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Fair Foods

July 3, 2011

This post will only be indirectly quantitative, and not a rant, so I guess that means I will have to either apologize or change my mission statement. Sorry. Oh and by the way I do have lots of ideas for quantitative blogs coming up, topics to include:

  • clear your cookies! how internet companies track your every click
  • update on the diabetes model
  • is being a mathematician just a crappy job?
  • shout-outs to other nerd bloggers who are sending me readers

So yesterday I loaded up the (rental) car to the brim, with my mom, my two older sons, a guitar (for me) and an air conditioning unit (for my mom), and drove out to Amherst for the math program I’m teaching in for three weeks.

Before I left I visited my friend Nancy at Fair Foods in Dorchester.

I drove to her house early, getting there at maybe 8:30am. She wasn’t home- she had me meet her at a church near Codman Square, where she was making a drop. When I got there I helped her unload a van full of maybe 40 or so boxes of vegetables and fruit, with a few 50-pound bags of carrots and potatoes.  She got on the van and handed me the boxes and I carried them over to a sidewalk, while the woman, Marie, who was accepting the drop, carried some smaller boxes into the basement.  Nancy introduced me to Marie as her daughter, and introduced Marie to me as the beautiful, wise Haitian woman who was a professional cook and would turn all of these vegetables into a delicious feast for her congregation. Nancy and Marie talked about the church, and the fact that it was shared between two different congregations, one Haitian immigrant and one African-American, and how the church was run.

After a while it didn’t seem like Marie was going to get the help she was expecting to carry the larger boxes into the basement, so Nancy and I moved all of the boxes down there, temporarily rigging a window to be a de facto dumb waiter to avoid three corners and some stairs. There were tomatoes, white potatoes, red potatoes, carrots, ugli fruit, limes, lettuce, string beans, wax beans, and others I can’t remember. Almost all of these were in great condition, but some needed sorting before going into the feast. Marie asked for corn for the 4th of July- since the food that is collected is surplus, a given request may be hard to fill, especially around a holiday, which Nancy explained. But then she said that if we got corn we would call Marie right away.

After we finished unloading the van I was soaked in sweat; it reminded me of how incredibly strong I’d gotten working one summer for Nancy, unloading trucks all day (as well as loading them at the Chelsea Produce Market every morning at 7) and driving around the city in the big yellow truck making drops to churches, senior centers, and youth centers, and holding dollar-a-bag sites in vacant parking lots and sidestreets. That was in 1992; and Nancy, who was born in 1950, has been doing the program ever since, with various peoples’ help.

Nancy mentioned that before I’d gotten there she had gone into the church and listened to the singing and the praying of the Haitian congregation, and that it had been seriously beautiful. Marie insisted on us coming inside. We sat in the pews as the woman leading the small prayer group of about 8 people, mostly women, was talking to one woman who was clearly in distress. Perhaps she was in mourning. They were speaking in Creole, which I don’t understand (although I know some French so every now and then I can pick up a word or two), but it was viscerally moving how kindly the leader was speaking to the sad woman seated in front of her. After she allowed that woman to finish, she looked up and welcomed us in English and asked us our names. Marie explained in Creole something about us, probably that we had just brought in the food for the July 4th meal, and we were instantly welcomed by the entire group. After that they told us they were wrapping up their prayer session and would stand and have a group prayer.

Everyone stood, except for the mourning woman who was holding her head in her hands. And at once everyone started praying, but the interesting thing was they were all saying different prayers, and it was fascinating to watch and listen to how they could be both praying together and praying individually. I could make out a few words from Marie’s prayer, which near the beginning was quiet and included lots of words like “please” and “hope”, but which, like everyone else’s, became louder and more fervent and contained more words like “thank you” and “hallelujah”. It ended by everyone holding their hands up to the front of them and giving thanks.  Everyone ended at exactly the same time.

After the prayer group ended, there were lots of hugs and hand shaking. Many of the women wanted to talk to Nancy and she probably ended up hugging and being hugged by everyone there. There was a deep human connection inside that little church, which is pretty different from my normal assumptions about piousness and rules-based religions. Connection and empathy.

After we left the church we went to a playground and sat and had coffee together, and Nancy laid something down that was pretty thick. She talked about her disillusionment with her generation- the hippy generation- how they made all these promises but then didn’t follow through- the words she uses is didn’t apply themselves. She talked about having faith in her generation up to the “We Are the World” moment, and then waiting, and seeing nothing come out of it, and how bitter that had made her feel, how disappointed. She said it took her years to get over that, and now she feels like those years of her life, until recently in fact, are in some sense unaccounted for, both because she’s been sick and because she was somewhat paralyzed with anger.

She went on to say that she’s in a new phase now, she’s accepted the lazy fact of life that the people she was counting on, if anything, have made the world a worse place, not a better one, but that she’s decided to love them and love the world anyway, and to continue to make human connections with individuals, because it makes her have faith in a different way, a more diffuse but a stronger faith that won’t be disappointed.

It’s interesting to me that Nancy would ever describe her life as unaccounted for or her feelings as bitter. When I met her in 1989, she had been diagnosed with MS and lived in a huge old house with very little working anything (and what was working she’d installed herself- wired the electricity and installed plumbing). She had a great Dane and a broken-down donated truck, and when I came to her we spent the whole night cleaning out and reorganizing the truck. Whenever the truck’s insurance was due, or the phone was about to be cut off, we’d get a check for $50 and it would be a miracle, and I always felt like if I was ever going to believe in something it would be because of her.

I fell in love with her and with her approach to problem solving- namely, do the right thing, and go figure how to with bare knuckles and sweat. Over the years she’s been better or worse off with her health, but she’s never given up and, to be honest, I never sensed bitterness from her. Maybe these are relative notions, that bitterness from her is like frustration from someone else. Unaccountability from the woman who moves tons of food a week, that will otherwise be thrown away, into the homes of impoverished, mostly immigrant households, who know her and appreciate her act of kindness and take part in that act, would mean… what? to other people. Hard to say.




Categories: news, rant
  1. July 14, 2011 at 1:06 am

    Hi Cathy,

    It’s been a long time since I thought about Nancy or Fair Foods. Wonderful post, and blog.

    Best wishes,



  1. April 5, 2012 at 6:55 am
  2. January 27, 2014 at 6:57 am
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