American life, 2015 — income inequality ‘r us

By Caitlin Kelly

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Are you familiar with the Gini coefficient?

It measures income inequality — the chart linked above lists it for every U.S. state.

This group of young men, the topic of a recent documentary, The Wolfpack, were raised in a NYC apartment by their hyper-controlling father
This group of young men, the topic of a recent documentary, The Wolfpack, were raised in a NYC apartment by their hyper-controlling father

New York, where I’ve lived since leaving my native Canada in 1989 — ranks 50th. i.e. second worst in this regard in the United States.

The worst? You have to laugh, albeit bitterly, Washington, D.C., home to the Capitol and the nation’s federal legislators.

I recently re-lived it, while working on a story for a New York City website about a company giving out food to bring awareness of food insufficiency — aka not having enough to eat every day — in the city’s five boroughs.

Fresh flowers, always on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art
Fresh flowers, always on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, a bequest from a wealthy patron. A gorgeous side of Manhattan many tourists see….but there are other, darker realities as well

Last week, I spent two broiling hot, humid days — 95 degrees — working in the poorest part of the poorest Congressional district in the country, the South Bronx. Local residents lined up that day, as I walked over from the subway, some carrying parasols against the brutal heat, some arriving from the public housing complex across the street, for a van offering medical care.

Many of them line up, three days every week, for whatever the food pantry has on offer; I saw many bags of bread and rolls, crisp green apples and cookies.

I was there to watch a company hand out food, and to write about it.

I did this with mixed feelings.

Yes, charity is a good thing.

Yes, alleviating hunger and poverty is a good thing.

But everything is a very small bandage on a large gaping wound.

It is deeply shocking, if you still have gauzy fantasies of America!!!!!! to see the reality of American poverty face to face.

I stopped that day for a quick lunch, (I never eat fast food!), at McDonald’s, one of a dozen fast or fried-food joints lining 125th Street in Harlem. Parts of that street, even in sunny mid-day, have some people nodding off after using a new synthetic form of marijuana.

The restaurant’s clientele that day was, possibly, 10 percent Caucasian.

I had a long conversation, half in French, half in English, with a young librarian from Normandy, traveling for a month with his wife. They planned to visit New York, Philadelphia, D.C. L.A. and San Francisco, which, I told him, would also offer some insights into the income inequality now splitting the country in a way unseen since the Gilded Age, some 100 years ago.

“I can’t believe what I see,” he told me, gazing around at our fellow diners, many using crutches, canes and motorized wheelchairs, some the result of diabetes and obesity.

Welcome to the U.S., I said.

The next day I visited another part of the Bronx; (for you non-New Yorkers, that’s one of the city’s five boroughs, north of Manhattan, a place very few tourists are ever likely to see), this one an astounding and essential part of the city, the Hunt’s Point Food Center.

I saw the warehouse for the Food Bank for New York City, an entity I was certainly well aware of; you can’t live here for any length of time without some idea of their work.

From their website:

Hunger is caused by food poverty, a lack of geographic and/or financial access to nutritious food. In New York City, one of the richest cities in the world, food poverty is around every corner. Throughout the five boroughs, approximately 1.4 million people — mainly women, children, seniors, the working poor and people with disabilities — rely on soup kitchens and food pantries. Approximately 2.6 million New Yorkers experience difficulty affording food for themselves and their families.

Their warehouse has nine bays, each loading millions of pounds of food each month, in and out.

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We were given a tour by the warehouse manager, running the place since 1994, a burly, lively whiz running a team zipping about in hand-trucks in a space so enormous it simply boggled the mind.

Imagine the biggest store you’ve ever seen, in the U.S. a Home Depot, for example. Try again!

This warehouse is 90,000 square feet — the above image, (mine), gives you some idea how enormous.

In my 25 years living here, few experiences have struck me as powerfully as these past few days, powerful and visceral reminders that there are many New Yorks, not just the ones tourists see or the ones shown in movies and on television.

It’s hard sometimes, living here, to manage the cognitive dissonance that comes with being even vaguely socially conscious in New York — the size oo’s in their Prada and Gucci, stepping out of their driver-chauffeured Escalades into helicopters to fly to their mansions in the Hamptons.

And…this.

My Diet, Week Two: Dreaming Of Martinis

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1.500 calories. Yum! Image by sam sha-put-ski via Flickr

Sitting here drinking my coffee (skim milk, which it always was, no sugar, as usual.) Trying to work up an interest in eating — for the second week — a breakfast of two to three eggs, bacon, a vegetable and a piece of cheese. Eggs have never been a favorite food and after this week ends, I may not eat one for a long, long time.

Friday begins Phase II, with the (re) addition of a tiny amount of carbohydrates and, for the first time in two weeks, fruit. It will be four very long weeks before I am allowed to consume refined sugar in any form — maple syrup, sugar, honey. Thanks to the steroids I’m on for my arthritis, no alcohol has entered my body for weeks. I pass our decanters of Balvenie and Tanqueray with only a brief, pining glance.

Now I really know what food means to me and what its deprivation makes me feel.

Lousy. Angry. Miserable. Controlled. Infantilized.

Shut off from the simplest pleasures of eating out, making a great meal for my sweetie, throwing a dinner party, biting into a creamy piece of Brie or fresh hunk of sourdough. Food is not fuel, to me. By removing its pleasure, and turning it into the enemy, I have had to look food straight in the face and see what it looks like.

We don’t have kids or pets or, really, hobbies. We’re both workaholics, lucky to eat dinner together by 7:30 or 8:00 p.m. most nights. Weekends, as they are for many of us, have been a cherished break with some beloved rituals, whether the blueberry pancakes my sweetie makes for me before I go play softball or the cold Stella or Guinness (one) I drink after the game with all my friends or roast chicken (yes, with skin) I plan and make for us.

A cold, wet, sour 6 ounces of unsweetened Greek 0% fat yogurt is not going to do it for me. Sorry.

Three things sustain me in this world, without which I am not sure life is worth it: ideas, delicious sustenance and beauty. These have been consistent for decades.

I recently blogged here, and had op-eds in two major newspapers, about having been bullied for three years in high school. What I didn’t say was that, every day after school on my long walk home, lonely and battered emotionally, I passed two bakeries. I’d eat something sweet and delicious from the first one and also from the second. The long walk and a high metabolism saved me from gaining weight. Sweet, gooey food was very real, immediate, reliable comfort. (Sorry, not a piece of celery or a low-calorie, low-fat apple.)

As it is for millions.

Losing weight and re-thinking the role of food in one’s life means paying exquisite, unrelenting attention not just to the invisible and delicate chemical balances of leptin and ghrelin and cortisol (that regulate appetite and satiety) but how it tastes and how it makes you feel and how happy your kids or husband or girlfriends are when you cook and serve them something delicious. And drink, whether a creamy cappuccino (still  permissible, thank God, with skim milk) or a stiff G & T (not OK. Shriek.)

I went grocery shopping in a suburban supermarket this week, as I have for the past decade. Obstacle course! Nightmare! It felt like one of those “hellhouses” that evangelical Christians like to create to show sinners the wages of their behavior. Every single aisle was a minefield of easy, terrible choices: chips, cookies, ice cream, candy, soft drinks, fat-laden meats, sugar-added breads, “low fat” yogurts packed with sugar. You practically need a pair of blinders, like those worn by the carriage horses in Central Park that block out all those cars and buses and pedestrians from view, to maneuver through without submission to multiple temptations. Produce aisle, dairy case, lean meat — out!

Eat out, for  a break from those damn measuring cups and spoons,  and you have to keep repeating, over and over: “No rice, bread, corn, carrots, thanks!” Then they bring it to the table anyway.

We ate Indian last night, where they know me, and the waiter — bless him — asked “Gin and tonic?” , my regular. That was tough.

I am now painfully aware how minuscule a “portion” is — go try it — four ounces of wine (as if!); one cup of pasta; 12 almonds.

The only good thing is, yes,  I am already noticeably thinner. I refuse to get on a scale. I’ve had enough humiliation for one lifetime, thanks.

I know my own body and how my clothes fit. I’ve had terrific support and advice here (thanks!) and from friends who have handed me some foods that work for them (Dreamfields pasta) and other tools.

Only five more weeks to go. Then….?

The Diet: Week One, In Which I Enter A Bakery Just For A Tantalizing Sniff

Silhouettes and waist circumferences represent...
Image via Wikipedia

I’ve never dieted. Never wanted to. The doctor ordered it and for two weeks I have a tightly edited list of foods I am allowed to eat.

No starches (including carrots, sweet potatoes, corn); sugar or sweetening of any sort; no fruit in any form; no rice, pasta or any type of bread. It will modify only slightly over the next six weeks.

Here’s the challenge. If you stay home, and never go out, and are OK with that hermit-like existence, it’s workable as you calibrate every single mouthful, literally, with a set of measuring spoons and measuring cup. Such a fun start to a meal!

If you actually venture into the real world of restaurants and cafes and mass-marketed meals — I just spent two days in Boston — good luck! Salad in a campus cafeteria offered “lite” dressing, filled with high fructose corn syrup (a sweetener) and no bottles of oil and vinegar to substitute. Breakfast in the train station meant grilling the poor people at Cosi whether their eggs were real or powdered; they didn’t know, which was not reassuring. I ate the contents of their wraps without the forbidden wraps.

You wander about in a haze of permanent hunger, food glimmering and glistening all around you like some mirage in a distant oasis: donuts, mountains of muffins, enormous cups of fresh orange juice, a cool, amber glass of beer enjoyed by the guy sitting beside you at the bar as you sip your….Diet Coke.

You start to count the very few people who are not overweight or even morbidly obese, and notice how rare they are, anywhere. Some of them look like the Michelin Man, a belt cruelly tightened across their midriff as if it were a torture device. You wonder if they even have a bossy/caring physician or if their doctor is unkind or unhelpful or has just given up on them.

Your day, if you love to cook and eat and drink and plan the night’s dinner, has lost its focus as food and drink as a source of pleasure are erased. I don’t want a lifetime where food becomes mere fuel, every single calorie a dreaded threat to my existence. Today’s New York Post featured a story about mid-life women, several of them boasting how they are hungry all the time thanks to their minimal food intake — but look hot.

I’ll take tepid and happy…The “reward” for losing weight, the dietitian told me, is…even less food! Tinier portions, because my body will need fewer calories.

This is motivating?

I start physical therapy tomorrow, 45 minutes of pool aerobics to loosen and strengthen my arthritic left hip, which I am assured — and logic would agree — will hasten weight loss by burning more calories.

I am counting the days until I am deemed strong enough once more to get out on my bike, work up a sweat in the sunshine and get back to my Saturday morning softball game. (Two weeks ago, I could barely walk across the room because of the hip pain, which oral steroids have mostly relieved. A hip replacement is in my future, but I am hoping to postpone it for a few years, at best.)

By then, I might gnaw on my glove. Hey, it’s protein.