First-rate, second-rate: In and out of the soup kitchens of Toronto and New York
And there is another feeling that is a great consolation in poverty. I believe everyone who has been hard up has experienced it. It is a feeling of relief, almost of pleasure, at knowing yourself at last genuinely down and out. You have talked so often of going to the dogs—and well, here are the dogs, and you have reached them, and you can stand it. It takes off a lot of anxiety.
It was Friday, my girlfriend’s day off. Our routine was to meet early, sleep in for an hour, work out in her building’s gym and then go to the Y to search for jobs online. I had no status in Canada as yet, so my searches were all speculative. A couple of media companies had responded positively to my introductory letters and the possibility of hiring me when my visa status was settled. I had the crazy idea that if I just befriended the right owners and told them my story, they’d be happy to sign a letter of intent to hire me that I could use to expedite a work permit. Even though I’m a poor networker, I had an almost religious faith in the power of bonding with strangers and mutually beneficial arrangements (the clean kind).
So it was weird that just then, at a streetcar stop, I made small talk with a pretty, pleasant woman of about 70 who turned out to be Canadian super-producer Anne Tait. Having no idea who she was, I asked her my favorite random question, “How is living in Toronto?”
We launched into a conversation that carried onto the streetcar and out to the subway station at Yonge Street. Only after learning that I was a film critic did she tell me about her films and the Maverick Award tribute she was about to receive at the Female Eye film festival. I could tell she appreciated the shift from small talk to movie talk, discussing favorite critics and directors.
She invited me to attend her event next week but didn’t mention any comps. I told her I’d do my best to make it out there, mindful of my utter brokeness. We exchanged email addresses. When I stuffed the press materials she’d given me into my book bag, I took care to keep the disheveled, crazy-homeless-man mess of papers in there from her sight.
Sometimes in situations like this, I would get the urge to tell whatever power player I happened to be speaking with just how critical my situation was, but pride and prudence always shut my mouth. These people respect good work, not a hard-luck story. Still, it was hard not to envy Ted Williams, the homeless Man with the Golden Voice, who was all over the news at that time.
After spending the day with my sweetie in Scarborough, I saw her off to the bus to her job and headed back downtown, my token supply dwindling. Orwell’s “feeling of relief” tends to be short-lived when you actually have something (or someone) encouraging you toward something like a real life.
On Fridays in Toronto, the finest free dining is at Osgoode Hall, right in the city center that houses City Hall and the main library. I made it down there by 5:30 to find another wraparound line. I asked the guy in front of me holding a bag of library books what the 411 was on this place. He moaned with a kind of Charles Nelson Reilly melodiousness, “Ohh, you won’t believe it. They serve you on real plates with silverware. You get two tickets, red for the meal, blue for the dessert. Great portions, friend, you will die.” I loved this guy.
The wait was long, and to shorten it I engaged the woman behind me, who was itching to talk, judging from the way she kept thinking aloud. Within a few minutes she told me she used to be a costumer and prop person for the movies. She even constructed the fat suit that a certain Hollywood star wore in a critically acclaimed crime flick. She was only “in this situation” because a neighborhood stalker had menaced her for years, leaving her mental and physical health in tatters. The police had been no help to her. Her blood pressure seemed to rise a dozen points as she spoke of it.
This was also a common phenomenon out here: People who were so caught up in the central problem of their lives that they would describe it to anyone who would listen without condescension. They toss the self-protective filter that people with something to lose keep firmly in place. I’ve done it myself. Shit, I’m doing it right now.
Dinner was lovely. Roast chicken; potatoes seasoned and cooked with concern; crisp, blazing green broccoli spears; and some kind of fresh bread. Then dessert: a generous portion of vanilla ice cream that tasted homemade. Back in New York, you had to go 45 minutes out of Manhattan to get a free meal like this, up in Port Chester. A small church tucked in a side street where Mexican day laborers congregate serves that kind of dinner as lunch with real plates and silver, five days a week, to anyone who drops by. The church members bring you all courses on one tray, with a giant slice of fresh apple pie or chocolate cake. The day laborers fill up and go back to work strong as oxes (but surely tired as mules by around 3 o’clock). It’s the best-kept secret in the tri-state area.
After dinner, I sought out the frazzled costumer. She’d asked me to exchange email addresses so we could network—maybe I’d write a story on her. She might have been feeling like a wreck, her life in shambles, but she was still in the game.