Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Brunch is served

When the "MC" standing in the pulpit started calling random table numbers, I apologized to the other three people I was sitting with at a table that could seat ten. I confessed my table is always last to go to the food line at our annual Thanksgiving dinner. This pledge brunch was new, but I expected my luck would hold. It did.

I'd gone to church without breakfast because one of the members of the finance committee promised me the service would be shorter than usual. It wasn't. In fact, it was half an hour longer than usual. By the time 12:30 rolled around and the MC started pulling numbers, I was so fucking hungry I would have signed any number on my pledge card they asked me to. I just wanted to eat.

Long tables were loaded with food: bacon, link sausage, patty sausage, toasted English muffins, potato casseroles, scrambled eggs and cheese, fresh fruit, piles of muffins and bagels. We tried to wait patiently as all the other tables were called to fill their plates, but it got harder and harder to watch everybody else sit down to their full plates of food. Finally the MC called table #8, the last table. We hurried to stand in a long line.

As we inched closer to the food, I noticed most of the serving pans were empty. No more bacon or sausage, a few burnt English muffin halves. People were scraping the bottoms of the egg pans. Do not fucking kid me, I thought. I didn't sit through yet another pledge service just to leave with an empty stomach.

The last dozen people or so in line tried to stretch the remaining food. The potato casserole was holding out so I took some of it, even though I rarely eat potatoes. The eggs were almost gone, so I took only about a tablespoon of those and then scooped out a small bowl of fresh fruit. I don't eat muffins or bagels, so I passed on those. I could hear the disappointed voices behind me as the last of the line scraped the bottom of the egg pan.

One of my besties came up and said their family was just going to leave because all the food was gone. She'd been in the back teaching Sunday school, and her husband had been running sound for the service. They hadn't even made it to the last table. I noticed other people looking at the empty pans and deciding to leave too. I felt guilty for the little that was on my plate.

As I walked through the sanctuary to our table at the front, I tried not to notice how much food other people had taken. It didn't matter. But when I arrived at my seat, I saw that two more people had joined our table, and evidently they hadn't waited for our number to be called. On the table at two of the previously empty place settings were plates and bowls of food that were spilling over onto the table they were so full. On just one of them -- not that I counted -- I saw several English muffin halves, strips of bacon, both kinds of sausage, a huge pile of eggs and potatoes, and several muffins balancing on top. Next to it was a full bowl of fresh fruit with several more muffins and coffee cake clinging on top. The plate next to it was almost as full. I felt a little nugget of resentment start to burn in my empty stomach.

I tried to find a photo of a plate of breakfast to represent, but none of them were as piled up as what I described. Imagine this one, only way more.

As the original four of us settled in, I noticed their plates were scanty, similar to mine. The guy who was sitting on my left offered me some of his muffin, but I didn't want the empty calories. The two men who had brought the loaded plates were standing at other tables, laughing and talking. We started eating, and eventually they came over, said hi, and plowed into their big plates of breakfast. I tried not to watch with envy. I will confess I failed.

As I ate, the words "one percent" kept floating up in my mind. Something about the amount of food two people at our table had on their plates compared to what the rest of us had seemed so familiar, but in a much larger context. I tried to push that thought away. I pushed away the thought that we'd all eat well if we took those six plates of food and split them up equally among us. Not the American way, is it? I tried not to think I'd like to Occupy Brunch. I tried to just accept and let go. Because I'm so fucking good at that, right?

The purpose of the pledge dinner has always been to remind people what a treasure we have in  our church and to encourage them to sign those pledge cards. And, we hope, to increase their pledges from last year so we can pay the mortgage, electric bills and staff. No matter how uncomfortable it makes people to be reminded, all churches need money to run. Not just butts in the chair. Money. This brunch had one purpose: to raise money. If the loading of plates with eggs and bacon would raise that money, then that's the greater good. That's what I told myself.

It didn't take me long to clean my plate, but as I finished I looked out at the food tables and noticed the cooks -- who probably hadn't eaten anything yet -- putting out more eggs. I went out to get more. The woman in charge of the breakfast said, "You were at the last table, right? Here, these fresh eggs are for you guys." I let her put a spoonful on my plate. Another of the cooks came out with sausage links, so I took one of those too, and then headed back to the table.

Before long the sausage cook brought her pan to our table and said, "You guys were last and didn't get much food. Who wants a sausage?" The other three I'd sat with took a couple. I already had one so I declined.

What happened next would have made me lose my appetite if I hadn't been so hungry. The two men sitting to my right, the two with  the already loaded plates who hadn't been able to put a dent in the food they'd already taken, laughed at their good fortune and each held their plates up for more sausage. One of them said something like, "Good thing we went last." Har har har. She gave them each a couple more sausages to go with the ones still on their plates.

Now I'll let you imagine a couple of minutes of stunned silence. I didn't dare look at anybody at the table. I was feeling ..... the truth is I was feeling small, mean and angry. Ugly. I didn't want to feel that way. I had food on my fucking plate, damn it. I wasn't going to leave hungry. I just put my head down and forked that food into my mouth. But I could see the friend who was sitting on my left glancing up at me. I looked sideways at him and he shook his head and rolled his eyes. Good. It wasn't just me.

I've thought a lot about that meal, about how some people took as much as they could pile on their plates and then took more. I've been to dozens of those dinners, so I also can guess how much food was thrown away because people took more than they could eat. Probably they were a small number -- not the majority. But they wasted food that could have fed other people.

To be fair, I didn't leave hungry. I didn't fill up, but I ate enough. And a few hours later, when I was hungry, I ate again at home. I know I am blessed to live in this country at this time in history.

But I can't help thinking how a small experience like this can shine a light on how much bigger national and world problems emerge and grow. The people who went first and second and third didn't get their privileged place in line because of their hard work or skill or talents or even, in spite of the fact that this was a pledge dinner, monetary contributions. It was random good fortune.

Those of us who were at the last table didn't eat far less because we lacked time or skills or talent or even money. The four of us who went last have given, or still give, of all of those things more than most people in the church. And those who left hungry .... some of them give as much or more. They didn't eat because they were still busy doing the work of the church.

Random. Not deserved. Random. And yet even in this small microcosm of people who claim to care for each other, some people took way more than they needed while others went hungry. And it wasn't fucking necessary.

Were the resources limited? Yes and no. The people in charge of the brunch brought in limited food, but it was a shitload of food. It was enough to feed everyone in the church so they left satisfied. Limited resources don't mean somebody has to go hungry.

That seems to be the thing a lot of people in this country have forgotten. Limited resources don't mean somebody has to go hungry. It might mean though that some people can't take lots more than they need, way more than they even deserve except by the random chance that they become a CEO of an oil company or a bank instead of a fucking teacher or construction worker or stay-at-home mom.

I sound judgmental as hell, so let me backpedal and say I do it too. We all do it -- take more than we need. In so many ways, our plates are piled high -- you should come to my house for Thanksgiving. No, really. No matter how many read this far, I can feed you. And yet others are going hungry. Maybe it's human nature to grab as much as possible in times of plenty.

But I think we're smarter than that. I think we can do better than that ..... Or I'd like to think so. What I saw at the pledge brunch didn't fill me with either hope or eggs.

Oh, one more thing. All of the original four of us turned in our pledge cards to our table captain. I didn't see either of the men with full plates even take an envelope with a card. Doesn't mean it didn't or won't happen. I just didn't see it before I left. Not my business. It's not a tax, after all.

I'm trying not to judge. Yet as I write this, I think maybe I sound like a whiny bitch who needs to go serve really hungry people in Africa.

Tell me what you think. I can take it. Am I just a whiny bitch who didn't get her bacon? Or do we have a problem that permeates both our small and large social systems? Have you seen examples in your own life?

And am I the only one who feels, during this crazy, long, excruciating election season, that maybe we're just really fucking hopeless?


  1. I thought you got it exactly right and I could see where it was going from the time you got to the empty table. Next time they should start with YOUR table, where ever you are. Maybe you should give a speech about greed before people start serving themselves at the next Church supper. And yes, we have a problem. I stay away from groups of people, aside from big family dinners, so I don't see it there. I see it every time I ride from my side of town, through the west end and on over to buckhead. i share the feeling of hopelessness too. some people seem so sure an idiot can't be the next president. I don't share their positivity.

    1. If we're too complacent, an idiot can surely become president. It's happened before.

  2. Until people have been in a position of "not enough", I think it's difficult for them to feel empathy in situations. When those guys lose their jobs and have to subsist on food bank donations, their attitude would probably (hopefully) change. It's not likely to happen, but sometimes you wish it would to teach them a bit of humility and understanding of others.

    1. I know at least one of these guys has been in a difficult position like what you describe. I'm positive neither of them even noticed the situation--as you say, lack of empathy. Must be nice not to have to notice the people around you, huh?

  3. Bravo! With some minor tweaking, I think this one could go to Alternet or Salon, etc. Metaphorical aspects aside for a moment--even though they are magnificent--let me just chime in on the literal fact of how disgusting I find that sort of Buffet Greed and waste. Yuck. I see it all the time when I join Dh for lunch: lines of men (and, occasionally women) bellied up to the lunch buffet, piling obscene amounts of often crappy food on their plates...veritable mountains of food...and nearly always wasting half of it, for no damned reason! You want more than the modest portion a sensible, polite person would take? You are still hungry? Then GO BACK after others have had their turn! Jeez. We learned these courtesies as little children. What has happened to people? I sometimes feel that nobody since about 1972 has been properly brought up. We have become a nation of ooo tactless, vulgar, greedy slobs.

    1. I don't like those buffets. The food looks appealing and then tastes like crap. I always overeat just because there's so much there, and I feel like I should get my money's worth. They aren't cheap. We definitely live in a piggy culture. And I can't deny my participation in it.

  4. Let me start by apologizing if my words and attitude effected yours because I am pretty sure that I was the first to complain. I too had missed breakfast that morning so when the service went long I was in no mood for what followed. I have to tell you though that it gave me some comfort and added some humor to know that you were felling the same way. Maybe this will make you feel better: http://www.dangerousminds.net/comments/soft_cells_infamous_sex_dwarf_video/

    1. No apology, Vapor. I sat down before you did and had already reacted. I didn't stick around to see if everybody cleaned their plates.

      That video was .... ummmm ... I can see why it was banned on MTV.

    2. Was that too much? I know how you are fetish curious and it did involve food and some were definitely taking more than others so it was still on topic,right?

    3. I certainly didn't know people had meat fetishes! I didn't find much to appreciate in either the video or the music, but it's possible there was social commentary I didn't pick up on. That happens. What did I miss?

  5. I'm just catching up on my reading -- so this comment is a little late. I just wrote a new article in the Buddhist blog that gets into our consumerist culture -- one of my major peeves. I wasn't at the pledge brunch, but I've been at the last table for T-Dinner a couple of times.
    The blog is: http://www.buddhistbelief.com
    Peace my friend ...

    1. Rollo, one of the reasons I almost didn't write this post is because I felt silly whining about not getting as much food as other people when I really did have enough to eat. I had enough. Not what I wanted and not as much as I wanted, but enough. It's that tired old adage about pointing a finger and finding three fingers pointing back.