First-rate, second-rate: In and out of the soup kitchens of Toronto and New York

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Toronto's Metropolitan United Church. ()
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Toronto, a city that is at best an afterthought here in our world capital, has New York City beat, hands-down, in a critical area: soup kitchens.

I was born and raised in New York, went to college in the city and worked here for 15 years. I have also been homeless in New York: before, during and after the financial collapse of 2008. I’ve experienced every corner of the city’s homeless circuit, from sober houses in East New York to private shelters in East Williamsburg to Bellevue Intake to The Living Room, to NYC Rescue Mission, to the Coalition for the Homeless to Willow in the Bronx to Palladia in Harlem. All along the way, fresh, healthy meals were a concern. When you are at your lowest point, you need strength and clarity to execute a successful self-rescue. That’s what soup kitchens are for.

I learned this truth when I was in Toronto this past winter and suddenly found myself out on the street. I had been staying rent free in North York with an elderly woman recovering from knee surgery who just needed a little help around the house. She'd quickly taught me (or failed to teach me) how to prepare some amazing French-Canadian-Kosher dishes—the most delicious home cooking I have ever tasted. I will never forget sitting alone at the dining room table and fighting back tears of ecstasy over some meatballs, gravy and potatoes she'd whipped up.

Too bad: After two weeks of her complaining about my own horrible cooking and mediocre bedside manner, I realized there is no such thing as a free room. Though we'd become friends pretty quickly and enjoyed watching gory movies together at night (she was obsessed with Drag Me to Hell), we decided to part ways before she killed me.

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But there is such a thing as a free lunch. In Toronto, there are at least 60 churches, charities and non-profits that serve hot meals and cold drinks, scattered all over town. Since I was determined to remain in Toronto for another two weeks while prospecting film-related opportunities and exploring the city, I decided to stay in $30-a-night hostels and guest houses. My sister back in New York would cash my freelance checks as they came in and wire me the money. In the meantime, to hold onto what little I had, I took breakfast, lunch and dinner at the soup kitchens.

Having been homeless in New York, I knew the drill. I got a room and got on the Internet. Googling soup kitchens takes practice. Perhaps because there's still a notion that poor people aren't so techno-savvy, "soup kitchen" tends to call up articles and websites aimed at middle-class folks looking for places to volunteer or donate. But both New York City and Toronto governments have great homeless-services listings buried in their 311 websites.

The next morning I headed east of downtown, to the Bowery-like section of Queen Street. Junkies and winos queued up on the corners and stoops. One old woman smoked crack remnants openly on a doorstep. Following the directions, I hooked north to a squat building that looked like it could house a small architecture firm. But the presence of chain-smoking and shit-talking characters hanging around out front was the tell.

I went in to the front desk. "Not too late, am I?" I said to the sleepy-eyed man at the counter. "No," he yawned, "but this is for men 50 and over." My stomach hollered. The city website had said nothing about that. He said I could get a meal for two dollars. I had 50 cents until the weekend.

I went back out to the street and asked the smokers if they knew of another place that was open. They all shrugged.

But I'm from New York; I knew what to do. I walked back to Queen Street, keeping my eyes peeled for anyone dressed in crazy layers, carrying their possessions in plastic shopping bags. In New York, such folks come in all shapes and colors. In Toronto, the majority of homeless people I encountered were white males with bushy gray beards. I stopped such a fellow, who had on a shredded black field jacket, dog tags and a swarm of military patches.

"Hey brother, do you know of any soup kitchens round here that're open?"

In less than five minutes, I had the real lay of the land: The guy told me which kitchens were open at that time, which ones to avoid, which ones were too good to be true and yet were.

I rushed back west, over to Metropolitan United Church. There, fresh-faced young women I took to be theology students served shepherd's pie, juice, coffee and water in the basement. At the door, a girl poured tomato soup for each new arrival. A tall and lanky late middle aged white man whose gentleness reminded me of Bob from Sesame Street brought around fresh bowls of salad. The salad was bright green and gathered together with obvious affection—reminiscent of only one free salad I knew back in New York, served at Holy Apostles soup kitchen in Chelsea. There, a similar crew of glowing young Christians serve fresh, healthy meals five days a week. In most New York kitchens not administered by wealthy churches, canned, processed food is served. You walk out feeling full, but also as if you've been shot in the small intestine.

About thirty of us dined at a time, but there was no line at the door, which made me suspect that the real action was happening elsewhere. A fellow diner muttered something about how folks hadn't spent all their month's welfare checks yet, hence the manageable crowd. I'd heard that observation made in homeless shelter cafeterias back in New York, but never at a soup kitchen open to the public. Back home, every outlet for free food had long lines, often around the block.

When you leave Metropolitan United, a young woman hands you some fruit and a stack of fresh baked cookies in plastic wrap. What angels.

I spent the rest of the day writing, researching and checking in on my girlfriend up in Scarborough. She had no idea what I was up to. I wasn’t about to tell her. Her mother lived with her, and there was no room for me there. They had emigrated to Canada from Hong Kong when she was 10 years old. Mom now worked a low-wage job in a bakery. They once had a house in the suburbs, but after Dad left a few years ago, they moved into a small apartment.

We had been together only five months. As much pressure as she was under to keep a roof over their heads on her slim call-center rep‘s income, I was determined to maintain the illusion that I was holding it together. Once I made the proper connections in Toronto, I would be able to help her like I wanted to. This was to be a new start for both of us. Until then, it would have to be fake it till you make it.

The next day I headed back to the Canuck version of the Bowery for breakfast at Good Shepherd Refuge. Now, this was a long line. It snaked from the inside cafeteria door, down a lane, around to a long ramp and then out and down the block. But it was worth the wait. Fresh pastries, hearty sausage-and-egg breakfast, cereal, the works. The grizzled 50-ish white man seated across from me in a hockey jersey and denim vest saw that I was brand new. He offered me his leftover cookies and proceeded to school me in his straight-out-the-movies Canadian truck-driver accent: “Coffee and juice refills, pal, unlimited. For seconds, all you got to do is get back on that line. At 11 they start the lunch.”

As I headed back west on Queen toward Toronto’s Times Square-like center at Yonge and Dundas, I found myself walking alongside him. “Good shit, right?” he sang. “Yeah, “ I answered. He said, “Anybody who goes hungry in Toronto is either retarded or plain crazy!”

I told him I was doing alright on the food end but was hurting for some cash flow. He held out a palm full of wet, dirt-flecked change.

“Just look on the ground. All this I found in a parking lot.”

Whaa?

“All you do is you go to where the snow plow came through. There’s tons o’ money in the piles.”

He broke north at one of the streets before Yonge—“Good luck, brother!”— saying he was off to work. I believed him. He certainly looked and carried himself more like a blue-collar working stiff than a guy who would pick through filthy snow for change.

That’s the way it was in New York. You’d meet, say, a cook at a Times Square restaurant standing on the shower line behind the Port Authority bus terminal. He’d emerge combed and shaven in his white uniform and rush uptown to work. You’d bump into a Cooper Union-trained fine artist at the Goodwill Back to Work center in the Bronx. You’d hear from decorated war heroes who could back up their stories with news clippings and medals. You’d bunk down with day traders from out of town who carried two expensive smart phones and an internet tablet, monitoring the market for their way back in. You’d joke around with friendly Africans and Chinese who were just here to build a new life with maximum economy.

Not all of these people ended up in the homeless system because of dope or drink.

The economic crisis accounts for the quadrupling of food lines since late 2008, yes, but not for the discreet desperation that was there when I went homeless long before that fateful September. The Great Recession was dramatic because it sent millionaires into the streets. But even in at its peak of health, during so-called bubbles and booms, I saw it breaking the backs and spirits of working people.

I DOUBT TOO MANY OF THEM WOULD ADMIT to it, but in such a climate of constant catching up, the streets became something of an oasis. As George Orwell put it in Down and Out in Paris and London:

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.

Steven Boone is a film critic who has been writing for Capital about his experiences with homelessness.

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