“And yes, you do get a bit obsessed with food when you don’t know when and where it will come from, and you are dreadfully dependent on others for it. That does something to your head and your heart.”
Debbie and I went to the St. Francis breadline as usual that day. The line stretched far down the street in both directions. A friar handed us two bologna sandwiches on soft white bread in a wax paper sleeve. After, we headed east and up to 51st to St. Bart’s for their breakfast. The staff in matching checkered aprons bustled from table to table plopping a sandwich onto the paper place mat in front of each of us. It might sound as if we were preoccupied with food but you must understand that those morning sites were all there was. There were no places to get lunch, or dinner.
In 1982, after a sleepless night in Penn Station where we were continuously rousted out by the police, these sandwiches that we carried, squashed and bleeding into damp napkins, was all the food we would get for the day. We had to make it last. And yes, you do get a bit obsessed with food when you don’t know when and where it will come from and you are dreadfully dependent on others for it. That does something to your head
and your heart. That morning we continued down Ninth Avenue after checking our mail at the General Delivery window of the Main Post Office. And then, at 28th, a few folks stood on the side walk smiling and greeting folks. We must have looked hungry! Or lost! Because they cheerfully invited us in…to lunch!
They enthusiastically shared with us that this was a new soup kitchen and this its very first day to be open. The stainless steel fixtures glistened. Volunteers stood at the ready. The festivity of the soup kitchen opening was felt by all of us. And we were relieved of the day’s worry of how and where we would next eat. Though the turnout was low that day, folks would leave and spread the word and the numbers soon swelled. The meals were bountiful and satisfying and were pretty tasty. And when Holy Apostles started serving five times a week instead of the three it started with, we could accumulate our stash of leftovers for dinner or to share. Most all of us on the streets shared. Portions of our lunch meals were brought to some of the older women
in Penn Station who couldn’t make it to the soup kitchen for many different reasons. A regular and casual network of folks on the street secured what they could for other folks.
Not only were there few soup kitchens in those days but there was only one city shelter for women – on Lafayette Street – which we were scared to go to. We slept – as people still do – hidden in the shadowed margins of the night. Sometimes I collected blankets from a church outside the city and brought them to folks who needed them. Hot food and blankets during a winter’s night can keep one warm enough to stay alive. But essential as they are, they don’t nurture the soul and some of us did that through art. We would sit in the public atrium on 52nd and Park and draw and write. Marshylle squashed marigolds in water to make his own watercolors. Preston would do portraits of us between his card games. Choctow Pete had won the right to vote for people on the streets (much to the consternation of Mayor Koch). His voting address became St. Vartan’s Park bench #2.
One day, Charlie Heck, told me he was going to a writers’ group at Holy Apostles. I was tempted to go but somehow I couldn’t find it in myself to nurture my own creativity. It was years later before I came to Holy Apostles Writers’ Workshop and once I did, I came to look forward to it hungrily from year to year. I discovered how urgently I both needed and loved to write. It was amazing and exciting that there was a kind of kindred vision for the creative spirit of the streets at Holy Apostles, which recognized the importance of that nourishment as they did bread. I spent one season in their drumming circle (god help anyone in earshot of my drumming) culminating in a wild Easter celebration at a church on the Upper East Side. I spent one season, too, in the art group. But really it’s the writers’ group that I’ve always been committed to.
So, even all these years later, when making ends meet is a tricky feat …I sometimes go to Holy Apostles. I think how my cohorts from those early years would have found such a home here: ample, tasty food served in the very sanctuary. And then in addition art and writing! But, Choctaw Pete is dead. And Marshylle of the golden marigolds is dead. And so is Monroe. It seemed the older women in Penn Station vanished. Disappeared. The streets have a way of making life even more tenuous. Our community dissolves to be, I guess, replaced. And to continue the struggle, the creating.
Many of the organizations that began in those early years as small clusters of concerned folks, expanded to meet the relentlessly increasing need. And many of them lost something in that growth. Some intimacy with the people. Some face to face presence. I guess it’s the almost inevitable loss that comes with the growth of organizations as they teeter on becoming a sort of bureaucracy. Yet, somehow, it seems that Holy Apostles, for all its own growing, expanding, struggling, ups and downs, failings and short-comings, achievements and celebrations –all the hallmarks of the human condition – somehow it seems it never grew away from its mission, its humanity. It is still there, one person meeting another person across a piece of bread,
a written word, a drum beat.