Undercover…Sort of….on the Breadline

by delarue

[Editor’s note: not exactly music-related, but worth knowing about]

The scariest part of being on the breadline was how absolutely ordinary everyone looked.

I’d never been on a breadline before. I’d found out about it from a flyer posted on a church door in my neighborhood. Expecting to be surrounded by crackheads and crazy street people, I’d dressed down. But as I joined the line, which was already almost all the way around this particular city block, it was reassuring to see who else had showed up a half an hour or more earlier.

To my surprise, this turned out to be a gathering of random New Yorkers. Like the people you work with – if you still have a job that people actually go to – and ride the train with, if you have reason to ride the train these days. This particular crowd was on the older side, meaning forty-plus, with plenty of seniors pushing old-lady carts. Some of the younger parents had brought their heavy-duty models. People of color were in the majority, mirroring this city’s current demographics, although I noticed a smartly dressed Asian girl in her twenties and a well-coiffed, mature white woman in a sharp black sundress reading the New York Times. I stood out for the very reason that I thought would help me blend in.

“No picture taking!” The beefy latino guy in front of me scowled at the black man crouched at the edge of the sidewalk. Slung around his neck were two big cameras, each with a zoom lense. I turned my back and kept my back to him. Ten minutes later, the line hadn’t moved; I glanced over my shoulder to find that he was gone.

After an hour and a half standing in the hot sun, when I finally reached the area where the Food Bank of New York was staging the handout, I noticed a sign with the same legalese disclaimer that’s commonly posted at the doors of corporate music venues: “By entering, you consent to be photographed and/or videotaped and that your image can be used for promotional, social media and other purposes,” etcetera.

There was another guy with a camera here, and this dude was obviously out for promo pix. Families with kids, babies, pregnant women and cute girls were all getting plenty of attention. He seemed very friendly; the black guy who’d been snapping pix a few blocks away had been all business. He didn’t interact with anybody. Undercover cop? Homeland Security? Rent-a-pig?

A lady asked me in Spanish if I wanted a mask; “No, gracias,” I demurred. Some of the volunteers were pleasant, some less so. Nobody was asked to sign in, or answer any questions, something I’d expected after my one experience at a food bank several years earlier. That story idea died on the vine when the guy running the program turned out to be a Nazi, or given to false assumptions about race and class, or suffering from the kind of battle fatigue that one would expect at his job – or all of the above.

This was more than a story idea. Until the lockdown, I did almost all my shopping in the far reaches of the outer boroughs, where food is plentiful and cheap. Not having a job to go to or events to cover, good produce at less than ridiculous prices has been hard to find without walking for hours: for the record, this walk took me over a hundred blocks.

But it paid off. The fresh produce was delicious. A couple of crispy apples; a trio of oranges; a handful of big, sweet carrots; impressively fresh romaine lettuce; a bag of spinach that hadn’t yet lost all its crispness; a few small potatoes, rot-free; a pair of huge cucumbers, ripe for pickling; and a pint of Florida grape tomatoes. Thanks, Food Bank of New York!

The rest of what was available was more in keeping with my expectations – at my lone previous food bank experience, I’d managed to escape with a bag of almost-rotten bananas, a loaf of inedible bread and a bag of shallots. So it was nice to get bunker food: peanut butter, corn flakes, a little bag of rice and a can of beans. It was disheartening to find that a lot of the canned fruits and vegetables were from China. On the way home, I noticed many people leaving those cans along the sidewalk. A quart of milk turned out to be skim. There were also huge bags of frozen chicken being handed out, but the idea of raw meat sitting in ninety-degree heat for minutes on end scared me off.

If this experience is typical, nobody on line with you is going to shame you, or look at you with distrust, if you need to be there. Just watch your back if you see a camera.