In the months between finishing my undergraduate work at Berkeley and beginning my graduate courses at The Johns Hopkins University, I waited table at a restaurant called "The Deli", which was on Union Street in the Marina district of San Francisco. I had not worked there long when I realized one of the ironies of my job: people came to me hungry and irritable. I gave them food that satisfied their appetites and comforted them. And just when the food I served made them happy and relaxed, they left. And then I had to deal with another group of hungry and irritable folk.
This morning I woke up hungry. I had not eaten as much as I should have last night because I was having a fruitlessly busy night driving my cab. The huge "Dreamforce" conference occupied the center of downtown for five days and caused traffic jams throughout the Financial District, Chinatown, Union Square, SOMA, Nob Hill, and the Embarcadero. I answered numerous calls from Dispatch only to find no one there wanting a cab. Either the passenger had caught another cab because, given the traffic gridlock all around, they had had to wait longer than they thought they should have, or the call had been placed by an Uber driver in order to knock a cab out of the competition -- in other words, as a Nixonian Dirty Trick.
Furthermore the fares I did get were either short ferry-rides between one downtown hotel and another, yielding maybe six or seven dollars, or treks to a hotel out by the airport or out by the ocean, which then necessitated a return to the city empty, i.e., a "Dead Head." I made no money at all last week, and by the time I got home last night, I was angry, frustrated, anxious, and depressed. I had no food in the house and since I got off work at 5:00AM , no restaurants were open nearby.
So I went to bed hungry. I was so exhausted that I barely knew that I was hungry. I registered the fact when I woke up during the night (well, morning actually) but each time I quickly went back to sleep. When I awakened for good in the early afternoon, however, I felt the kind of hunger I had known during my most penurious days on the street a little more than a year ago.
The experience of hunger calls into question the Darwinian hypothesis, or at least the most common understanding of that theory. The early stages of hunger, the jittery sleeplessness and the anxious, restless waking, can be understood as prompting one to hunt for food and therefore as factors that increase the chance of survival. These incitements to action are fleeting, however, and quite soon they are replaced by a lethargy that overwhelms any motivation to action at all.
Within the body that lies on the bed one senses only an emptiness void of both substance and energy. You are aware of yourself as an empty sack, and the cool absence at your center brings on a sense of relief. You imagine yourself lying where you are for hours and then days, the body cleaning itself out and then beginning to shut down. The sensation is seductive, even luxurious, as you release all effort and all the tension in which you have bound yourself for a lifetime. You imagine them finding your body in a few days, clean and empty on the white sheets, and all the ambitions and all the shame that you have carried all your life have disappeared, leaving you pure in death, peaceful, even happy.
Such hunger cannot be understood as enhancing one's chances of survival.
Among human beings, the commandment to share food, to share it with anyone who appears at your door or at the opening of your tent or your cave, is both prehistoric and absolute. The most ancient myths and the most sacred rituals celebrate this imperative as the founding principle of humanity, as the cornerstone of all morality. True communion is the sharing of food, simple bread and wine, which are themselves the Divine Substance, the body of God.
Zeus and Hermes, always fond of dressing as impoverished mortals and roaming the countryside (in modern terms, appearing as homeless men wandering the streets of an inner city) knock at the door of a rude hut, isolated in a remote countryside. The aged man and woman who live there invite the strangers into their home, insist that the visitors sit at their table, and serve them the meager meal of watery soup and dry bread which they had prepared for themselves. The hosts go because hospitality is the obligation that defines being human. To share food and shelter with another, especially a foreign and unknown other, an immigrant, an outsider, is perhaps the most fundamental virtue of all.
These days, one often hears about "the problem of homelessness." Let me say this: there is no problem. There is nothing to figure out, nothing to discuss. It is not a matter of problems and solutions: it is a matter of people who are hungry and people who have food, people who wander the open spaces of the world unprotected and people who have shelter, people who have money and people who have none.
We should all be ashamed before the two old peasants who open their door to, and share their food with, Zeus and Hermes. They are truly good, and they appear again and again in the most ancient stories of human cultures everywhere. Even the Good Samaritan is but a variation on these two.
And as we admit our shame and our failure to live as courageously and as honestly and as generously as the peasant couple, see how the Gods themselves react to the truly human. The old man and woman, and the ruler of Mount Olympus and his messenger, go to sleep in the little hut, the Gods in the bed and their hosts on the floor. In the morning, the Gods reveal themselves to the couple and in honor of their virtue, the virtue of hospitality, in which all moral strength is rooted, the Gods offer to grant them any wish they might ask. And the wish of these aged lovers is as simple, as pure, and as achingly beautiful as their hospitality the night before: they wish only that they would die at the same moment so that neither will ever have to live on without the other.
Their wish is granted. And some years later, in the late afternoon of a golden day, as the evening stretches across the sky, preparing to settle down into the relaxation of oncoming darkness, the two stand side by side on a hilltop looking out over the fields and forests spread before them, and their stillness takes on a subtle change. Then bark begins to form, curling around their feet and ankles, their legs and torsos, their arms and necks and faces. Their arms become branches, twigs stretching out from their fingers, until at last they stand together as two trees, a linden and an oak, both growing out of a single trunk, together.
Put food out.
When people come to get it,
[This last quotation appeared on bus shelters in New York City in the mid-1980s. I believe that Barbara Kruger might have been the artist responsible, but I have been unable to find a definitive source.]