Originally published in The New Yorker, May 26, 2008
The Church of the Holy Apostles, at the corner of Twenty-eighth Street and Ninth Avenue in Manhattan, is a church only two-sevenths of the time. The other five-sevenths—every weekday including holidays, no exception made for weather, fire, or terrorist attack—it is the largest soup kitchen in New York City. It serves an average of about twelve hundred meals a day, though the number often spikes higher; on a recent Columbus Day, the number of meals served was fourteen hundred and ninety-two. As a church, Holy Apostles is a not large and not wealthy parish in the Episcopal Church’s Diocese of New York. As a soup kitchen, it has lasted for more than twenty-five years, since back in the first Reagan Administration, and has served more than six million meals.
I know about the soup kitchen because I am one of the teachers of a writers’ workshop that meets there after lunch on Wednesdays in the spring. I started the workshop fourteen years ago, with the help of a grant. I wanted to do something with the soup kitchen because I admired the people there and the way it is run and the whole idea of it. There are so many hungers out there; the soup kitchen deals, efficiently and satisfyingly, with the most basic kind. I consider it, in its own fashion, a work of art.
To walk into the church while lunch is going on is to enter one of the city’s defining public spaces. The building, which turned a hundred and sixty this year, was declared a New York City Landmark in 1966. It has a high, arched cathedral ceiling supported by cylindrical pillars that rise to Tuscan-style groined arches. Natural light comes into the nave through tall and narrow stained-glass windows whose age and artistry make them rarities in themselves. But as for traditional church fanciness that’s about it. Most strikingly, the church has no pews. From the baptismal font, at the back of the church, to the steps of the altar, ninety feet away, no pews or carpet or other fixtures interrupt an open expanse of stone tiles, whose foot-polished smoothness suggests a dance studio or the floor of Grand Central.
People who work for the soup kitchen set up round dining tables and metal folding chairs in the main part of the church every lunchtime. The soup-kitchen guests wait in line on the sidewalk outside, receive meal tickets, file through the serving stations in the Mission House adjoining the church, fill their trays, come into the church, sit down, and eat. The meal, which lasts from ten-thirty to twelve-thirty, takes place in a murmur of dining noises sometimes accompanied by music on the church’s piano or organ beneath (if the day is sunny) shafts of stained-glass light. Most guests finish eating in twenty minutes or half an hour and are on their way. Formerly, when the church was not used for dining, you ate in a smaller room in the Mission House and had to be finished in seven and a half minutes. Now you can take your time.
To let all the soup-kitchen guests know that our writers’ workshop exists, I sometimes sit during lunch at a little table with a hand-lettered sign and a stack of flyers right by the exit door. Often, I have to clip a pen to the flyers and tape the sign to the table so they won’t blow away in the cold drafts from the door. For the two hours I’m there, the stream of people does not stop. Preceding me in the exit line might be tables for representatives of housing advocacy groups, drug- and alcohol-counselling services, domestic-abuse shelters, or (a few years back) Charles, the Condom Man, who passed out free condoms for AIDS prevention with a carny barker’s spiel. Because I’m nearest the door, many people wait a moment at my table before heading out into the cold, where some of them will be continuously until they return for lunch the following day.
Some ask about the workshop; most do not. They set their paper cups of hot coffee or tea next to the flyers, along with the orange or the piece of bread they were given on the way out, and they button up, pull their caps over their ears, put on gloves if they have them, re-tie the bags or parcels they brought, and kind of hunch down into themselves, getting ready for the city again.
On really chilly days, they might spend a long time on these details before they go. And then sometimes, after half an hour or so, the same person is again at my table, again buttoning up for outdoors. That means that the person waited in line, filled his tray, ate, and then went through the process over again. There’s no rule against going back for seconds; the soup kitchen never turns anybody away. On occasion, I’ve noticed people who have passed by three or even four times—have eaten that many lunches, in other words. The soup kitchen portions are generous, and the menu for each lunch has been designed to provide a person with enough calories to last twenty-four hours. Most people who eat at the soup kitchen look like anybody. If you sat across from them on the subway, you would never guess how hungry they were.
But there are a lot of hungry people in New York City. Talking about hunger and being hungry are two different things; talk can wait for a convenient moment, but when you’re hungry you’re hungry right now. Many people on the streets of New York are hungry right now. Every year, the city has been getting hungrier. The New York City Coalition Against Hunger estimates that 1.3 million New Yorkers can’t afford to buy enough food for themselves and their families all the time. That works out to about one person of every six in the city.
Once when I was sitting at my table by the door, a tall, thin, long-faced black man with deep-set eyes made deeper-looking by the hood of his dark sweatshirt stopped at my table. As he was adjusting his clothing for outside, he looked at my sign. “Writers’ work-shop!” he said, in a tone indicating that he was not impressed by the idea.
“Yes, we meet every Wednesday at twelve-thirty in the narthex, that little room in the front of the church. Would you like to join?” I asked.
“Uh-uh, no,” he said. “I ain’t doin’ no writers’ workshop. I done that shit before.”
“Really? You were in a writers’ workshop before?”
“Hell yes I was. And my teacher was a better writer than you.”
“Oh? What writer was that?”
Apparently, the guy had been in a workshop that Cheever taught at the prison in Ossining, back in the seventies. I had met Cheever once, and the guy and I talked about him for a while. I asked the guy what he had learned from the workshop with Cheever, and he said, “Cheever, you understan’, he was a brilliant writer. When he wrote something, he always had two things going on at a time. He told us, when you writin’, you got this surface thing, you understan’, goin’ on up here”—he moved his left hand in a circle with his fingers spread apart, as if rubbing a flat surface—“an’ then once you get that goin’ on, now you got to come under it”—he brought his right hand under his left, as if throwing an uppercut—“come under this thing here that’s goin’ on up here, you understan’. That was how John Cheever said you write.
“John Cheever had that writers’ workshop at Ossining,” he continued, “and later he wrote a book about the prison, ‘Falconer,’ and it was a No. 1 best-seller. I ain’t in that book. He got a best-seller from the workshop, and I didn’t get shit. I ain’t doin’ writers’ workshops no more.”
Most of the people I met were less skeptical. When they saw my sign, they stopped to talk, their lunch having put them in a narrative mood. Almost everybody who talked to me said they had some amazing stories to tell if they could only write them down. Many said that if their lives were made into books the books would be best-sellers. Some few had written books about their lives already, and they produced the manuscripts from among their belongings to show me. If you take any twelve hundred New Yorkers, naturally you’ll find a certain number of good musicians, skilled carpenters, gifted athletes, and so on; you’ll also come up with a small percentage who can really write. Lots of people I talked to said they were interested in the workshop; a much smaller number actually showed up. Some attended only one session, some came back year after year. In all, over fourteen years, maybe four hundred soup-kitchen guests have participated.
When I think of them, who stands out? There was Sundance, a hobo, who wrote about etiquette in hobo camps and told me where to go in the Newark train yards if I wanted to hop long-distance freight trains; and David, a bicycle messenger, who wrote a fast-paced poem about his job, titled “In Flight”; and a guy whose name I’ve forgotten who tried to sell stolen watches in class; and Wendy-Anne, who always wore a white bonnet and who was trying to regain ownership, she said, of her ancestral property in France; and Jay, a soup-kitchen volunteer, who wrote interestingly about the history of this neighborhood, Chelsea, and about a dollar store accessible to wheelchairs; and Roger, a former M.T.A. employee, who came to a class, slept for a while with his head on the table, then sat bolt upright and shouted, “I need some guidance!”; and Ted, who had been a merchant seaman and wrote about being in a bar fight while the song “I’ve Got a Tiger by the Tail” played on the jukebox; and Donald, a regular in the early years, who penned a book-length memoir about being homeless entirely in blue ballpoint using large block capitals, because of his poor eyesight, and who had an article about the workfare program published on the Op-Ed page of the Times; and Charles, a bearded, wild-haired fellow, who said he preferred sleeping outside and resented being picked up in the protective sweeps the cops conducted on cold nights, and who, when I asked where he was sleeping now, replied, “The Italian Embassy,” meaning the warm-air grates near the Italian Consulate, uptown.
And William, who wrote about an intergalactic battle among God, various superheroes, and the Alcoholics Anonymous Higher Power; and Tory, whose hilarious piece about her brief stint as a contest-winning backup dancer for Lionel Richie and the Commodores always brought down the house at our public readings; and Carol, who wore a different hat every day, and wrote a great piece about a memorial service at St. Mark’s in-the-Bowery when Allen Ginsberg died; and Ron, who after a few years in the workshop began to write his own column for a men’s magazine; and John, who after many years of faithful attendance called the church in 2007 to say he couldn’t come to the workshop that spring because he was in Antarctica; and Joe, whose stories about his heart attack encapsulated fear in the night; and Norm, a dedicated poet, who wrote a poem entitled “On Achieving Section 8 Housing”; and Jeff, who disappeared one year and returned the next saying that he had been travelling internationally as a player on a homeless men’s soccer team (a claim that turned out to be true); and Nelson, who wrote tantalizingly short pieces and then came back, years later, all smiles, having found a job and his own apartment, and brought a camera and took photographs of everybody.
Listing all the writers I remember would take pages. We welcome everybody who wants to attend, with a very few exceptions. Once, I was sitting at the table by the exit with Bob Blaisdell, a teacher and writer who has taught in the workshop since the beginning, when a nattily dressed man with a West Indian accent approached us and asked if we would like him to come to the workshop and write about the nine people he had killed in Jamaica. The man posed the question with a big smile, made more striking by his gold inlays, which had been set in a line rising diagonally across his upper front teeth. I admired Bob for replying that, no, we did not want him to come and write about the nine people he had killed in Jamaica.
Every class, we met in the narthex at twelve-thirty, passed out pens and notebooks, and gave optional topics for that session’s writing. Proven topics have been “How I Came to New York,” “If I Hadn’t Seen It, I Wouldn’t Have Believed It,” “Shoes,” “The Other Me,” and “My Best Mistake.” A few topics we’ve had to retire because they’re too fraught; “My First Love,” for example, was producing too many wrenching tales of first encounters with drugs and alcohol. In each session, people would write for about forty-five minutes. Then we would read the pieces out loud. All the writers were usually kind in listening to and criticizing one another; the common decorum of group-therapy sessions seemed to apply here, and, besides, we were in a church.
Once in a while, classes could be pretty tense nonetheless. Flareups occurred over things as simple as one guy picking up another guy’s pen by mistake. The jumpiest times in the class were in 2002 and 2003, after the U.S. had invaded Afghanistan and then Iraq. I recall a day when Charles, the guy who slept at the Italian Embassy, brought in a copy of thePost with the headline “KABULLSEYE!” above a target circle superimposed on a photo of a recently bombed building in Kabul. The headline got us all so jangled we could hardly sit still to write. For people like those in the workshop group, many of whom have pulled their lives together only by means of routine and self-restraint and talking things through, the sight of their own government glorying in chaos shook the ground under their feet.
In the workshop’s fourteen years, several participants have died. Pierce, a tall, white-haired man with bushy black eyebrows, was a volunteer at the soup kitchen. Almost every piece he wrote centered on the most important moment in his life—when he attempted suicide by jumping into the East River. After police pulled him out, he quit drinking; many of his pieces ended, “One day at a time.” A few years ago when the workshop reconvened, we learned that Pierce had died of a heart attack not long before. Janice, a stylish, gentle woman in her mid-fifties, also died of heart trouble. At one of our public readings, Janice wore a copper-colored fuzzy sweater and an off-green head scarf and held the whole church silent with a story about the death of her young son. Now Janice’s daughter, Thyatira, sometimes attends the workshop, and brings her four-year-old daughter, Janyah. They are the only multigenerational participants we’ve had so far.
Clarence, a middle-aged Jamaican, always spoke slowly and precisely and wore a jacket and tie. He used to write mini-sermons on quotations from the Bible. When he had written a lot of these pieces, I asked if he wouldn’t like to branch out, try some memoir or just describe what he did that day. He politely ignored me. After a few years, he stopped coming and we heard no more about him. Then, in the fall of ’02, city employees got in touch with one of the workshop teachers, Susan Shapiro, to say that Clarence had died (another heart attack); searching his belongings for information about next of kin, they had found her business card in his wallet. Evidently no kin were ever located; Clarence was buried in the potter’s field.
Susan often handed out her business cards in the workshop, worked with writers outside of class, and helped them get published in newspapers and magazines. Susan knows hundreds of people in the city and throughout publishing and talks so fast she says ten words for every one of mine. In 2004, she co-edited (with the Reverend Elizabeth Maxwell, the associate rector of Holy Apostles) an anthology of writing from the workshop. The book, called “Food for the Soul,” is dedicated to Pierce, Janice, and Clarence. The money it earned—some thousands of dollars—mostly went to the contributors, who got a hundred dollars each. A few of the contributors also appeared on the “Today” show and National Public Radio.
I have been part of the workshop almost every year, with a couple of interruptions when my family and I lived in Montana. After four years out there, we moved back east, to New Jersey. One Sunday soon after we returned, I took my daughter into Manhattan to go to museums and reacquaint her with the city generally. She was in fifth grade and curious about everything. At the end of the day, as we were standing in line at the Port Authority waiting for our bus back to the suburbs, a man who had been in the writers’ workshop came walking down the line. At each person he stopped and tried to sell a copy of Street News. He was wearing layers of semi-disintegrating clothes and he had his hair in short, multidirectional corkscrew dreadlocks. Most of the people he went up to did the usual thing of recoiling slightly and looking away. When he got to us, he recognized me, and we began to talk. I asked how he was doing and he said pretty well—he had written a piece for Street News and it had been published recently. He asked if the workshop would be starting again soon, and I said it would, and he said he’d be there. I bought a copy of Street News for myself and another for my daughter and said I’d see him in the spring, and we got on our bus. When we arrived home, my wife asked my daughter how she had liked the city. “It was pretty good,” she said. “Not much happened. At the bus station, we ran into a friend of Daddy’s.”
Suddenly, the clouds begin to fly backward very fast, like the view out the window in that movie “The Time Machine,” and then they come to a stop and slowly move forward again. It is 1836. Chelsea—the future neighborhood of the Church of the Holy Apostles—is mostly fields. Squatters who have recently emigrated from England and Ireland live along the marshy shoreline of the Hudson River. Some young people who perhaps attend St. Peter’s Episcopal on Twentieth Street visit this district and are appalled by the condition of the immigrants and especially by that of their “neglected and isolated” children. To help them, these young people start a Sunday school. With seven hundred and fifty dollars of their own and their friends’ money, they erect a schoolhouse on Thirty-sixth Street between Eighth and Ninth Avenues. Many people start to attend informal services there on Sundays. Soon the Episcopal Diocese of New York decides that the Sunday school has enough congregants to become an official parish of the church.
A local landowner gives four lots for construction of a church across from his estate on Ninth Avenue. The church’s founders decide what it will be called. An architect named Minard LeFever, who has designed other churches in the city, is hired. His usual style, the Gothic Revival, he forgoes in this instance, opting instead for a pared-down, “chaste” version of Tuscan design combined with disparate Italianate elements and incorporating a steeple more than twice the height of the church itself. The building is finished early in 1848. The first service in the building is held in February, 1848.North and south transepts, added 1858, enlarge the structure to its final size. In its stylistic eclecticism combined with simplicity, Holy Apostles is a typical church of the American frontier.
The neighborhood swirls around the church like a slow-moving tornado. In 1850, a “pestilence”—probably cholera—hits the area, and the church cares for the sufferers and holds seventy funerals. Rich people begin to move to Chelsea from downtown, and the church’s finances improve. In 1871, the Ninth Avenue elevated train brings its cinders, smoke, and noise to right above the church’s front yard. The church sues the El for damages and eventually wins a few thousand dollars. Upper Fifth Avenue becomes fashionable, rich people move out of Chelsea, and the church’s finances decline. Waves of immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe come to New York City. By and large, they don’t join Protestant churches, and those churches begin to close. Holy Apostles hangs on. For years at a time, the church gets by only with the help of contributions from Trinity Episcopal, on Wall Street.
Reformers like Jacob Riis speak at Holy Apostles. In the early nineteen-hundreds, the church inclines to the leftist, progressivist beliefs of the Social Gospel, an affinity that will go on. Still, its congregation is never large. Money remains a problem. Somehow, the church stays open through mixed fortunes during war, depression, and war. Its steeple keeps wanting to fall over and must be shored up expensively. In the twenties, there is a fire. In 1940-41, the Ninth Avenue El is torn down, to the church’s relief. After the Second World War, congregants to whom the pastor had sent long letters while they were away in the service drift from the church. High-rise apartment buildings erected by the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union for moderate-income people rise above the steeple on several sides. The church looks to the neighborhood for new members and finds some, mostly West Indian and American black people.
Rectors at Holy Apostles come and go. Its first rector, Foster Thayer, quits over the issue of rented pews. In many of the city’s churches, families pay rent for their private pews. Thayer thinks that’s unchristian and that all pews should be free. The vestry, or church’s officers, appreciate his point, but they also have construction loans to pay off. After quitting, Thayer moves to Vermont and soon leaves the ministry entirely. Other Holy Apostles ministers work themselves to exhaustion, take leaves of absence for their health, never return. One or two hold up fairly well. Lucius A. Edelblute, the wartime letter writer, serves from 1918 to 1950. In 1949, he writes the church’s centennial history.
In the sixties, the church becomes a center for left-wing causes, especially opposition to the war in Vietnam. A minister in the seventies welcomes gays and lesbians to Holy Apostles, then decides they must allow Jesus to cure them of their sexual feelings. Turmoil follows. The congregation goes into a decline. The church has no full-time rector from 1975 to 1978.
By 1980, the church is one of the oldest buildings on Ninth Avenue. Its membership has dwindled to about a hundred and twenty-five. Basically, it’s dying. Its roof, still the original slate, needs replacing. Leaks have damaged the ceiling, now in danger of falling in. Repairs to the roof would cost half a million dollars. The Right Reverend Paul Moore, Episcopal Bishop of New York, wants to close the church and consolidate its congregation with St. Peter’s. Ronald Reagan is elected President. Government money to help the poor is cut, fewer people have public housing, Chelsea’s single-room-occupancy hotels close. Homelessness becomes a visible New York City problem. Often, people knock on the church’s doors asking for help.
Father Rand Frew, the church’s new, young minister, suggests to the congregation that the church should start a soup kitchen. Father Frew thinks big and has a gift for starting programs. His previous church was in Las Vegas; perhaps a bit of gambling instinct is involved in this idea. The congregation wonders where it will come up with the huge amount of money a daily soup kitchen requires, but it gives the O.K. The consensus is that if Holy Apostles is going out of business anyway it might as well do some good before it does.
Father Frew finds fifty thousand dollars and donors of surplus food. He rounds up a head chef, cooking supplies, volunteers. On the soup kitchen’s first day, October 22, 1982, it serves about thirty-five meals. Starting then, it establishes its policy of being open every weekday. Its numbers of guests—from the beginning, the people it serves are referred to as guests—increase. Now the problem of repairing the church’s roof and ceiling has been simplified: donors who would never contribute to save a dilapidated church with a shrinking congregation are more willing to give to a historic church with a well-run and rapidly growing soup kitchen. More money comes in and the church borrows half a million for the roof repair.
By the mid-eighties, nine hundred or more guests are having lunch at the church’s Mission House every day. By 1990, the repairs to the roof are almost done. On April 9th, workmen up in the roof beams accidentally start a small fire with an acetylene torch. They put the fire out, they think. In the afternoon at quitting time, the workmen leave. A few hours later, the church is holding evening services in the narthex when someone sticks his head in the door and says, “Your church is on fire.” In minutes, the roof goes up in flames. The Fire Department comes and puts out the fire. Inside and out, the destruction is immense. Many of the irreplaceable stained-glass windows had to be broken to vent the gases from the fire. That night, the church is blackened, dripping, open to the sky. Nonetheless, the soup kitchen serves lunch in the undamaged Mission House the next day: a cold meal, owing to circumstances—macaroni-and-tuna salad, fruit, and juice. It feeds about nine hundred and fifty.
The church has fire insurance. Repairs of the damage, including installing another new slate roof, fixing the ceiling, and assembling the fragments of the stained-glass windows, will cost about eight million dollars. By now, Father Frew has left, and the rector of the church and executive director of the soup kitchen is William Greenlaw, a manager whose skill with money has acquired him the nickname Father Greenbacks. He consults with Elizabeth Maxwell and the vestry, and they decide to plan the reconstruction so that the soup kitchen can expand into the church itself. What to do about the pews? Take them out—the church stopped renting them a century ago, no money will be lost—and keep the space open for dining. During services, the congregation can just as easily use folding chairs. Everybody agrees about this immediately.
Reconstruction takes four years. When all is finished and the first meal is served in the main church, the guests come in quietly with their trays, unsure about the protocol for eating in a church. Wendy Shepherd, the church’s long-time administrative supervisor, watches them and worries that people won’t be comfortable eating here, but in a few days the strangeness goes away. The Times reports that mid-nineteenth-century pews saved from the fire at Holy Apostles are for sale for four hundred and fifty dollars apiece at a public architectural salvage yard in Brooklyn. Somewhere, the shade of Foster Thayer smiles.
Today, the church, fully restored, remains the one unchanging landmark in Chelsea. To judge from a photograph of church and churchyard taken in 1880, the fire hydrant next to it on Twenty-eighth Street has also stayed the same.
At night, people sleep on the E train as it makes its long run out into Queens and then back again to Manhattan. They sleep on the stairs of the Twenty-fifth Street entry to the E and C subway station at Eighth Avenue, or in the top stairwell of the building on Nineteenth Street where they once had an apartment, or under the hoardings at the back of the main Post Office building, or on the front steps of a church on Sixteenth, or under sections of the old elevated tracks near Tenth Avenue, or in the vestibule of a twenty-four-hour copy shop on Seventh, or somewhere else in Chelsea or farther away. People used to be able to sleep in Chelsea Park, across the street from the church, but now it and most other neighborhood parks are off-limits at night.
If you find a more official place to stay temporarily, it might be the Rescue Mission, on Lafayette Street, downtown (men only; cots), or the Bellevue Shelter, on Thirtieth (men only; couples assigned elsewhere), or one of the outer-borough shelters. Stays at drop-in centers, like the Oliveri Center, on Thirtieth (women only), or Open Door, on Forty-first, or Peter’s Place, on Twenty-third (men and women fifty-five and over only), are intended to be shorter-term. In most drop-in centers, you have to sleep sitting up in a chair, which can cause your legs to swell.
People planning to have lunch at the soup kitchen show up sometimes hours before the church is open in the morning. A few bring all they own loaded on shopping carts, wheeled garment racks, hand trucks, or in the side baskets of bicycles. Their bundles are tied together with yellow nylon rope, cinched with bungee cords, taped with silver duct tape, or packed loose in double or triple plastic shopping bags. One older woman with a weathered face and long brown hair sometimes carries, close at hand among her bags, a big tube of sunblock. Now and then, the loads of belongings include those woven-nylon suitcases, white with broad plaid stripes, which are the people’s luggage all over the world. During lunch, the shopping carts and other conveyances are parked in the churchyard, where someone from the soup kitchen keeps an eye on them.
Volunteers are asked to show up by 10 A.M. The soup kitchen needs at least forty volunteers to serve every meal. All kinds of people help out, but Manhattan retirees are usually the bulk of the volunteers. Some have been doing this almost since the soup kitchen began; Ilona Seltzer, a Chelsea resident, has been volunteering since 1985. School groups volunteer, and Sunday-school classes and Scout troops and the rabbis and members of Congregation Beth Simchat Torah (which holds its own services in the church on Friday evenings). Kim, a software designer from Orange County, California, volunteers when she’s in the city visiting her aunt and uncle. Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins, longtime Chelsea-ites, have volunteered. Senator Jeff Sessions (Republican of Alabama) and others of the Alabama delegation spent a morning working at the soup kitchen during the Republican National Convention in 2004. Senator Sessions used the photo opportunity that resulted to praise the soup kitchen as the sort of private initiative that naturally takes up the tasks our government should not do and should not have to do—an opinion with which everybody at the soup kitchen disagreed.
Clyde Kuemmerle, the soup kitchen’s associate program director, signs in the volunteers and tells them what their jobs will be. Clyde, a bearded man in his early sixties, has a Ph.D. in theatre from the University of Minnesota, and in the past he worked on Broadway plays as a producer, which resembles his present occupation. He carries a walkie-talkie and runs the whole soup kitchen day to day. People sometimes yell at Clyde, but he has great equanimity. Plenty of soup-kitchen guests carry a world of troubles with them, and they may fluctuate in their medications, and for these and other reasons some can be quick to get mad. During almost every lunch, somebody takes offense at somebody else, voices are raised, and people stand up and confront each other. Then Clyde and the employees who work on the floor—Harold McKnight and his brother Prince, Rodney Williams, Olimpo Tlatelpa, among others—come over and intervene. They step between the arguers, they remonstrate with them quietly, and soon the shouting dies down. The way they are completely firm and at the same time completely kind should be studied by the U.N.
The soup kitchen’s counselling trailer, which is in the churchyard by the gate where the guests come in, is open five days a week before and after lunch. Jacqueline McKnight, the soup kitchen’s assistant counsellor, whom everybody calls Jackie and who is married to Harold, handles the guests’ problems with food stamps, disability payments, housing applications, medical referrals, etc. Now and then a person comes to the trailer who is in a crisis at that very moment. One December afternoon, a woman walked into Jackie’s office while in the middle of labor. With no time to take her anywhere, Jackie sat her on a chair and called Linda Adams, who works in the church offices, and Clyde. Jackie and Linda comforted the woman and helped her with her breathing while Clyde put some coats on the floor and waited there for the baby. He was shaking because this experience was a first for him. Fortunately, E.M.S. soon showed up, and the E.M.S. guys performed the actual delivery.
The woman, a skinny white lady who had barely even looked pregnant, kept hollering that she didn’t want the baby, that she had hoped to leave it in the soup-kitchen bathroom, and that Jackie and Linda could have it. On the spot, they told the woman they would take it. When the baby—a pink and healthy-looking girl—came out, the E.M.S. guys said it was fine with them if Jackie and Linda took her; in fact, in their opinion, that would be a very good idea. First, however, the E.M.S. guys had to follow procedure and take baby and mother to St. Vincent’s Hospital. They did, and Jackie and Linda followed in a cab.
But at St. Vincent’s the women were not allowed to see the baby, and though they persisted in trying to find out about her, neither Jackie nor Linda ever saw her again. Later, they heard that the baby had been adopted by the family where she had been sent for foster care. Jackie and Linda both think of the little girl often and wonder how she’s doing.
To keep going, the soup kitchen needs two million seven hundred thousand dollars a year. It spends more than ten thousand dollars every operating day. For this church, whose congregation still has fewer than two hundred members, that’s a lot. About thirty-five per cent of the money needed comes from individual donors who send checks in response to direct-mail solicitations. That income rises and falls, but is generally dependable. Most of the rest comes from foundations and from the city, state, and federal governments, which tend to be less predictable.
Government money for the hungry is a small and ever-shifting stream, moved by political change. City funding disappears under sudden budget pressure, federal poverty funds administered by FEMA are cut nineteen per cent, and a farm bill gets stuck in Congress, with the result that government surplus food suddenly becomes less available. Keeping up with the veerings of government support is a scramble. As for foundations, they are well intentioned and generous, but subject to moods. “Donor burnout” is one of those. Fashions in charitable giving also come and go. Recently, foundation charity has been more focussed on “making a difference,” an idea that works against the soup kitchen, which changes people from hungry to not, but invisibly. Also, foundation donors now like to talk about “measurable outcomes”—they expect recipients like the soup kitchen to single out the people who are helped, and measure the improvement in those people’s situations over time. Again, that’s not something the soup kitchen, with the off-the-street population it serves, can easily do. In the past eighteen months, several major foundation donors have dropped out, and no replacements have been found. There’s enough money for now, and for a while, but the future is unclear. The soup kitchen has been in this spot before.
Father Greenlaw, who has overseen the raising of all this money for twenty-five years, will retire at the end of July. He has served longer than any Holy Apostles rector except Lucius Edelblute and Brady Electus Backus (1876-1901), and now he would like not to think about money so much. The twenty-five years have left him remarkably unworn; he has bright green eyes, a full head of hair, and a broad smile that alternates between seraphic and pained. In his quiet office on the third floor of the Mission House, he explains how much the soup kitchen depends on New York’s Jewish community (“If the Jews of New York City stopped giving, we’d go out of business”), and how he’s had no success raising money among red-state evangelical Christians, and how urban secular mailing lists like the list of subscribers to The New York Review of Books or of Channel Thirteen supporters or of members of the North Shore Animal League are much better places to find donors.
In talking about the soup kitchen, Father Greenlaw generally does not mention Jesus. That’s only natural, given the ecumenical nature of the enterprise. Instead, he describes the work of feeding the hungry in terms that people are likely to agree on regardless of religious belief or unbelief. He talks about the joy of being alive in this sacred space, of sharing a meal with other people in a beautiful landmarked building, of seeing in the people who come to the soup kitchen “a window into what makes humanity human, into the deepest levels of being.”
The soup kitchen never proselytizes or hands out religious literature. But in the church offices upstairs in the Mission House the serene and genteel and somewhat fraught atmosphere of modern Episcopalianism prevails. There is, of course, the pervading aroma of coffee, the denomination’s secular wine. Elizabeth Maxwell, whose fresh-faced good looks add emphasis to her strong preaching, has been with the church and the soup kitchen for nineteen years. Liz, as she’s called, has done every job from big-dollar fund-raising and counselling to serving and cleanup; usually, every fourth Sunday she also delivers a sermon. In her work, she expects surprises and is undismayed by them. Once, she told me, she was in the trailer counselling a man who said he had been rejected by every homeless shelter he had gone to. She couldn’t figure out why this should be, and, as she was puzzling it out, she saw a rustling in the guy’s shirt, and then a large snake stuck its head from between two of his shirt buttons and looked at her. The snake was his pet, and shelters don’t allow pets. She persuaded the man to return the snake to the exotic-pet store where he got it.
When I pressed Liz about the specifically religious inspiration that applies here, she said, “Well, we do this because Jesus said to feed the hungry. There’s no more to it than that. Jesus told us to take care of the poor and the hungry and those in prison. In Matthew 25 he says, ‘As you have done to the least of these, you have done to me.’ In all the intricacies of scriptural interpretation, that message—feed the hungry—couldn’t be more clear. Those of us who worship at Holy Apostles feel we have a Sunday-Monday connection. The bread and wine of the Eucharist that we share with one another on Sunday become the food we share with our neighbors during the week. We believe that our job as Christians is to meet Jesus in the world. We meet him, unnamed and unrecognized, in the guests who come to the soup kitchen every day.”
After the last session of the writers’ workshop every year, there’s a public reading at the church. We put together an anthology of the best of or all of that year’s work (typed into final form by our poet/typist, Alice Phillips), and then we get the anthology copied and spiral-bound at the same nearby copy shop in whose lobby one or two soup-kitchen guests sometimes spend the night. Participants read from a lectern up front, and the audience, which usually numbers about seventy-five or a hundred, listens on folding chairs.
Sometimes as many as eighteen or twenty people read their pieces. With that many, we try to keep each reading short, but things happen as they happen. The pieces range from poetry to personal history to novel excerpts to science fiction to exercises in Hegelian philosophy. We have an informal rule that the reader must only read, and not digress into impromptu explanations of what he or she is reading, but that rule is sometimes overlooked. On occasion, people have brought tape recorders to play music accompanying or introducing what they read. Sometimes people sing. Tory, the writer who did the piece about being a backup dancer for the Commodores, has a song she wrote about the soup kitchen. The sound of a single voice, singing or reading, as it rises to the vaulted beams of the church can lift you almost off the ground.
When the reading is over, everybody gets something to eat—there’s a spread of sandwiches and soft drinks provided by the soup kitchen—and the writers and the audience mingle. The people who attend the reading may be Holy Apostles parishioners, soup-kitchen donors, editors, arts administrators, students from other writing programs, clergy of various kinds, curious passersby. Soup-kitchen alumni from workshops in past years sometimes show up and fill us in on where they are and what they’re doing now. Sometimes we talk about people from past workshops whom we haven’t seen for a while, or about the ones who came only a few times and then were never seen again—names like Lisa, Wayman, Smokey, White Mike, Coleman, Rashid, Blue, Luis, Rosa . . . The alchemy of writing gives everybody who’s been in the workshop an extra dimension: along with possessing a name and a face, each is also the particular person who wrote whatever. Somehow, writing even a few lines makes the person who does it more substantial and real. In geometric terms, it’s like the difference between being a point and being a plane.
Usually, the reading is on a Wednesday evening in late May. With luck, the weather is mild, and the church’s front doors are open. People arrive dressed up, and some of the soup-kitchen staff are in white shirts and black bow ties. The ambient New York City air comes in; you can imagine that the floor of the church, the pavement of Ninth Avenue, the asphalt in Chelsea Park, and the shiny surface of the Hudson River a few blocks away are all connected, one continuous terrestrial floor. As the evening advances and the sunset fades, the lights inside the church brighten. It’s a benign time of day to be in a church, or any public space open to the evening. For a moment, the whole city seems to flow in with the air.
Podcast: The New Yorker Out Loud – Ian Frazier talks about his experiences running a writers’ workshop at the soup kitchen