Today, though, was much more interesting - it was Thanksgiving Day, which meant that (unable to go home like 95% of Princetonians did) I decided to sign up to volunteer at a street kitchen in Harlem instead, armed only with several bags of dessert that we'd all baked last night, my trusty pink Sony CyberShot, and a desire to write a really good photoblog post.
Anyway, after catching the train and subway (and after a slight crisis where the ticket machine wouldn't take my $50 note or debit card and I had to use my UK credit card) we reached Harlem at maybe half-past eleven.
The first order of business was to find somewhere to leave our bags - somebody suggested the nearby fire station, but when we asked, they told us they were likely to be called out often (a LOT of kitchen fires happen on Thanksgiving, for obvious reasons) and so they couldn't guarantee we'd get our bags back at the time we wanted to leave. We ended up just leaving our bags behind the serving tables, but not before we got terribly photo-happy in the station:
The street kitchen itself was immense - it pretty much blocked off a whole street, there were 300 volunteers, it fed 2,500 people (not all of them homeless - some were elderly, poor or just too busy working to cook) with very generous portions, for free, and it basically all ran smoothly. The very idea of it was a little bit inspirational - it all grew out of Mary, the founder, serving Thanksgiving dinner to the homeless out of her car decades ago, and it's just expanded. It's difficult to appreciate just how big Thanksgiving is here - it's basically a second Christmas, Princeton has all but shut down for four days, people take expensive flights home across the country just to be with family, and professors were fine with people missing Wednesday classes to catch flights (even professors who would ordinarily fail you for missing more than two classes). Imagine, then, not only cooking extra Christmas dinner, but also spending Christmas Day on the streets serving it out to the homeless - and let's not forget that children were doing the serving just as often as adults were, being far more selfless than I was at that age - and you get some kind of sense of how impressive it is that so many people were running this soup kitchen.
My personal contributions to the day were, firstly, to dole out ambrosia from the trays it had been made in into individual cartons for people to take away, which we started doing pretty much as soon as we got there (after getting our name-tags) and didn't finish until gone 1pm. We then made our way over to get food, but before we could get anything for ourselves we met a Hispanic woman with kids in tow, who couldn't carry the four 'plates' (polystyrene food box things) she needed by herself, so two of us basically took one in each hand and she told the servers what to slop into it. Originally, that had been the kind of thing we were meant to primarily do, but it was a bit of an odd system - a lot of people were perfectly able to serve themselves and didn't need or want a middle-class do-gooder Princeton kid holding their plate for them, so we were only really useful in assisting the elderly or those who were getting food for other people too, and there were more assistants than that small a group needed. Similarly, the were told we'd be eating and talking with them, but there was no eating area and a lot of people just wanted to get the food and go. In a way, I was quite glad about that - not because I oppose talking to homeless people or anything, but just because I have almost no common conversation topics with ordinary Americans, since I don't understand their sports, don't want to risk talking politics, and kept forgetting to wish people a happy Thanksgiving.
Anyway, after helping her with her food, we got our own (as I said, massive portions - I can see why "Thanksgiving" and "food coma" are used in the same sentence) and took a lunch break. I gorged myself (a good idea, since I've ended up not having dinner, because the dining halls are closed tonight) and then took a few photos of the surroundings. Afterwards, I helped an older man load up his trolley with food (which will hopefully last him a few days), and by then the crowd was thinning out, so we had nothing to do for a bit and just stood around chatting and helping get through the chocolates, and then finally we helped collapse the tables, unload the leftover turkeys from the vans, and left sometime after four. Some of our group - who were heading on from NY to visit friends for the holiday - had left earlier, three went to Times Square (but I've been there, done that), and the rest of us got back to Princeton just after half-six. It was a really good day - I'm definitely glad I did it.
This is Mary, who ran the soup kitchen - but even though she was massively busy organising it, right before this photo was taken I saw her take the time to coo over a toddler in a pram for a few minutes.
This was the queue that had formed before the soup kitchen even opened - a testament both to how good the food is and to how big the problems of homelessness and poverty are in America.
This is just a photo of one small part of the operation - the cooking station, where the turkeys are reheated on a grill before being served out.
This is part of the long serving station, where turkey is being carved up and distributed - note also, like I said, that even children were helping out.
The drinks station, which served water, orange juice, apple cider (which isn't alcoholic in America) and coffee.
The basic message of the day! This was also part of the dessert station - I think they served pumpkin pie here.
Chenyu, one of the trip leaders, with two of the other volunteers. This seemed to be a kind of medical supplies table, giving out facial tissues and toothbrushes, as well as candy.
Two other guys from Princeton, hard at work doling out and boxing the ambrosia.
My own fair hand, gloved and in mid-scoop.
The Princetonians relax and take their lunch break.
My boxed main meal - turkey, stuffing, carrots, mixed beans and cranberry sauce. I refused the dark meat, mashed potatoes and sweet potatoes, and never asked for more than they served me, so you can see how generous they were being.
My dessert box - apple pie, saffron buns (cooked at Princeton), Lindor chocolates, chocolate-covered strawberries and cookies.
They had flowers on the serving tables, which was a nice touch - I think they even gave them away to the homeless at the end.
Finally, the line thins out as everyone who wants food has been served.
Clean-up begins and the serving tables are packed away.
These two photos really show the enormous size of the operation - the amount of rubbish that was produced, and the food left over at the end. When you consider that it serves 2,500 people with the generous portions shown above, the mind boggles at how much food they started out with. I joked to someone that it must be using a whole farm, but that can't be too far off the mark.
Even at the end of the day, though, some people had clearly stocked up on as much food as they could carry but still had no home to go to. As we went back to the subway, we passed a man sitting on the street surrounded by our food. In a way, that was heartening - it's nice to see the day's work making a difference to real people - but it also hammered home that the street kitchen couldn't even begin to tackle the problem. Even those who boxed up huge portions to take away will eat them within a week, and then be left wondering, again, where their next meal is coming from, no closer to finding a job, a home or a life off the streets.