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A Distinctive Point of View


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I had a friend, a land surveyor, who was also an artist. When he got bored during setups, he would look around through his theodolite and sketch whatever caught his eye. He ended up with hundreds of  1-1/2 inch circular drawings.

Since April, I have been answering calls and emails from people who, when the stay-at-home orders came down from Albany, found their cupboards empty and no way to fill them. Normally, I do a computer services kind of job for City Harvest, New York’s largest food rescue organization, but during COVID19, the office was overwhelmed with calls and emails from people looking for food. I was asked to answer them.

As I found pantries that might deliver or schools where the callers or writers could pick up meals, these calls and emails began to feel like peepholes into people’s lives—not their everyday lives but what the pandemic had done to them.

Most of the contacts were short— “this is my ZIP code, I need delivery”—and I’d give them the relevant information. However, sometimes I got to talk to the callers and find out more about their situations.

Love Thy Neighbor

About one in ten calls were from people concerned about their friends, neighbors, parents, or grandparents. For example, one woman called, somewhat exasperated, for a pair of neighbors. “They say they’re fine,” she said, “but they have dementia. So, they probably aren’t.” I gave her the information for New York City free-food deliveries—all they would have to do is open the door.

We got a call from a man on Staten Island: His next-door neighbor had just moved to the U.S. from Albania, had a family, was about to lose his job, knew very little English, and had no food. I found two pantries that would deliver boxes of food, one that day and the other the following week. The neighbor agreed to coordinate the deliveries and translate if needed.

People shared food with their neighbors, too. A woman in Chelsea called in April to find nearby pantries, and when I called back in June to see how she was, she said, “We’re doing fine. Thank you so much for asking! The City has been delivering food almost every day and our neighbor has been giving us some food. My favorite lunch is the grain and carrot dish, which is quite tasty. My roommate eats the beef and garbanzo beans.” She also asked us to lobby the City against selling off Housing Authority land to developers. I passed the information along to our advocacy department.

Sometimes the neighbors weren’t so friendly. A Haitian woman living in Rossville, Staten Island, mentioned that her White neighbors treated her disdainfully, crossing the street if she came outside. I found her some pantries, and when I called back a few weeks later to see if we helped her, she said, “Yes, you did help me with the food. I was so scared back then. I am very aware of how many people are hunters looking for the weaknesses in others. But things are changing, thank God, [because of the George Floyd protests]. We’ve just been holding that pain. That pain has got to go. Equality isn’t enough, we need equity. If one of us can’t breathe, we’re all affected.”

Sandy Ground, part of Rossville, was one of the first free Black communities in the U.S. before the Civil War and a stop on the Underground Railroad; some of the original families still live there. But starting in the 1980s, developers built and sold tract houses to families from Bay Ridge and Bensonhurst who didn’t know the area’s history or seem to care. However, a parent recently started a petition to add a section on Sandy Ground to the New York City Department of Education fourth-grade social studies curriculum, so perhaps this attitude will start to change.

Professional Help

About 30 calls came from professionals such as nurses, health insurance companies, government agencies, and non-profit organizations; four were from schools. These people were looking for information to support their clients or constituents.

We got a call from a police officer in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, who wanted information for a woman in his precinct who “tends to be violent” and has kids. I gave him the New York City free-meals delivery information, a few local schools offering three free meals a day per person, and three pantries. For his own use, I sent him my Brooklyn cheat sheet, which lists all the resources I know about for the borough, and my All Boroughs cheat sheet, which I use if the caller doesn’t give me a location. This sheet also includes websites for pantries on Long Island, Westchester, and other places in the country, plus unusual information such as burial grants and free pet-food sources.

A nurse from Jamaica, Queens, called. Her COVID patient was recently released from the hospital, had no food in the house and no money. He didn’t want to tell her what bad shape he was in, but she managed to get the truth out of him. I gave her some pantries and volunteer delivery options for her client and ended by saying, “Please tell him from me that there are many people in his situation and that the staff at most pantries bend over backwards to be helpful and reassuring. Once he’s well and whole again, he can pay it forward.”

The idea of the “pay it forward” response came from emergency food provider colleagues on Staten Island. In the weeks after Hurricane Sandy, members of the Staten Island Hunger Task Force, a consortium of food pantries, soup kitchens, and other non-profits, met to talk about what they were seeing at their pantries. One pantry leader said, “We have people on the line who are in tears—’I used to be the person donating to food pantries! How can I be taking from a pantry now?’” Another said, “We’re seeing people who are very angry because they don’t want to be here, and they pick fights.”

Elaine Smith, a local psychotherapist, took us through some methods for reducing tension on the line. One of her suggestions was to point out to the clients that the situation isn’t permanent and, when they were back on their feet, they could help others.

Angels Unaware

There is a curious warning in Hebrews (13:2): Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares. During COVID, angels showed up, but I don’t think they knew that’s what they were.

For example, a woman who lived alone on Staten Island called and by the time she reached me, she was frantic. “I have $8 in my checking account!” She was HIV-positive and had been trying unsuccessfully to get disability, thwarted at every point by bureaucracy. I gave her the name, location, and times for a pantry nearby but also called Community Health Action of SI (CHASI) for her, which had started doing emergency deliveries. By the end of our conversations (it took a few to figure out the delivery schedule), she was calmer and more herself. CHASI’s team delivered boxes to her within a day.

Another woman called from a building on Coney Island with many veterans and some young families. I sent her pantry and delivery information and suggested she talk to the vets about going to the commissary at Fort Hamilton to get supplies for themselves and their neighbors. The commissary prices are steeply discounted.

I called her back in June and asked if she was able to get food for her building. “Yes,” she said. “A man came by five or six times a week with prepared food from restaurants. Security had a list of tenants who needed food and the front desk would call them down to choose what they wanted—he had vegan food, pasta, rice, all in containers. Some of the containers said which restaurant had provided the food.”

“I have no idea who he was or where he came from. He stopped about a month ago.”

I couldn’t find out who this man was either, despite my access to many maps and lists.

Notice that she didn’t follow any of my suggestions and, in fact, I’m not sure anyone did. But maybe that wasn’t the point. Maybe the point was just to connect, for a moment, with someone who was concerned with their wellbeing: When they peeked out of their homes, they found an openhearted world waiting for them.

This article was originally published in Unspoken Word, Issue 5, August 2020.