The daily newspapers arrive, dropping another load of contrasts at my doorstep.
On one page we are told that Reagan may cut a billion dollars from the food and nutrition programs. Further in the paper, in the food section, we are told that "Houston alone ate two tons of pat,e in December."
What are we to do with these two pieces of information? The newspaper has neatly separated them into compartments. Should we do the same thing, keep these items apart so the facts won't rub against each other, igniting our emotions?
I clip these entries and add them to my collection. I already have two items from The New York Times Magazine of Jan. 2: a description of a woman in a housing project in Brooklyn who cooks chicken backs and noodles for her family's one daily meal (page 22) and a full-color recipe for oysters with leek butter (page 27).
I also have a Washington Post from the week before. In one story, the formerly middle class in Detroit are lining up for handouts. In another, the chic people in Washington explain that they only pick at elegant buffets: "You've seen one shrimp, you've seen them all."
There are others, of course. In New York, a movie producer, Dino De Laurentiis, has opened a giant gourmet store which he named DDL Foodshow, as if food were for show. The salami there can cost $6.99 a pound and veal goes as high as $8.75 a quarter pound. I am told that the aisles at this store are almost as full as the stairway at the Yorkville Common Pantry soup kitchen a couple of miles away.
What does one say about these culinary displays of the gap between haves and have-nots? What do you say about the ads for weight reduction and tales of people shoplifting milk?
With a scissors in my mind, I feel like a curator of clich,es. But these are not our clich,es. They are the clich,es of Theodore Dreiser, of Charles Dickens. They are the clich,es, for heaven's sake, of Pravda.
I won't label my exhibit with morals. I am not suggesting that the people of Houston give up their passion for pat,e. I won't admonish the people at embassy parties to think of the poor starving children in Detroit and clean their plates. Nor shall I tell the Foodshow to become a soup kitchen.
Americans learn to live in a culture of haves and have-nots. We coexist with some inequality and teach our children the survival techniques of dulled sensibilities. We walk around certain people, drive around "bad" neighborhoods and comfort ourselves with the notion that our government is helping, and besides, America is better than. . . .
But there is a point, a moment--and I think this is one--when we wonder whether we've become too good at not noticing. We see again all the contrasts, all the gaps, as if we were visitors in Calcutta.
Maybe it's happening again because the numbers of poor have increased to some critical mass. Maybe it's because the contrasts are so stark: Last year the stock market rose 171 points and unemployment rose 2.5 million. There is little subtlety in that statistic for my collection.
For the first time in most of our lives, the first time since the New Deal, we have a government that is not muting inequalities but sharpening them. How dulled a sensibility could be immune to the news that the government has been considering more cuts in food stamps and school lunch and child nutrition?
Suddenly America is not better than. . . . Every day now, European journalists call Nancy Amidei of the Food Research and Action Center asking whether it is true that unemployed steelworkers in Pennsylvania are eating leftover onions donated by farmers.
The creatures and creators of Reaganomics counted on our ability to walk around the bodies. They have assumed that those of us with jobs, those of us who have "slipped" only as far as shopping at sales and juggling bills, will quietly count our blessings and not notice that others have missed their dinner.
But we are not comfortable living clich,es. There is something primal about feeding. There is nothing like hunger to sharpen the senses, and the consciences.
My own file has a collection of the gaps between haves and have-nots. But in real life, poverty isn't a gap. It's a sinkhole. Untended, the ground will collapse under a wider and wider number of people. We know the sound it makes, a noise as ominous as the rumbling of an empty stomach.