Monday, December 6, 2010

A Christmas Story

In early December 1993, I was living in Astoria, a working class neighborhood at the end of the N subway line in Queens, NY. I took that train home every day from my job writing for a trade magazine, a position I loved, even though it paid next to nothing. Like many other people my age, I lived paycheck to paycheck.

The first Friday of that month I came home from work and wrote out all of my bills. On Saturday morning I confidently tossed them in the mailbox. On Sunday morning, I got around to balancing my checkbook. I'd been careless. Unless I wanted to bounce a check, I had $8 left in my account. I had less than five in my wallet. I'd done some Christmas shopping for my family, and, it embarrasses me to write, my credit card was at its pathetic limit.

At first I didn't panic. I caught a ride with a friend most mornings, and I had a subway pass for evenings. I could eat what was in my pantry. Two weeks wasn't all that long. I'd be fine until payday.

Then I took some inventory. The only edible items in my apartment were a half empty box of Cheerios, a bit of milk, some butter, and a stack of Saltine crackers. I didn't keep much in the house because I was used to eating out. What can I say? I was young.

I ate cereal for dinner that night, and for breakfast the following morning. I bought a slice of pizza for lunch. I had a few dollars left.

If I spent my remaining money on a slice the next day, I'd have nothing. I panicked. I ate Saltines smeared with butter for lunch on Tuesday. I had the same for dinner. I went to bed with a growling stomach, my brain running too hard for sleep.

I could have called my parents. They would have wired some money immediately. But that would have been admitting failure. The worst kind. Do you know how many people said, "If you can make it there, you'll make it anywhere" when I moved to NYC? Too many. They would know I didn't make it. That I didn't have the stuff. Starvation was preferable.

I knew I could hang out at my cousins' over the weekend, and they would feed me. That was something to look forward to. I remember that Thursday we held a staff meeting where bagels and cream cheese were served. I think I ate two and snuck one in my purse. On Friday I endured a long lunch with our ad exec, Charlie, because I knew he would pay. A loud, sexist holdover from those Mad Men years, Charlie believed in drinking his lunch and pinching the waitress's bottom. We went for Indian. I was so grateful I didn't care that the entire restaurant could hear him tell me dirty jokes.

For whatever reason, I couldn't go over to my cousins' on Saturday. I was crazy hungry. I had two dollars.

I went to a Chinese restaurant near my apartment, figuring my credit card check went through and I'd have some room on it for a meal. I ate. The bill came, and I murmured a prayer as I handed over my Visa. When the waitress returned with my card, I knew by her pinched look it had been declined. I promised to return the following Friday to pay my bill. She said that would be fine, as long as I left my driver's license as collateral.

Humiliated, I ran home, tearful and angry. I knew what I had to do. I unplugged my VCR, stuffed the cord in my purse, and hopped on the subway headed for the city. I got out at 42nd Street, found a pawn shop in Times Square (it wasn't the family fun Disneyland it is today), and walked out with 25 dollars.

I went back to the Chinese restaurant and paid my bill. It felt good to slide my license back into my wallet. I went to the grocery store and bought peanut butter, a loaf of bread, some cans of soup.

I made it. The following Friday I stopped at the pawn shop after work and bought back my VCR. I took myself out to dinner. I went to the movies. I fell into a deeply restful sleep.

But I haven't ever forgotten how badly my stomach hurt when there was nothing in it for far too long. I remember the panic, the desperation, the anger, the embarrassment. I remember how much time and energy I had to put into figuring out a way to eat.

I didn't have children then, so I can only imagine what this feels like when you are responsible for people other than yourself. I can barely stand to think about the amount of families going hungry during these horrible economic times.

I doubt many of us are wealthy, but if you have a little extra, please pick up some non perishables next time you're at the supermarket, and drop them off at your local food pantry. If you have no idea where your local facility is, google it. You'd be surprised. Even upscale neighborhoods have them. Or, if your search doesn't bring anything up, shoot me an email and I'll find one for you. Seriously.

Being hungry sucks, but being hungry during the holiday season is its own kind of hell, you know?


  1. Wow, what a story. People wonder how others become homeless or starving - what gets them to that point. Alcoholism? Drug abuse? Gambling addiction? Maybe for some, but a stroke or two of bad luck can take any of us there, especially in these times. Thank you for sharing and reminding us that there really are people in our very own neighborhoods starving.

  2. This is an amazing reminder, Loretta. Thanks for sharing your story--the next time I'm at the store, I'll buy extra to donate.

  3. Great story. Remeber too that babies need food too and formula and diapers are really expensive.

    My oldests birthday is this week, and his party has gotten large. He loves animals and I suggested to him this year that we aks his friends to bring donations for an animals shelter instead of presents for him. He loved the idea. Pets (and unwanted animals) get hungry too.

  4. This comment has been removed by the author.

  5. Thanks for your great comments, Kristie and LiLa.

    And Lori, I'm so touched by your son's decision. Happy birthday to him!

  6. Great post. You shared a lot about yourself while also encouraging the best of the season--giving to others.

  7. this post made me cry. i find it so inspiring that you came out and said this for the starving masses out there. i'm really in awe. :)

  8. Oh, thank you, Aleeza! And welcome to the blog!