by Michael Lesser
It’s been an exciting and high-flying month for me and Free Food Harlem.
I was in a photo with Italian Michelin star Chef Massimo Bottura in an article featuring Free Food Harlem and Food for Soul, then I was interviewed for a member spotlight in an article by Eterra Kitchen, and my family has been reading the articles I write here, which has brought us closer together. It was a lot to have all that attention. And along with all that, I also got a cat.
Although I’ve raised cats, given away kittens, and cared for other people’s cats, it’s been a while since I’ve had my own. She’s a feral city street cat that found herself inside a brownstone that suited her, so she stayed. After two weeks of cat sitting and sending photos while the brownstone’s tenant was out of town, I was offered the cat.
At first, I could barely get near her. Her needle-like claws left neat rows wherever they contacted bare skin. With her there was no warning, just a flash of fur then blood and stinging pain at the point of contact. Slowly, she allowed me to touch her. I found I could pet her behind her head while she ferociously devoured her half can of food. Cat toys were a poor substitute for the actual mice and birds she expertly caught. Playing was for those cushy fat indoor city cats. She couldn’t play, but tried and often attacked the toy or the operator’s hand and arm with enough vigor to kill it.
Then one day, just like that, it all changed. I was sitting on the couch, and she jumped up next to me, rubbed her face against my arm, and sat on my lap. I’m not saying she’s tame, though. She still whacks me with lightning quickness when I do something she doesn’t agree with or wants a bite of my food, but with much less claw.
It’s Thursday night and Harlem is cooking. Literally. As I approach 128th Street my stomach starts growling in a Pavlovian response to the sweet hickory smoked BBQ scent in the air. A few blocks away, there’s a wafting of deep-fried fish that catches up to me.
There seems to be a street chef on every block in the neighborhood. From Malcolm X Blvd., I can see the string lights shining at the Soul Food Chef’s tent on 130th street. As I walk by a blackened tent at 131st Street, I see the chef peering out of his cave-like kitchen with only his headlamp to guide the way.
There was a time after we outgrew the first kitchen we were invited to cook in, and didn’t have a place to cook, but had a lot of hungry people to feed, so I seriously considered cooking on the street and serving meals there. Instead, I converted the living room of our apartment into a make-shift prep station and cooked in two kitchens two blocks away from each other to make 192 meals served in a coffee shop.
Today I get to cook in a brand new, beautiful kitchen designed and built by Massimo Boturra’s organization, Refettorio Harlem through Free Food’s partnership with his Food for Soul.
One of the things we have been learning about is the importance of creating a beautiful environment and surrounding the patrons with art, elegant architecture, and aesthetic food presentations.
Last week was the first time we offered a plated salad course. Our first-time volunteer from the NYU School of Nutrition did an amazing job assembling sliced tomato and avocado on top of assorted field greens with feta cheese and basil, then drizzled with olive oil, balsamic reduction and sprinkled with a dash of Maldon salt. Another NYU volunteer spent the afternoon meticulously slicing and layering tomatoes and avocados to have the mise en place ready. Refettorio Harlem’s Head Chef, who was there to help prep on her day off, even stayed to plate up the main course during service. With her expertise we served more than 465 gorgeous meals that night.
Still with all this good fortune, there have been times when it feels like I’ve been swimming upstream, and at best, all I can do is keep pace with the current. Like this past week when in addition to two food rescues and cooking three Free Food meals, I also needed to find time to deliver two duffel bags worth of clothes.
It’s 10 p.m., and we’re finishing up cleaning the kitchen. After a full day of preparing and cooking, I’m just getting around to checking my messages.
“Where’s my stuff? You said we can meet, and I’ve not heard from you all day,” I hear a nasal, heavy New York accented and excited voice say.
This was one of several conversations I’ve had with a man who had lost his spot in a shelter, and he no longer had a safe place to keep the two modest duffel bags of his belongings.
Several weeks ago, I was asked to pick up the bags and keep them in a safe place until the owner found another shelter or storage for them.
They remained undisturbed in a closet for several weeks until the owner came to get them back. I underestimated the importance of having a few bags of belongings and took for granted that most of what I own, although it may be inconvenient, is replaceable.
As he became more and more agitated, he told me about losing his spot at the shelter, how hard it was to get a storage unit, how much money the units cost, and that without having any transportation, he needs me to bring him his bags. But most of all, I learned about the stress of needing to schedule his life around mandatory parole and mental health counseling meetings, and his frustration with the bureaucracy surrounding them.
I also realized that I was thinking I was more important than this person whose life appears to be in shambles and needed a lot of assistance.
Through Free Food I connect with people who are often ignored, which also guides me to be a more humane and attentive person.
Later, I see him walking away on the corner of the address he arranged for us to meet. I call him and he sounds despondent, defeated, like he just can’t catch a break. I too know that feeling.
“Come on back. I’m here, I can see you. I have your bags.”
I carry the bags one at a time to the door of the storage facility. They are heavy, and I don’t want to risk damaging any of the contents.
I can see his body posture change when he realizes he has his things and is getting the help he asked for and was promised.
Inside the facility, he inspects the bags and is disappointed that his new boots are missing, and also notices his Mets and Knicks caps aren’t there. I agree to search in my closet for the missing items. The next day he texts that he found the ball caps and accuses the person who packed the bags of stealing his new boots and that theft, even by trusted personnel, is common at the shelter.
Completing this difficult and surprisingly intimate task felt similar to how I felt with my feral cat. After beating me up for two weeks and seeing that I was still with her feeding her every day, petting her, and playing with her, cuddled up beside me and realized she doesn’t have to draw blood to get what she wants.
Sometimes my life feels like a feral cat. I feel beat up, my feet and body feel sore, and yet there’s still more to do. And sometimes if I have enough loving and patient attention, life can curl up beside me and things can change beyond my expectations.