"I'm starving," Olive announced one day last week is. She's my daughter. She's six.
"You're not starving," I said. "You're hungry."
Epiphany. Laugh-of-luxury child has no idea what it means to starve. To not eat. To be poor. Yes, she understands there are Poor People. But it's an intellectual construct. Like knowing there are Emus or Mexican Jumping Beans.
I don't want Olive to be one of those pampered, entitled suburban white kids who thinks of Poor People as the Other, to be denigrated, looked down upon, ignored, pitied from afar, used for cheap labor and/or cannon fodder. I was raised in lap-of-luxury suburbia, but I was taught that Poor People are just like you and me. Only they don't have money. Or opportunity. Or a bubble of affluence surrounding them. I was raised to believe that it's our obligation to give back. To help. To take care of those less fortunate than ourselves. I want my daughter to understand that the corporate-fueled greed which has corrupted this country is EVIL. I want her to understand that people are more important than profit. I want her to understand that it's important to help people who are less fortunate than ourselves.
(Olive with her mother and grandmother)
I know what it's like to be poor. When I was 17 I was cast out, and lived in poverty for a decade. Food stamps. Dank basement apartments that cost $25 a month. Trying to choose between buying three slices of pizza or a used paperback. Figuring out how to become an expert shoplifter. Turns out I liked stealing more than I liked being hungry. But I was lucky, I'm white, I was educated, and I was loved and taken care of as a kid, told I could be whoever I wanted to be if I worked hard and did the right thing. And I did. So by the time I was 30, I had returned to a lap-of-luxury life. And I want Olive to have an idea what it is like to be poor, without her actually having to be poor herself. I know that's not entirely possible, but I want to do all I can to help her understand.
So we decided on this Thanksgiving to volunteer to feed hungry people. We took Olive to Roosevelt Elementary School in Union City, New Jersey. We prepared her by telling her there might be some homeless people there, and they might dress and possibly smell different than us. But they were just like us. Only they didn't have money. Or much chance of getting money. Or a fancy house or a fancy car or a fancy TV or fancy food. Olive has dreams of someday becoming a waitress. (Or an artist. Or an Olympic gymnast. Or an architect. Or a ballet dancer. Or a writer.) So the idea of getting to be a waitress for poor people on Thanksgiving was exciting to her in a way that only 6-year-olds can get excited.
The volunteers at Roosevelt Elementary School were a rainbow coalition of all ages, races and sizes. There was festive bunting with "Happy Thanksgiving" festooned across it. Kids had made Thanksgiving art placemats that were totally cool. There was tons of food. The vibe was festive, happy, thankful and giving.
(Olive with Union City Mayor Brian P. Stack)
Then the Mayor walked in. I was not expecting to meet the mayor of Union City on Thanksgiving. But there he was. In the flesh. He looked like one of the volunteers. His name is Brian P. Stack. He was born and raised in Union City. This was his brainchild. He started doing this on Thanksgiving when he was 14-years-old. He handed out chickens back then, because he couldn't afford turkeys. Today he handed out 18,000 turkeys. Well, not personally. But his people. I asked him why he did this.
"I just know there's so much need here, and I want to help."
Politician has become a dirty word. They're rich people who make dirty deals behind closed doors. They espouse goodness, while they lurk around public bathrooms looking for illicit hookups; they smoke crack like it's going out of business; they cheat on their wives, their kids, and the people who voted them into office while they line their pockets with filthy lucre that's meant to help those less fortunate than themselves. I didn't expect on this Thanksgiving to meet a politician who gave me faith that America is not totally corrupt. There are still public servants who are, you know... public servants. Who serve the public. Instead of the other way around. Brian P. Stack seems to be in the business of making the word Politician mean something good again.
Then people started showing up to eat. Young, old, and in between. I was in charge of salad. Olive was in charge of rolls and cranberry sauce. She really got her waitress on, welcoming people, asking with a chipper smile, "Would you like a roll? Would you like some cranberry sauce?" She was the youngest one serving food by 25 years. She made people smile.
And they kept coming. At least 300 hungry mouths were fed by the time we finished. And lots of them took containers of food to go. They ate, they talked, they hung out, they ate. Some by themselves, some with their boy/girlfriend. Some with their family and kids.
After about an hour we took a break and Olive had a roll, some cranberry sauce and a giant helping of salad. There we were, eating with all the Poor People. After she finished eating, Olive looked around and said to me, "Dad, the poor people look the same as us."
I asked Olive if she was having fun serving rolls and cranberry sauce.
"Yeah," she said, "it's super fun."
She was right. It was super fun. It was pure joy. With no hangover.
I looked up and all of a sudden we were almost done. Apparently time moves quickly when you're helping people.
As we were leaving, Olive looked at me with a big 6-year-old smile and said, "I want to do this again next year!"
And so we shall. So we shall.
David Henry Sterry is the author of 15 books, a performer, muckraker, educator, and activist. His new book, Chicken: Self-Portrait of a Young Man for Rent, 10 Year Anniversary Edition, has been translated into 10 languages. His anthology, Hos, Hookers, Call Girls and Rent Boys was featured on the front cover of the Sunday New York Times Book Review. The follow-up, Johns, Marks, Tricks and Chickenhawks, just came out. He has appeared on, acted with, written for, worked and/or presented at: Will Smith, Edinburgh Fringe Festival, Stanford University, National Public Radio, Penthouse, Michael Caine, the London Times, Playboy and Zippy the Chimp. His new illustrated novel is Mort Morte. He is also co-founder of The Book Doctors, who have helped dozens and dozens of amateur writers become professionally published authors. They edit books and develop manuscripts, help writers develop a platform, and connect them with agents and publishers. Their book is The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published. www.davidhenrysterry
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