9.02.2007

Deserving Poor

How does one survive in a strange city with few friends and no money?

You take what you can get. New Orleans is easy to live in because of one simple fact: the hot-plat- to-go. The to-go plate is everywhere, of course. It's that styrofoam or paper box - the "doggie bag" - the package you can take the rest of your food home in after eating at a restaurant. But in Nola it's a bit different. More than half the meals consumed in this city are to-go, served in a styrofoam plate. Only the tourist eating at the nicest restaurants actually eat on a real ceramic plate with metal knives and forks. Working class Nola along with the white collar stiffs of the Central Business District largely get their lunches to go and eat them out of the disposable dish with plastic utensils.

I suspect this partially evolved out of segregation when blacks had to get their food at separate windows or the back door of the kitchen. There was a time, not too long ago (the 1960s) when most establishments in the city did not serve blacks except perhaps in to-go plates. Not that most blacks could even afford the cuisine or had the time to dine in. Many were on the run to get back to work. The vast majority of blacks were so impoverished that spending money on a fancy meal was out of the question. So goes the American racial hierarchy.

The to go plate nowadays is everywhere. Even the best restaurants will hook up a container for diners when leaving with leftovers. This makes eating in New Orleans a treat for homeless people like myself. By about lunch time everyday, especially after 4pm the curb-sides fill up with bags full of ordered food, some of it half eaten, some of it not even touched, in to-go plates. Much of it is fried potatoes or bread, but it's not hard to score a large dish of jumbalaya, spaghetti, or a chicken salad. You can either dig through the trash, or else you can ask every tourist you see with a dish if you can have it.

Ah, New Orleans cooking! The best.

So today I was rummaging through someone's trash, a condo-dweller of the Warehouse District (a recently gentrified portion of the city) who has thrown out some very nice items over the last few weeks looking for lunch or else some laundry detergent, candles, electronics, golf clubs, cell phone accessories [all things this person has tossed away]. As I was digging through this persons refuse a truck pulled up. The man behind the wheel called out, "hey man!" I half expected to be accosted for going through someone's trash, perhaps his? Instead he handed a five dollar bill toward me. I took it and thanked him. He said little and drove off.

Why me? I'm a young white guy. I am perhaps thought of by many who see me digging through trash as a member of the deserving poor. I don't drink on the streets and I look relatively clean. Many who see me must think I'm just a young good ol' boy down on my luck, so they want to help me. I find this ironic because physically I'm obviously in my prime, so how could I be deserving? Why don't people label me as a lazy bum?

Race, class, gender.... I meet a dozen homeless black men everyday who are shunned by most. I give away much of the change I come across because truth be told I really don't need it, even though my privileges allow me to accumulate it more easily. So I'll stick to digging to-go plates out of the trash, cause we all deserve better than this........

2 comments:

natasha moscow said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
natasha moscow said...

The food looks good. It is nice to see what you are eating. I hope that someday I might have the chance to taste NOLA's food. Is that pepper in the plastic cup?

It does not surprise me that you would be regarded as poor. You are becoming good at passing. You are becoming a better anthropologist.
I know you tend to give a good portion of your money away.

Ever since I moved here, every time I take a cab, each cab driver has asked me if I was going to work either at the pet store or at the grocery store...(if I was going to work at my destination...) So I make sure to never mention that I am educated. What would be the point? Supposedly, my face says it all.