Monday, March 14, 2016

You Don't Know Hunger Like I Know Hunger

If you had attended the fundraiser Tell It Slant for the Lincoln Square Friendship Center Food Pantry like you should have, you would have heard this story during the open mike:

I have lived my life on the edges of survival. My husband and I were just barely able to scrape together enough money to buy a house in the whitest neighborhood in Chicago. Every other house on the block had their additions and dormers done months before we were able to take this step. The weary front lawn shows signs of insouciance, the garage door opener has been inoperable for years, and most days I don’t even know where my next minivan is going to come from.

I have experienced hunger and starvation almost every day—in the middle-class, western sense of the word, of course. I decided to keep a hunger journal to share my struggle with the world.

March 2. I first notice my hunger at 7:24 a.m. I immediately scan the bedroom for sustenance, but the Girl Scout cookie boxes are all empty. The cellophane sleeves are lying around like empty condom wrappers the morning after a fraternity party. They are the detritus of our own middle-aged version of a wild bacchanal—a night of watching the Agent Peggy Carter finale, eating overpriced, déclassé wafers with reckless abandon, and falling asleep by 9:30.

10:00 a.m. Eating my first satisfying meal in at least twelve hours—not including the Trefoils.  It’s been hell. This peanut butter and bacon on toast with Diet Coke might as well be prime rib and Chateau Margaux, that’s how good it tastes.

10:30 a.m. Medium Diet Coke, easy ice, from the Golden Arches. I know I already had a Diet Coke earlier, but every addict knows that McDonald’s has the good shit.

2:30 p.m. Store-bought tamales and leftover chateaubriand under glass fuel my waning energy early in the afternoon. When you’re dealing with this level of deprivation you don’t stop to think about food pairings.

7:30 p.m. Currently drinking domestic merlot from Trader Joe’s. Essentially I’m having fruit salad for dinner, only without the coring and chopping. The wine feels warm going down. I dig a Thin Mint and a dollar fifty-seven in change out of the couch cushions and thank the little baby Jesus for small blessings. Spending time with Simon Baker, Jason O’Mara, and my other pretend TV boyfriends will distract me from my suffering and sustain me through the night.

I hope. Sometimes I just want to give up.

March 3. I’ve noticed that I mostly feel hungry when I haven’t eaten. I decide that the easiest solution is to eat all the time, proactively, so that I can avoid the gnawing pangs of my body slowly consuming itself. It’s a desperate ploy, I know, but I’m starting to be able to see my own toes. I’m fading into a mere shadow of my formerly zaftig self.

March 4. Jury duty. This usually goes well for me. A couple hundred citizens sit through a video explaining the court process—as though we haven’t all watched seven thousand hours of Law and Order over the past twenty years.

The grandmotherly lady next to me wears her puffy coat indoors while I am seconds away from spontaneous combustion. Must be nice to be post-menopausal. She unzips her Spiderman vinyl lunchbox and pulls out two granola bars. The crunchy kind. I eye them longingly. I sense hunger lurking like a panther ready to pounce. Grandmom chews with an abundance of crunching and slurping.  She also mutters to herself and hums. Even with my earphones in I can hear her lips smacking. 

I want to kill her.

This hunger journal reminds me of something my unofficial foster son L. Peevie told me twenty-plus years ago. I’m about as white as a person can be. I had never been a parent before, let alone a parent of a teenager, let alone the temporary parent of a black teenager from the west side. It took some adjustment on both sides.

I soon figured out that teenage boys eat a lot. I could not keep food in the house. It disappeared within minutes after I got home from Dominick’s. Sometimes it didn’t even make it into the ‘fridge or pantry. He’d snatch it from my hands like a wildebeest on the plains and eat it without even removing the packaging.

One time L. Peevie was rummaging around looking for a tiny after-school snack of a few thousand calories. He rearranged margarine tubs containing a bit of chili mac, a dollop of chicken tetrazzini, and a serving of potato salad. The vegetable drawer held a few limp carrots and some sad-looking celery.

“There’s nothing in the ‘fridge,” I told him, “I’ll go to the store in a little bit.”

L.P. looked at me and shook his head. “That’s the difference between black people and white people,” he said. “When white people say ‘there’s nothing in the ‘fridge,’ there’s still a ton of food in there.” He picked up the chili mac and shut the refrigerator door.

“When black people say there’s nothing in the fridge, the only thing in the fridge is mustard.”