There's a place in New York City called Hudson Yards. It's a new development described as a monstrosity. I was raised two blocks from it, in the projects-five kids, single mother, and father figures through the years (a story for another time). The point: A two-bedroom space at The Yard (as it's called) starts at $20,000 a month. Conversely, our rent was $50.00 a month, and that translates to 400 months of our rent. Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, how did this occur in my lifetime?
Back then, rent wasn't an easy nut to crack, even with the stipend sent to us by the government, but we made do; kids got basic educations, wore clean clothes, hustled for money as soon as able, and/or ran the streets. We showed up for dinner promptly at 5:30 every evening. Food was our currency and standing in our community. If you ate good, things were all right. Were we happy? We fought each other like tigers. We argued, bitched, cursed, and picked on and were picked on in our turns. But each night, we gathered at the table and exhibited our best manners, ate well-prepared and -served evening meals. Our best manners-or else. At 5:30-or else.
My mother cooked at least 350 dinners a year. The other times, as a treat, we may have gone out for pizza, Chinese, or Horn & Hardart automat (Google it). I was always hungry, although I never missed a meal growing up-a hunger of the soul, I've been told.
Mom being German/Irish, my father being Sicilian, and her third husband being Greek made for some interesting meals. Plus, the ladies in that building of 84 apartments on 27th Street (who all seemed to know each other) were constantly swapping recipes, gossip, and advice and letting each other in on what mischief each other's kids were up to. Food that's now called "ethnic cuisine" was just called "dinner."
Apartment 10F was five rooms that housed seven of us. There was an elevator in the building that sometimes did and sometimes didn't operate. Riding in the elevator was an olfactory adventure-a positive one if no one had used it for a urinal. You got a whiff of everybody's dinner being cooked, from arroz con pollo to ham and cabbage, kasha varnishkes, and meatballs and spaghetti. In the morning, there was enough coffee being brewed in our building that you could get amped just breathing in. Of course, the same could be said for the second-hand smoke and lung cancer.
There were kids running and screaming, mothers yelling, fathers cursing, and hormone-fueled teens preening in a perpetual ghetto ballet. Then there were the busses, trucks, the Greek hotdog man, delis selling bagels and crullers, the hurrying to work and school, and the tango of shopping and procuring. The amount of laundry alone was almost suffocating, not to mention the never-ending bills, the interminable debts.
It was not simply a matter of going to one store for dinner or food. There was a fish market, butcher shop, green grocer, Jewish deli, Italian deli, bakery-the boogie of daily shopping to put food on the table at precisely 5:30. Make no mistake, we all had breakfast and lunches also, and, in the interim, we had candy, soft drinks, potato chips. I used to steal from the green grocer because I was addicted to the sweet taste of a perfectly ripe tomato. There were penny candies that we could afford by scavenging for soda bottles and redeeming the deposits.
There was a knish man who came around on Saturdays, an Italian sweet shop that sold lemon ices, a delicatessen that made sandwiches from cold cuts and would save the ends of salami, ham, cheese, etc., for any kid who asked for them. We bought cups of coffee at stands before classes. We waited, caught in the transition from childhood to adolescence, for the ice cream man in the afternoon, took small jobs for extra money, and spent the earnings at lunch counters.
Mom made side money as a waitress, Pop was a cook, and that third husband ran a bar and grill. I started work in food service at 12 and continued on for 50 years; these days, I have time on my hands, so I'm looking to get back into a kitchen. Feeding people is who I am.
Most people aren't aware of the inner workings of restaurants because most people haven't worked in one. Most people only see this: arrive, sit, order, get served, eat, pay, tip, critique, leave. Badda bing, badda boom. Workers are invisible and bend to your will, and few customers care where they come from and, if anything, perhaps consider how simple their lives must be. You know, being unskilled and all, perchance they're working their way through college, getting ready to get a real job. Isn't that sweet?
As Janis Ian says, "Pity, please, the ones who serve, they only get what they deserve." Don't envy the service worker-the work is hard, the environment is tough, and the pay is sh*t. Hours are long, schedules are erratic, and the "my way or the highway" management style is par for the course. That waitress that you fussed at might only get $2.15 an hour and a schedule that screws any semblance of normalcy-so what? That dishwasher making minimum wage pulling his second job shift to make ends meet, tough noogies. That cook who didn't graduate from high school but found a home on the range paying his bills with overtime sweat-and?
The 68,000 service workers in New Orleans are keeping this city running, fed, and watered. They aren't paid well because what they do is not considered a "real job." Where do we come from? I'll tell you. Up the street and light years away from Hudson Yards. Our need to eat and your need to be fed. Truly, hungers of the souls.