One very cold winter Wednesday afternoon, we had a hallway full of hungry people waiting to get into the pantry. Inside the building wasn’t much better than outside and the outside was below freezing.
Prasida was checking in a man who wore only a sweatshirt. “It’s awfully cold in here today for just a sweatshirt”.
“I know” he replied quietly. “I gave my wife the coat.”
One Thursday morning I was in the pantry minding my own business when I noticed a man in the hallway who didn’t appear to be a shopper. The moment I saw him, I sensed that trouble had entered our pantry door.
“Hello. How can I help you?”
“I’m Ed Jabbs. I’m the head of the building committee and I want to see your files on the people who come to use this pantry.”
“I’m sorry sir, we don’t keep many files on our shoppers. We have a journal where we record their names and the number of people in each household. That’s all.”
“Well, you should. No one should be allowed in here who isn’t on food stamps. You’re feeding people who shouldn’t be coming here to get this food. You’re feeding the unworthy hungry.”
“I’ll have to call the Food Bank about getting that kind of information. I don’t have the forms and we’ve never done anything like that before. After all, we’re a Food Pantry, not the police.”
“Well, check into it NOW,” he said as he walked away. Mr. Jabbs smiled then, displaying a mouthful of large yellow teeth.
Although he was a regular shopper at the pantry, coming to shop every week, I considered him to be a volunteer. It was always a pleasure to see him. He had a lot of brown hair that was going grey, wore tortoise shell glasses and he sported a beard. He was intelligent, articulate, respectful, and always brought the latest copy of the newspaper which he published weekly. He wrote the stories and drew the illustrations. His stories covered local news and events in Woodstock.
“Hello Mrs. Greco. Here’s my paper for you this week. Keep it hidden. I don’t want it to get in the hands of the wrong person.” He spoke rapidly. “Rick O’Shea tried to kill me this week. But I’m not going to let him get away with it.”
“I caught him outside the soup kitchen telling lies again. He’s an informant of the FBI and the CIA and he’s spreading lies about me again”.
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
“Yes, he’s involved in the Exxon-Mobil scandal with the Iran Contras. But, he’s not going to get away with it. I’m an ex-Marine and an investigative journalist. I called the FBI on Rick and the whole bunch of them.”
“Good luck. Thanks for coming in. And…I LOVE your newspaper.”
Everytime I saw Paula Gloria in the halls, I ran up to her and hugged her. Paula always visited with her line neighbors, talking with them, finding out their problems, seeing how she could help. Paula helped people who were going through foreclosures or had problems with the police. When Paula had a court date of her own, several of her “line buddies” went to the courtroom and stood with her to offer support. Paula always gave more than she asked for.
Paula invited me to come on her popular public access TV show in New York City. I went down on two separate occasions to work with her. I had a show on Channel 23, the public access TV station in Woodstock. After spending two afternoons with Paula and watching her work, I totally changed the way I worked on my TV show. “Take This Bread” became a much more successful show with Paula Gloria’s assistance and influence.
One shopper, a local woman, always complained of multiple allergies, claustaphobia, chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia, etc. At every opportunity, Lemon Balm Betty left the pantry and ran around the parking lot yelling loudly “Thurman is a fucking asshole”. Then, one day, she brought in a large bouquet of mint and lemon balm. We put them out with the other fresh produce. Immediately, she smiled, was comfortable in the crowded hallway, and became the wonderful person we all suspected she was, when she hid behind her insults. Offerings of mint came every week during the summer from her.
Ho hum. It was just another pantry miracle. We had them all the time.
Many famous and semi-famous people were reduced to using the pantry regularly after the downfall of 2008. Because Woodstock attracted artists, musicians, and writers, many of them had second homes in the Woodstock area. Some of these creative and talented people saw their incomes totally dry up. I heard stories repeated many times over by different people.
They would, essentially, go like this: the person would have a home in the Woodstock area in addition to a place in New York City or Paris or Dubai or Miami or someplace, anyplace else. As the income dwindled, the person would look around, assess his/her situation and try to unload the most expensive place which was usually in the someplace else location.
Some were able to sublet. Others were able to sell. Still others underwent foreclosure. They came to Woodstock to live in the second home because it was cheaper only to find, in many cases, that there was absolutely zero opportunity to earn any money while out of the city environment.
So, here they were…down and out in Woodstock and Bearsville. Some even experienced foreclosure of the Upstate New York home.
The pantry line was filled weekly with intelligent, well educated, talented people who found themselves stranded because their support system was just not what it should have been. They, for the most part, made the best of it. What else could they do?
The refrain heard in the pantry line was “We gather at the Good Neighbor Food Pantry, where the elite meet.” I would see some of them in the line talking and joking together as they waited for food. What else could they do? Eventually some established new lifelines. Others ended up homeless.
There was always casual talk about diabetes. Many, many people suffered with it. Some families had both diabetes 1 and diabetes 2 in the members. Although I never took a real count, it’s my opinion that way over 30% of the shoppers and volunteers suffered with this terrible disease. Even if we tried to determine the number, it wouldn’t have been accurate because so many people don’t have healthcare. They don’t know what diseases they have or don’t have.
Diabetes is one of the worst diseases a person can have. Many suffering from diabetes develop other diseases also: kidney failure, strokes, and blindness. Bad diet and stress help it move along. There’s no doubt that people in the food pantry line are stressed. Our pantry did everything possible to get the very best quality food to the shoppers. However, it’s difficult to feed a family when there’s insufficient money and the pantry only offers a three-day supply of food which needs to last seven days.
Two neighborhood shoppers visited the pantry weekly. They shopped in the pantry for many years. Dorothy and her daughter Alice lived about a block away. They were a rare commodity in Woodstock: they were from Woodstock.
Dorothy and Alice weighed about 110 pounds together dripping wet. They came into the pantry, selected a few things and then walked away. Although they never got much, I always worried about how they were going to carry the food home because of Dorothy’s advanced age and light weight.
Dorothy and Alice didn’t have a car and there was really no other place for them to shop unless they went to the CVS, Cumberland Farms, or Woodstock Meats. They felt they couldn’t afford Sunflower Natural Foods Market or Sunfrost. For a time they caught a ride to Kingston to the Walmart every other week or so with a relative. After he died, they had no chance to leave Woodstock.
An older woman came weekly to the pantry with a black canvas shopping cart which she always tried to bring with her into the pantry room. Repeatedly, we went over the same routine:
“May I bring my cart into the pantry? I really shouldn’t be doing any lifting.” As she said this, she tugged at her cart to position it in the narrow trail between the shelves and the produce.
“It’s extremely crowded in here today. Please be careful. I’m not even sure you and your cart are going to get through the pantry isle. Please try not to knock over the produce as you go around the room.”
One week she didn’t visit the pantry. The next week, when we saw her, she still had her cart but she looked a little tired.
“I’m sorry I didn’t make it last week. I had a heart attack”.
“If you had called, we would have delivered food to your home.”
“Well, I’m completely out of food so I was afraid to take a chance that you might not be able to find me.”
One thing no one ever discussed in the halls was the past. They spoke about things that happened in the past week or so but never beyond. Whatever happened before the pantry came into their lives was just not on the agenda.
As holidays approached, no one ever spoke about the Thanksvgivings, Christmases, Hanukkahs, Passovers, Easters they had before their lives spun out of control. No one ever mentioned that there wasn’t enough money to get Passover food which was just not available in our pantry. No one ever asked a child what Santa was going to bring.
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Peace and food for all.