by Rachael Hemsi
When you are fat, the strangest things happen. Thirty years ago, I weighed about 300 pounds. I was in my early 20s, and I was invisible. The larger I got, the more invisible I became. I would fly on an airplane, and no one would ask me to put on a seat belt. No one wanted to look at me.
I used to live in the invisible. Now I work with the invisible and I love it. I am feminine, and this is the way. It used to be the bodega clerks, the homeless, and the construction workers were the ones who saw me. “Smile,” they would all say to me. I struggled being on Earth, this weird earth, where no one tells the truth, we don’t really care about each other, and being human seems to be the last thing on anyone’s mind.
Being invisible has many perks. I can do everything behind the scenes. I can make changes without being seen. Get my opinion in without having to fight for it. The drawback is I have to know my own value.
I tune into people. When I was about seven, my mom’s friend came over. “Why is she sad?” I asked my mom. “How do you know she is sad?” “How could you not?” I thought.
If I hold a baby and listen silently to them, a song will arise that is the right song to sing to soothe them. Sometimes the song is slow, but sometimes they need a little speed in the song to calm down. It is always there if we listen.
I lived my life fighting for the invisible. As a social worker, clients would tell me about police shooting their friends, not having enough money for food, their partners hitting them. I would go home and turn on the news. Nothing. Their worlds were invisible. I live my life trying to see the hidden places in people. Sometimes it is too much weight. Hence, I am a burnt-out social worker. It also leads to wanting to be saved. I want a love where people see my hidden parts and I don’t have to show them. “Come in, see me, save me—you show the world who I am,” I sometimes think. Now I’m learning the power, joy, and fun of life is me showing the world who I am.
I have a friend who says to me, “I want you to see what I see when I see you.” Free Food Harlem has been a project that is giving me that—to feed the homeless Michelin-style meals, to give dignity to the invisible, to give everyone on a path the things they need for that path.
We started out small in Harlem. Healthy meals for a friend and his family in need. Passing out salmon burritos on the streets. Of course, I loved finding all the invisible people in need and handing them a burrito. It got cold, so we needed a church. We started serving meals, got some real dishes instead of paper plates. Most importantly, I knew who was coming. I was so happy they were there. Bring your friends. We now run Refettorio Harlem.
I wonder what it must be like to beg for change on the subway and no one even looks up. Do you start to wonder if you even exist? Do you start to think that nothing you do matters? I could see falling into that world where I am an invisible person muttering to myself on the streets.
We created a place of love. A place where people are seen.
Some people think I am crazy. “It is a free meal; they should be grateful for whatever they get,” they say. I see it exactly the opposite way. “Is the broccoli too cooked? Let me get you better broccoli.” “You don’t like that seat, let’s change it.” “We will have bread and butter next time you come.” A place where people are seen and heard.
Recently, Free Food did a fundraising soirée. We had Michelin star chefs, the best panettone in the country. It was time for me to do the welcome, and I had a moment of being shy and then thought, “No, Rachael, you got this.” I shared the humanity of what we do, the beauty of those we get to see: A woman tasting squash for the first time and calling her mom to tell her; the homeless guy with a pacemaker who gets two to-go meals every week to make it to the shelter on time. I shocked myself with my ease of talking. I thought back to my friend who wanted me to do Free Food so I could see what I was made of. Now, I get to see how my love can change people, and they bring me into the light.
Rachael Hemsi is the Director of Free Food Harlem. She can be found serving, fundraising, or scavenging for donated winter coats.