Summer Nights in Harlem

by Joe Zanotelli

This spring I got to spend six weeks in Harlem volunteering at Free Food. I’ve been a volunteer with Unconditional Freedom and Free Food Harlem for a few years now, but this was the first time I got to visit NYC for a good amount of time and volunteer in person. I had never lived in New York before, so staying in Harlem for a month had me a bit nervous.

While there, I helped out in a lot of different ways, and one way was I supervised the volunteers at some of the meal services and the pantry. I really came to appreciate all of those volunteers. We’d have 10-20 volunteers at each event. One woman in particular, named Linda, made an extra special impression on me during my stay. Linda came to every event. At first, because I was new, I didn’t realize who she was, or what role she played. I did notice she knew a lot of the people, and knew how everything ran. She was lovingly protective of the program, and of the other volunteers. She taught me how to do things, but would also challenge me to see how I would react. Everyone knew her as Flowers, because she did a beautiful job making the decorations each week with the donated flowers.

One day, after being there for about a week, I found myself walking down the street from the Free Food Restaurant on W 119th street, noticing all of the brownstones, and the people visiting out front. About halfway down the block, I heard someone call my name. This was quite a surprise! I turned to look, and it was Linda. Sure enough, Linda lives five houses down from the restaurant. I stopped to chat for a bit with her and her friend. As I walked away, it hit me, Linda isn’t just a volunteer, she’s a neighbor. Every day, she came down the street to serve people in her community who needed the help. In that moment, I noticed how Free Food was making a great impact on the community, but I also noticed how all of the neighbors were making such a big impact on Free Food.

Towards the end of my stay we hosted a meal for community leaders, including restaurant owners and government officials and such. The week before, I was telling Linda about it, and she was considering whether she would come help serve on that night. But instead of inviting her to volunteer, I invited her to come sit for the meal. I pointed out that she is a bit of a community leader, as a volunteer. At first she declined, so I wasn’t sure if she was going to come to work, or simply for dinner.

On the day of the event, she came at her regular time. She went over to our donated flowers and made all of the table decorations. I noticed she was taking extra care, as someone would if they were decorating their own home for a special guest. There was one thing I noticed that was different. That day she was wearing a simple white top with black suspended pants that were well pressed and clean. On her head was a bright yellow and black checkered cap and her shoes were also bright yellow. Her hat and shoes were a perfect match and bright enough to definitely be noticed. She got dressed as if important guests were coming to her own home. When I noticed her outfit, she beamed.

As the guests started to arrive, she seemed a bit uncomfortable. I could tell she was still trying to decide whether to continue to serve or take a seat. That’s when I noticed her grab three other volunteers and they all went to sit down at a table together. Sure enough, she took a seat with the community leaders.

I made a special point during the night to go over and fill her glass with sparkling water and serve her the meal. Every time I came over, she was beaming. She would ask me questions about who all the guests were and why they were important, and she would tell the other volunteers sitting with her how important the program was. She had so much pride for what they were a part of.

On the last day I was in Harlem, I was walking down the street again, after wrapping up a few last things at the restaurant, and sure enough, I saw Flowers again. This time she was standing on the front stoop of a friend’s home, again in typical Harlem style on a warm summer night. I saw her first, and I almost stopped to say hi, but it was a pretty tight group and they were in the middle of a conversation. That’s when she noticed me and she called to me, “Is that Joe?!” her typical way of saying hi. She invited me in. We connected on the porch around all of her friends and we shared how much we both enjoyed each other and our time together. In that moment, in the middle of Harlem, on a porch with a bunch of people I didn’t even know a few weeks earlier, I felt welcomed. Like a neighbor myself.

This is what Free Food has become to this block in Harlem, a neighbor. In Harlem, one doesn’t get to have that label very easily, it has to be earned. And I can tell, Free Food has earned it. Free Food isn’t just a soup kitchen, it is part of a community. And that community gets to come together every week to share a meal, and share their love with each other.

Joe has been a volunteer with Unconditional Freedom since 2018, during which time he has helped with fundraising, volunteer coordination, in-kind donation management, letter writing, and meal service. He also has a passion for restoring life to our degraded soils and ecosystems.

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