yes, ma’am, we do. Thank you though. We’re good. More than enough help.”
“Ok, good. Just thought I’d ask.”
Just as well, since I already had plans to meet my cousin Armen at Whole Foods for a bite to eat. So after wishing Happy Thanksgiving to everyone around me, I left the Bowery Mission and went on my way.
Twenty-five steps. Although I didn’t actually count, my rough estimate is 25 steps. I walked 25 footsteps up the street from the historic 130 year-old Bowery Mission to the spanking new Whole Foods. Sleek, clean, gleaming, shimmering Whole Foods. When I stepped through the entrance at Houston Street, I was immediately surrounded with shiny, glistening piles of produce – red tomatoes, deep green peppers, mangoes and avocados, bananas and pomegranates, fresh cut and pre-washed salad greens, bosc pears, juicy lemons, crates packed with clementines, barely a dent, puncture, or brown spot to be found on anything, everything marked with little handwritten signs that advertised healthy food pedigrees, like “Organic”, “Farm fresh”, “Grown in Spain”, “Imported”. The best of nature’s bounty. The elite. This was Whole Foods. The Neiman Marcus of food markets. Everything high-priced. Everything well-stocked and ripe and impeccably presented. The fruits and vegetables stacked perfectly in geometric structures that resembled the Egyptian pyramids.
The store was swarming with customers. Impossibly good-looking customers. Gorgeous men and women in trendy, fashionable clothes, equipped with iPhones and Calvin Klein jackets and cashmere scarves and umbrellas printed with Monet’s Waterlillies. Dropping item after item into their baskets and carts. “Organically-grown” this, “no artificial preservatives” that. “Gluten-free”, “no GMOs”, “no fillers”. I witnessed a customer asking a Whole Foods employee where the flaxseed was because he couldn’t find it anywhere. Another was looking for rice milk.
My cousin finally arrived, 15 minutes late. We hugged and kissed and play tickled. Then we went up to the second floor to sit and talk. And we talked and talked, over briyani and roasted vegetables and vegan blueberry pie. We discussed life and loves, family and futures. We laughed. We bitched. We laughed again. We were surrounded by sexy downtowners, sitting at round tables with their laptops and lattes, slurping down wild mushroom soup, poking at sushi, and perusing the NY Times. When Armen took a minute to answer a phone call, I looked around at our environment and thought, this is surreal. I was just at the Bowery Mission less than an hour ago. It’s 25 footsteps away. And here I was, having a jaunty time on a holiday eve in the Bowery Whole Foods, which is possibly the newest, hippest, most lavish Whole Foods in the country.
This is Thanksgiving where I live. This is Thanksgiving in my city. My hometown. Just 25 footsteps separate the homeless from the privileged. The downtrodden from the entitled. Generic donated food from specialty purchased food. Mass-produced discount clothes from designer fine fabrics.
Before Armen and I left Whole Foods, I stopped to talk to a Whole Foods employee. I inquired whether they take a bulk item order and deliver it. A bulk item like canned beans, carrots, corn, etc. He said yes, and that all I’d have to do is buy a case, give my name and address to the cashier for delivery.
“Ok, but not my address”, I clarified. “The address for delivery right?”.
“You mean you don’t want it delivered to you? Where are you having it delivered?”
“Down the street.”
“Um, ok,” he said, a bit bewildered. “Down the street where?’
“To the Mission.”
“Oh! The Bowery Mission?”
“Oh of course. You know, that doesn’t even qualify as a ‘delivery’. We just have have a kid run it over there.”
“So you’ve done it before?”
“Sure lots of times. It’s so close.”
“Yes it is close” I said. “About 25 steps.”
Happy Thanksgiving everyone.
Peace and blessings to you all . . . .