Nora* is hungry. She is literally hungry. Hunger doesn't seem possible. Hunger can’t possibly happen here, to people I know, to decent people. But Nora is hungry. I hear it in her voice. "It's a favor," she says hesitantly when she calls, "like...a financial favor." She's never asked me for a financial favor in the 8 years I've known her.
Even for me, even now, even after seeing what I've seen, the idea of hunger--of actually not having enough money to buy the food one needs, seems impossible. There must be something else, I think, drugs, some foolish extravagance that broke the budget, a pair of sneakers or snazzy outfit. But this is Nora. She is one of the most modest people I've ever encountered. She works all the time, hustling to put together two and three jobs, waitressing at diners, cleaning houses, baby-sitting: anything to add a few dollars, to save, as she has been for ages for her own apartment, to finally get out of the shelter system.
I am in Chicago. I'm skeptical. Hungry doesn't seem possible.
"I'm in Chicago darling," I tell her. "Can this wait a few days?"
There is desperation in her silence. "Of course. I'm sorry. No problem." She says bravely, but I can hear her. She is panicking.
“Nora, tell me the truth,” I’m skeptical “what is going on?”
“The bills just got away from me,” she says quietly, “and I’m a little short until next week—you know--in a food way.”
In a food way?
“How much do you need?”
“Like 40 dollars…”
“40 dollars? 40 dollars is going to feed you for a week?”
“David, I don’t feel comfortable asking for more.” She says quietly. I can make it with 40 dollars. It’ll be okay. 40 dollars is good.”
Her check doesn’t come for 7 days. She has a toddler. $40 dollars seems an obscenity, a single meal at a mediocre Manhattan restaurant. 40 dollars seems impossible.
“Nora,” I say, “If you are really hungry…” it just slips out, she is really hungry. I know it, I know her. I know what it takes for her to call me, to ask me something like this—for money. And yet I can’t get over my disbelief. And so I say “really” and I cringe as I do, as I hear my own condemning skepticism, the skepticism of a thousand people I’ve met at cocktail parties who raise their eyebrows when I talk about hunger and desperation, about the clients I represent in the south Bronx, about their lives and the razor thin margins on which they survive. And yet here is Nora.
I hate myself for saying it.
“Can you make it until tomorrow?”
That silence again. “Sure.” She says, but I know in that moment it is worse than I suspected.
“I’m landing tonight at 7, can you get to Manhattan? I’m going to meet you at my house and I’m going to get you 100 dollars.”
“My house?” she should come to my house? I can’t be bothered going out of my way. I’m the one on the plane, I’m the one with the valuable time, I’m the one handing out the cash. Of course she should come to me.
But I hate myself for saying that too.
“I’m going to call you as soon as I land.” I say. “If you haven’t heard from me by 7:30, call me. I’ll meet you at my house and I’ll get you the money.
“I’m sorry David…sorry for asking…I didn’t know who else to call.”
“It’s alright darling, I’m glad you called. I’m going to help. I’m going to see you tonight. You can call me anytime.”
At least, I think, I’m am going to help…
*(not her real name)