24 December 2009

Privilege In A Soup Kitchen

Most of the day was briskly cold, as the past couple of days have been. However, toward sunset, the air started to feel damp in spite of the clear sky. It probably had to do with the melting snow. Interestingly, the snow seems to be melting even more quickly now: I think it's warmer at I write this, late at night, than it was earlier in the evening.

Now, if I believed more in things like synchronicity and that everything that happens in our daily lives is somehow symbolic, I would say that today was a counterpoint to last Christmas Eve. I spent the main part of that day in Newark Airport, waiting to get on the flight I'd booked to Florida. That meant that my parents spent a large part of their day waiting for me at Jacksonville Airport. We all thought it was such a good idea for me to take a direct flight to Jacksonville, which is about an hour and a half drive from my parents' house, rather than taking a flight to Atlanta and another to Daytona Beach, which is less than half an hour from their place.

Anyway...last Christmas Eve seems further in the past, somehow, than even some of the Christmas Eves of my childhood.

One thing that made today different from Christmas Eves past--apart from having experienced the changes I've undergone in the past few months and few years--is how I spent part of this day. This afternoon, Jade, a friend I met at the LGBT Community Center, and I volunteered at a soup kitchen/food pantry on the Lower East Side.

Normally, lunch is served every weekday from 11 to 1 pm, and the pantry distributes bags of food twice a week. People are allowed one bag of food (which contains enough to stock a small pantry) a month; they simply have to present some form of ID. No such requirement exists for having lunch.

Today, however, the mealtime was extended, as were the hours for distributing bags of groceries. As you might imagine, there were a lot of people there.

After most of the patrons/clients/recipients (I heard all three terms used) were served, Jade and I were offered the same late lunch/early dinner, which was like a Thanksgiving dinner: turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce and the other foods that go along with it. At first I was going to decline: Somehow I didn't feel right about eating something that could've gone to someone who needed it more than I did. I voiced that concern to Jade and to the woman in charge of the kitchen. Both insisted that would not be the case; besides, some of the people would like to see us eating with them.

It made perfect sense, yet hearing it still surprised me somehow.

Anyway...The food was very good. And a black woman who was probably about ten years older than I am was good company. She told me a bit about how her life spiralled downward through an abusive marrage and drug addictions--hers and his. One might argue that she made bad choices; I would argue that her choices were more limited than mine have been and that she, for a variety of reasons, didn't know about other choices she could have made--such as getting help.

One thing I've learned is that people don't do things we would never do (or that we believe we would never do) because they're stupid or incompetent. More often, their circumstances present them a different (and, most likely, more limited) set of options than what we've had.

I say that as someone who, if I do say so myself, has grown keenly aware of privilege. I've told people that one thing I've learned in this transition (and, in fact, one of the few things I've learned that has any real value at all) is that privilege is something you don't know you have until you lose it. I was able to get some of the education and other experiences I have in part because I lived more or less within what was expected of a white male--and one who seemed straight to most people most of the time. What if I had "come out" when I was a teenager? Would I have stopped attending high school after getting beat up for the umpteenth time? (That is the story of a number of LGBT people I've met.) Or, what if my family had kicked me out. (That's another story I've heard too many times.) What would have I become, or what would have become of me?

The sober fact is that much of what I've been able to do--including, to some degree, my transition itself--is a residue of the privilege I once had. And even the residue of it is still more than many other people--including most of the people I saw today--have ever had. The fact that I was volunteering-- that I was, by choice, sharing my meal with someone who had noplace else to go--was itself a reflection of privilege that I still have, to some degree.

As near as I can tell, it doesn't help to feel guilty about it, or even angry over the injustice one finds in the world. I'm just trying to use what I've been given in ways that are meaningful and helpful to others as well as emotionally satisfying to me. And let me tell you, being able to live as you've always wanted to live is a pretty damned good resource to have!


Autumn Sandeen said...

Hi, this is Autumn Sandeen from Pam's House Blend. I'd like to receive permission to crosspost this, with a link back to this blog and the original artiticle here.

Please contact me at autumn [at] phblend [dot] com.

Gunnar Berg said...

I know of a young high school senior who recently came out. Most of his problem seems to be coming from his parents not his classmates. That would be tough. What kind of love bales out at a time like that, when he really needs it.

You are doing good things. Be well and have a wonderful Christmas.

Justine Valinotti said...

Thank you, Autumn and Gunnar. I hope you have had (or are having) a great holiday.