A Hunger Within

This column originally ran in the Alameda Sun in 2007 by our then-editor Julia Park and will appear in two parts.

I remember the last meal I had in Paris. I was with my sister on a two-week tour of France and England in 1998; we’d been visiting our friend Mia who was from our hometown but had since left to live the lush life in the City of Light. We met Mia and her boyfriend at a chic "resto" called Homo Sapiens somewhere near the Eiffel Tower.

The napkin rings were sections of oxtail bone. There were abstract skeleton paintings on the walls. My sister the attorney looked around the basement restaurant with no fire exits, with just the one circular iron staircase leading up to the street, and proclaimed it a liability nightmare. And yet, the food — to die for.

We ate the magret and we ate the truffe, we sopped up the au jus and savored the gravy, we ate the fish and the artichoke and the consommé, and the potatoes with the little bits of jambon and the creamy sauce, the crusty fresh bread and the fruity red wine that Jean-Christophe had ordered. By the time the cheese course came, I should have said no but didn’t, and I was done in, stuffed beyond healthful consumption and more than a little drunk on the wine that coursed through our veins.

Jean-Christophe drove us around the Arc d’ Triomphe to show off how it could be done, and I learned just how and when to use the best French swear words as he negotiated the traffic. When we pulled up in front of the Hotel Marignan on the Left Bank, we fell over one another in drunken, weepy farewells. My camera and purse spilled into the wet street and I scrambled in my new Parisian dress and heels after them, while behind us some impatient oaf leaned on his horn and mocked us, "Adieu, adieu, ooh, hoo hoo!"

The next morning I was ill, so very ill. We had to catch a city bus to the Gare du Nord to take the Chunnel to London. Green of face, I pulled my suitcase up the street to the bus stop, my sister inexplicably chipper beside me. On the bus there were no seats and I swayed palely while a young man spoke to me in French about the architecture of the buildings in the 16th Arrondissement. His steady, quiet narrative kept me from losing my last Parisian meal all over the aisle. At the station, I smiled a wan farewell and we boarded the Eurostar. I swallowed two Dramamine, hoping to quell the volcano that threatened to erupt while the train slid from the station. As it picked up speed, I closed my eyes, drugged and thick, and vowed never to eat so much again.

Strange how one gets what one wishes for.

Forward this life story to three years ago, just after I became a single mother with no income and three daughters to feed. On this date in history, I stand in line at Alameda Point, at a warehouse that was once an airplane hangar, and wait. It is late winter, chilly, with the cutting wind that never seems to stop blowing at the West End of town.

It is surplus food-giveaway day, held once a month by the good people of the Alameda Food Bank, and I have duly provided my information: my address, my utility bill, the number of mouths to feed at my house, my income, and received a printed list of what I might have to eat. I may choose from the items proffered: canned spinach, canned corn, canned tuna, crackers, rice, oatmeal, dry pinto beans. The beef stew and canned salmon are two items I have learned to eschew. Instead, I load up on canned fruit, chili and the strange and amazing occasional treat like the pound of frozen blueberries that I used to make smoothies, or the two-pound sack of roasted almonds or the chocolate pudding cups that got me through deadlines.

Ahead of me in line, however, two homeless men discuss their favorite selections — the very items I refuse. It seems that beef stew and canned salmon are good to eat cold, and a can opener and a fork are all one needs for a solid meal. I see their dirty feet in shoes without socks, I can smell them, see the blackheads sprouting on their necks, see the grime of the streets on the creases and folds of their clothes and skin — and I hate to be here, hate all the reasons why I am here.

But I don’t hate them, those in line ahead of me — they are people, we all are — not statistics or germs or garbage in the street. I’m not so different, and any slip in circumstances brings me closer still. There but for the grace, I think, just a step away. We are polite to each other in line, wait our turns and are not greedy when we pass through the warehouse.

The story continues here next week.

Contact Julia Park Tracey at julia.editrix@gmail.com.