The Privilege of GuiltDuring the 1980's, I became conscious of my place in the scheme of the world because of a concert called, "Live Aid." I was 9 1/2 in the summer of 1985 -- all big teeth and hair that never quite curled into the wispy tendrils of the dainty Ogilvy home perm box model.
Faithfully, I squatted close to my parents behemoth Magnavox and took in the blissfully sublime sight of David Bowie's floppy Stray Cats mop dripping with sweat as he sang "Heroes." I cheered and squealed as a pre-Bodhisattva Madonna shimmied back and forth across a plain stage singing, "Love Makes the World Go Round." Her hair defiantly cartwheeled in dark red curls on her head and she easily slithered in her painted-on paisley pants.
Between the intoxicatingly wide-ranging performances, I was bombarded with images that slowly put me into a numb stupor. Video images of Ethiopian children squatting in sandy coves and plainly touching their distended black bellies. Babies sleeping in swaddled rags while their mothers fruitlessly wiped magnetic flies from their half-closed lids. How could this be?
It was the first time I remember feeling impotent and terrified about something so far from me -- ruthlessly demanding justice for these unknown sufferers. I respond to imagery -- I thrive off of words that can invoke sensory meaning. If a humanitarian organization sends me some form letter, but includes just the right human interest story or photo, I donate. I'm an easy mark. Rationalize as you may.
Recently, I read an article that has left an indelible image lingering in my brain. A reporter from Reuters posted a story on Thursday, May 26, 2005 about Sudanese women feeding their children leaves to avoid starvation. Young mothers tear foliage from trees and crush it into a paste, then boil the torn leaves and feed the mush to their children. It is all they can do to survive.
As you may already know, I work in a restaurant. For a living, I serve reasonably priced French and American food from midnight to 8:00 a.m. at a small eatery in New York's trendy far West Village. Most of the people I see in a night are anxiously gorging themselves on some comfortable food before they stumble off to bed. Because of the nature of when and where I work, I see a side of people that would be embarrassing to them if reflected back in a sober state.
I have seen a man drunkenly scoop poached eggs into his mouth with his fingers before falling asleep in his plate. I have witnessed an adult in a suit and tie pour white sugar out of a glass sugar shaker directly into his gaping mouth. Waifish celebrities order 5 or 6 entrees "for the table," finger a few thin-cut frites and then leave the overflowing plates untouched on the table.
Groups of recent college grads extol the spoils of their newfound corporate wealth by binging on Red Bull and Vodka all night. Then, they eat thick, bloody skirt steaks and immediately proceed to vomit in a dark corner.
Friday night, at about 4 in the morning, I stopped for a moment and took it all in. I scanned the small, dim dining room and actually watched the people around me. Normally, I keep my head down and just move through the motions of work. I know the ballet of service in the sinewy fibers of every muscle in my being. I don't have to look at people directly. Yet, I see it all, from the kitchen window to the front door.
But, that night, for a moment, I chose to look. I watched dozens of mouths chew. I saw lips and teeth fluttering in cadence with the intrepid mastication of buttery mussel bellies and elegant baguettes. Conversations conjoined into an unimpressive bungle of slurred words as people's jaws maintained motion on their food. Open, close, open, close. Like goldfish aimlessly gliding through murky tank water in search of nourishing microbes.
Dennis once explained something to me. He said, "Eating out is not an inalienable right; it is a privilege. People abuse that privilege by acting self-righteous and demanding to people who serve because they believe they should have everything they want whenever they want it."
I would take this even further. The act of eating is a right that should not be denied to any human. I know you will all agree, but I feel like it must be said. People should not be dying of hunger when other countries have restaurants that award free meals to patrons who can eat half a cow's meat in one sitting. Mothers should not have to feed their children the paste of boiled leaves because they lack access to food.
Perhaps there is little we can actively do to affect change of the Sudanese food crisis, but I propose we at least enter the thought into the collective unconscious and hope with our eyes open.