Waking one Sunday morning in 1981, I was not exactly hungover, but I was ruing a dismal reviewing dinner the night before. It was a hangover of cuisinary regret I suppose. I brought myself breakfast in bed on a tray—espresso and a too-generous chunk of my favorite Russian coffee cake from Zabar’s—and the Sunday Times.
I could not get past one headline: Meals on Wheels Scrimps to Feed the Aged. There was a photograph of a sad-faced old woman sitting in front of a partitioned plastic tray with food and some Styrofoam cups. The article said there were 350 homebound elderly New Yorkers who got a hot lunch delivered every weekday, but government funds could not be stretched to cover weekends and holidays. If Monday happened to be a holiday, some of these shut-ins—many of whom living alone—might go without a meal for seventy-two hours. Just $340 per person would buy weekend meals for a year, a social worker was quoted.
My Russian coffee cake sat like a lump in my stomach. It wasn’t right that I lived a life of such delicious excess when aging, ailing people across town were so deprived—on the Upper East Side, no less. I called James Beard. He’d seen the same story.
"Let’s fill Christmas baskets for these people," I said.
"What about weekend meals?"
"Well, we’ll take care of that, too," I responded without really thinking. It didn’t sound like much money. "Call everyone you can think of and I will, too." I started calling food-world pals: restaurant consultant George Lang, Sugar Foods executive Donald Tober, restaurant publicists Ed and Michael Gifford, Roger Yaseen (top gun of the Chaîne des Rôtisseurs—in my articles I referred to him as the "Wall Street voluptuary"). Some of them called their friends, too. Beard enlisted restaurant consultant and cookbook writer Barbara Kafka, who called Joe Baum and went through her Rolodex. We asked everyone to give $340. By Monday morning, our friends had pledged $35,000 and a truckload of Cookin’ Good chickens.
At the NYC Department for the Aging, Commissioner Janet Sainer came on the line. "Friends in the food world have pledged thirty-five thousand dollars and some chickens," I said. "We want to pay for weekend and holiday meals for these homebound people, but you must promise not a dime will go for office expenses." I’d heard stories of charity funds that spent more than they raised.
She jumped right on it, gambling that we were not delusional. "No problem," she said. "We’re a city agency with funds for administrative needs. Your money will go only for meals."
It turned out there were actually 6,500 homebound elderly New Yorkers getting weekday meal deliveries – 350 on the upper west side alone -- but nothing at all on weekends and holidays. Our modest funds bought Christmas dinner for several thousand elderly neighbors who would otherwise have gone without. Throughout the city—in Harlem and Chinatown, in Bay Ridge, on Staten Island, on the Upper East Side, centers opened their doors to cook the meals we’d bought often with volunteers.
In December 2006 Mayor Mike Bloomberg, Christine Quinn and I delivered Citymeals-on-Wheels’ thirty two millionth meal to an 85 year old woman in Queens. What began as an impulse has grown to a huge commitment from thousands of New Yorkers, most especially by the restaurant, wine and spirits community --- to bring meals to this vulnerable rapidly growing population. Our roster includes 18,000 shutins this year. Seventy-seven per cent are over 80. More than one hundred are at least one hundred years old. Seventy-three per cent live alone.
A few months after that first telephone round-robin, I asked a social worker from the Department for the Aging to take me to see these invisible New Yorkers, many of them prisoners in their tiny single room occupancy hotels and modest walkup flats. She took me to West 70th Street. I was shocked and moved by the helplessness of the bedridden, the disoriented, these isolated New Yorkers on steps from where I live.
Then we walked toward the Ansonia. "I could introduce you
someone who will break your heart," she said.
"I think my heart is sufficiently broken," I told her.
We walked through an unlocked door on the fifteenth floor of the Ansonia just then emerging from its expensive rehab, into what had been a servant’s room with great high ceiling, vintage bathroom, no kitchen, just a hot plate. Louise, widowed, childless, 82 years old, lay curled into comma, all the toes on one foot long gone to gangrene, boned riddled with cancer, skin like wrinkled silk on her arms, eyes bright, surprised and pleased to have company.
I remember her so vividly. She was still pretty, with delicate features and wispy white hair loose from its bun. She didn’t seem upset that her meal delivery was a little late. A paperback of Shogun was lying beside her on the bed. Thick book. Tiny type. "I loved this one," she said. I was amazed. She said she could read without glasses.
She took my hand and studied the ring I was wearing. "When I was young and charming, someone gave me this." She had a small diamond ring held on to her finger with a rubber-band.
"But you are charming," I said. "We’re neighbors. I live just down the block. I’ll bring you more novels to read."
"What a lovely thought," she said. "I do hope it turns into a lovely deed."
I did go back with a bag of books. The door was open. It was dark. She was asleep. I left the bag on her bed.
And so Citymeals has become her lovely deed.
Yes I know she cannot possibly be alive but I think of her often when I go by the Ansonia and always when I see a Meals-on-Wheels delivery truck on our street. I like to imagine her reading Great Gatsby. That image of her in that sad little room is seared in my memory.
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