On February 5, 1983, I prepared my first meal as the main cook of the Soup Kitchen sponsored by the Church of St. Joseph in Greenwich Village, the oldest standing Roman Catholic church building in Manhattan. I was 34 years old and had just graduated from Columbia Law School. I was also terrified.
I grew up in a large Mormon family. If I count all my half-, step-, and full brothers and sisters in chronological order, I am number 9 of 14. Six sisters and two brothers preceded me, but I was the first child in my family to conclude that my stepmother was lost in the kitchen. My initial reaction was to eat at MacDonald’s whenever I could (I worked after school as a sales clerk at Montgomery Wards in Las Vegas, Nevada, and could afford a 19-cent cheeseburger). My second reaction was to buy The Joy of Cooking and, at the ripe age of 16, assume responsibility for major family meals, which I did without a hitch. But cook for 150 people, with only 3 hours to prepare? That I had never done before.
I was not the first Soup Kitchen cook at St. Joseph’s—that honor belongs to Patricia Dempsey, who convinced the church’s Social Action Committee to sponsor the Kitchen in 1982—but I began within a few months of its opening and remain its longest-serving chef. Over the years I have watched the demographics change and the number of meals we serve fluctuate in relation to hard economic times for the poor. In 1983, we served more women and families with children. Now our clientele is almost exclusively adult males. By the end of the Regan era, the number of meals we served on a given Saturday had climbed from 150 to as many as 700. During Clinton’s last year we sometimes saw our numbers drop back to as low as 150. For the past several years, though, our numbers have hovered around 400, but no matter how many meals we serve, I no longer panic. I regularly toss off Soup Kitchen entrées in less than 3 hours, and the food’s not bad, either. I would eat it. The Social Action Committee, in conjunction with the City of New York, provides canned goods and many fresh vegetables for us to work with, but it has insufficient funds to purchase fresh meat. (Canned meatballs and canned chicken are sometimes available.) I therefore always pay for the kielbasa or other meat products I use out of my own pocket and am happy to do so. I try to accommodate all. On the weeks I cook, the Soup Kitchen turns out three versions of the main course: one that includes beef or pork; one that has only turkey or chicken; and one that’s vegetarian.
My first two years at the Soup Kitchen I cooked every Saturday. (Our original idea was to take up the slack from the soup kitchen at St. Vincent’s Hospital, which served no meals on Saturdays. St. Vincent’s has since closed.) When I found I had no time to do laundry before I returned to work each Monday (I was a Wall Street lawyer at the time), I simply purchased more underwear and socks and kept right on cooking. By my third year, however, I knew something had to give. My talent for churning out hearty meals in large quantities had been put to good use, but I had so little free time I worried about burnout—not as a lawyer, as a cook. That’s when I hit on the sensible idea of claiming the second Saturday of every month as my own, a schedule I’ve adhered to ever since. I celebrated my 30th Anniversary as a cook at St. Joseph’s on February 9th of this year.
No one has to prove he or she is homeless in order to eat at St. Joseph’s, although it’s safe to assume that most people who dine with us either are or are surviving on little. People often think that being poor is such an intractable problem there’s not much one person can do to help besides donating money, but my Soup Kitchen experience shows otherwise. I, with the aid of a few volunteers who chop cilantro, celery, and onions each week (not to mention kielbasa), have served over 150,000 meals to the poor. And I’m one person.
Cooking, though, is not my only obsession. I have another.
I was six years old when the first thing happened in life that seriously made me think about what is true or false and how honesty works in the world, or doesn’t. Our car got wrecked. My mother, who had been in the house when it happened, ran outside to find me and my little brother both in the driver’s seat and a gaping hole in the side of our garage. I explained I was there only because I had seen what my brother was doing and had tried to stop him. My mother didn’t believe me. Nobody did.
My punishment was swift and harsh, and from my point of view, completely unfair. To me, it wasn’t the car that got wrecked. Truth did. My parents’ version of what had happened, which I knew to be false, prevailed over my own, which I knew to be true. That confused me. It made me question not only those who had authority over me, but everything I had been taught, both at home and at church, about truth and honesty since I was an infant.
I was eleven years old before I figured out, in terms that made sense to me, exactly what had happened that day, and why. I decided right then and there, much as I would later decide to teach myself to cook in order to have decent food, that when I was old enough to do the topic justice, I would write a book about truth. And I have. Three times.
The first time was in the mid-’70s. We had no Master of Fine Arts program at my undergraduate school (then Eastern Washington State College, now EW University), so I convinced my advisor to let me write a novel that would be my “thesis” for a Master’s Degree in English. The Committee that reviewed my work liked it and approved of what I wrote, but I considered it a failure. It fell far short of what I had hoped to say.
I tried again in the mid-’90s. I quit my job as head of half the litigation department at MetLife and stayed home to write fulltime. After two years of solid work, I sat down at Henry’s, a bar in my neighborhood on the Upper West Side of New York City, and read the final product. It almost made me sick. My Master’s thesis had been better. Fortunately, I still remembered the telephone number of my former boss, and when I called, he answered. In the affirmative.
Then 9/11 happened. I thought, because George W. Bush, our President, was a professed Christian, that our country was about to set a stunning example. I believed he would help us show the world that a country could follow a course higher than the animalistic drive for revenge. He would prove we could turn the other cheek because “an eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind,” and although I am a nonbeliever, I accept the New Testament’s idea that the only effective way to neutralize an enemy is to love him. President Bush and a majority of the country disagreed. And where are we now? In need of eye patches.
On September 7, 2001, which was the second Saturday of that month, I cooked at the St. Joseph’s Soup Kitchen. On September 10, 2001, a Monday, I started a new job as a financial planner at a branch office of MetLife, located in the North Tower of the World Trade Center. To downplay its connection to MetLife (and emphasize its proximity to the Main Street of American capitalism), the branch had been named Wall Street Planning. Its manager and I had met earlier, in August. We had agreed to leverage my public speaking skills by providing investment seminars to wealthy clients in our well-appointed conference room that overlooked the Statue of Liberty from the 89th floor. Both of us hoped to make lots of money.
The next day, 9/11, I was on a flight to Phoenix, Arizona, refining the speech I intended to give that afternoon to incite the company’s top salespeople with entrepreneurial fervor, when we stopped in Memphis, Tennessee, for a scheduled ground transfer. I boarded my connecting flight, we pulled back from the loading dock, and we sat. And sat. Then, after a short, cryptic announcement that our flight had been “grounded due to possible terrorist attack,” we pulled back to the dock and disembarked. Minutes later, as I stood with a crowd of others glued to a TV screen that hung above the nearest airport bar, I watched the South Tower crash to the ground behind a newscaster interviewing dust-covered people who had just fled the site. They looked as surprised by the deafening roar behind them as I was. About a half hour later, I watched the North Tower fall, too. My imagined future went up in smoke before my very eyes. The jihadists had struck a blow against a pre-eminent symbol of capitalism, and what was the result? A truth wreck. Neither side was blind, but both sides saw only their own view of the world as correct.
MetLife came up with a swift relocation plan. We were given an empty floor at its home office, then on the corner of Madison Avenue and 23rd Street. Most people straggled back to work over the next few days, but everyone from Wall Street Planning looked shell-shocked. Nobody spoke. I worked on commission and therefore tried to meet with my manager to explore how we could launch our seminars now that we no longer had an 89th floor conference room from which to gape. He kept cancelling our meetings. Repeatedly, during those days, I would escape to a top floor of the clock tower on the corner of Madison and 24th Street, where my office as a MetLife executive had once been. From there I could see the wisp of smoke that curled up from the pit where the Trade Towers had stood. My mournful sadness in the aftermath of the greatest truth wreck I had ever witnessed curled up with it.
The last weekend of September 2001, I was at home cleaning my bedroom closet when a purple binder fell from an overhead shelf and struck my head. At first I couldn’t remember what was in the binder, but once I opened the cover, I did—my last attempt at writing a novel.
No, David, don’t, I told myself. You’ve been down this road twice before, and where did it get you? Nowhere. And where was I then? In post-9/11 limbo.
I made myself a deal. I gave my manager two months. If he spoke to me in the interim, I would do my best to help him launch a plan for reinvigorating our office. If he did not, then on November 12th I would whip out my laptop and go back to work on my personal albatross: a novel about truth.
November 11th came and went. My manager’s only communications with me beforehand consisted of more excuses for us not meeting. On November 12th, I pulled out my laptop and upheld the other end of my bargain, but writing a novel, unlike learning to cook, didn’t come off without a hitch. The first sentence I put to paper that day is not even in the book now. I saw, over time, much more than the demographics of my characters change and experienced huge swings in the number of words I produced each day, from tens of thousands to none. I watched the novel take on three or four completely different shapes, as though a Greek god were attempting to seduce me with one form or another. Many times along the way I thought I had finished. I would wrap up my newest final version, enlist a fresh batch of readers, listen to their views, reflect on them, and pull out my laptop again. And again. My oldest friends (and earliest readers), hearing last year that I was on my fifty-seventh revision, stopped accepting the word “rewrite” and replaced it with “excuse for not finding a job.” Finally, on February 24, 2013, exactly eleven years, three months, and twelve days from the day I started, I finished The Book of Thompson: A Mormon Tragedy. This time, when I read the final product at Henry’s, I understood that I had done precisely as I’d intended—I had captured a truth wreck on paper. I now have a greater appreciation for why my manager kept cancelling our meetings after 9/11. He wasn’t there yet. Neither was I. Until February 24, 2013.
Was it worth it? Was it worth spending every dime I had and every dollar’s-worth of credit (as well as every ounce of energy) to achieve a goal I came up with at the age of eleven? I know what I think, but I want to hear your views.
In 1983, when I started as a Soup Kitchen cook, David J. Larkin, Jr. was a fledgling attorney on Wall Street. Today I am an unknown author who has fed 150,000 meals to the homeless and can’t afford my next month’s rent. That, too, is its own kind of truth wreck, but maybe, if someone agrees to buy the kielbasa next time I cook at St. Joseph’s, I’ll survive.
The Book of Thompson: A Mormon Tragedy is available on Amazon as a paperback and a Kindle e-book, in both a “full version” (495 pp.) and a “short version” (367 pp.). Both versions tell the same story. The “full version” describes in greater detail the main character’s magical thinking and contains reflections on his father’s earlier life that have been omitted from the “short version.” Here are links to what’s available:
Full Version ($18.99): http://amzn.to/XCkGgY
Short Version ($14.99): http://amzn.to/155ZHpL
Full Version ($7.99): http://amzn.to/13jN1ge
Short Version ($5.99): http://amzn.to/XhTzqp