The night that I found my “manna on the stoop,” I’d had about $31 left to cover groceries and whatnot for the next week. Well, actually about $18, since that week’s “whatnot” cost $13 at Walgreens. When I left the Union Square Trader Joe’s at its closing time, I was actually feeling good about my $18 of groceries, but there was no doubt it was my leanest shopping spree yet in a long season of living and eating on so little. No meat or alcohol that week, for sure.
Still, as I swiped my borrowed Metrocard through the subway gate, I remembered that each week since June 2004 — when this Spartan budget first began — my needs had always, somehow, been provided for. One week, I found a brand-new unlimited Metrocard. Another week I’d gone to a friend’s apartment for a party and came home with such a big chunk of fancy cheese left over from the buffet that I had more than enough for a batch of crustless quiche (the recipe usually makes enough for several breakfasts or lunches). And then there was one week at closing time in my favorite neighborhood coffee shop, when the usually sardonic owner gruffly insisted I take a huge bag of leftover pastries he couldn’t sell the next day. The freezer helped stretch them out nicely.
On and on it went, each week a new provision not quite like the last but always enough to get me through the next few days, and often enough to share with the less-fortunate folks I frequently met on the street or in subway cars. If I had wondered before this season of modest but regular miracles whether to help feed the homeless encountered on subways or street corners, any doubt had been silenced now. The overwhelming provision for my needs brought with it a moral obligation to open-handedness.
Even though I didn’t know if I’d need food assistance the week of my Park Slope stoop manna, I was somehow not that worried as I settled into an orange plastic seat on the Q-train and moved my two paper sacks of groceries out of the aisle. I carefully stowed the Metrocard that my roommate loaned me each Sunday — extending my weekly $10 subway allotment three rides (to church, the grocery store, and home again) — then leaned back into the scarred hollows of a seat that had cupped the backsides of thousands of other New Yorkers before me, connecting all of us in an unclean, impersonal battle for space and rest. As the train rolled onto the Manhattan Bridge a bit later and the familiar lights of South Street Seaport gave way to the Brooklyn Bridge and the vigilant, digital Watchtower clock display, the peace that came with each Sunday’s break from work settled over me. It was never without a struggle that I observed the Sabbath, but now that I was paid hourly and had a telecommuter’s ultra-flexible schedule, it was somehow all the more urgent to cut each week’s mixture of achievement and failure off after six days. To slide off the task-list treadmill in remembrance that my existence depended on more than my own striving.
Such intentional flouting of the city’s self-reliance doctrine came no more naturally with each passing week, but it was proving increasingly crucial to let go of the past six days every seventh and gratefully enjoy whatever unhurried vistas and conversations my Sunday trips into Manhattan afforded. On Saturday nights and in weekday wee hours, I found it all too easy to squeeze in just a few more guilty minutes of frantic compensation for the poor time management or outright procrastination that so often cut into that week’s allotment of freelance work, staying up late to earn not just my hourly pay but the right to exist at all. Sunday was the one day when I could say “no” in good conscience.
As I savored my day of freedom’s dwindling sand, the train shrieked and shuddered its way into Brooklyn like a man too poor for retirement, too old to labor without a lament. After waiting briefly for an R-train at the Pacific Street stop, I was soon on the last leg home, then grabbing my bags and walking through the door of the subway car toward the ancient floor-to-ceiling exit turnstile I always feared would be too rusty to release me into the stairwell up to the street. Crossing Ninth Street south along Fourth Avenue, I halted for a stoplight on the corner by a check-cashing store whose digital clock had displayed the wrong time for months, and I glanced up out of habit at the subway overpass that had once displayed a giant and racy ad for a TV show apparently heavy on sex, light on men and clothes. When the light changed, I began my one-block walk up Ninth Street toward Fifth Avenue and the gentrified heart of Park Slope.
As I walked past the line of garbage cans that always posted sentry duty on Sunday nights, I scanned idly for any interesting abandonments — books or furniture whose owner had left them out for neighborhood salvagers to claim. I had learned in my last two years in New York that while the city might be stingy with space, its residents were a bit more laissez-faire with belongings they could no longer use. (In fact, I once heard a five-minute presentation on the best times of the month and neighborhoods to go looking for things.)
The weekend of the 2003 blackout, I’d recovered a wooden futon frame (hardware thoughtfully taped to one of the boards) that a friend helped me carry home, where it became the couch-cum-bed countless friends and relatives slept on when they came to visit. And on various other occasions, I’d found such things as candles, a desk which I subsequently stripped and refinished on the sidewalk in front of my apartment building, and books (including a screenplay-writing guide that I resold on Half.com for $15).
The stretch of Ninth Street between Fourth Avenue and Fifth — situated, as it was, between customers of the check-cashing store and the neighborhoods where viewers of the aforementioned TV show lived — rarely offered any real treasures. Nonetheless, I always kept an eye out just in case boxes — like the open cardboard one that I suddenly spied on a stoop up ahead — might hold something good.
I reached the foot of the staircase and stepped up to see what the contents might be. Peering over the top, I was surprised when the dim light of the darkened street behind me illumined giveaways such as I’d never seen on a stoop before. Stacked inside were a random collection of rice cakes, instant ginger tea in foil packets, jars of organic baby food, a carton of free-range chicken broth and other fine non-perishables such as one might find at the famed Park Slope Food Co-op up on Union Street. Apparently one of my neighborhood’s growing number of well-heeled families had moved out that weekend and been unable to pack the last bit of their pantry.
Setting my half-empty sacks from Trader Joe’s on a step near the box, I started picking through the groceries for what I could use. By the time I resumed my walk home a few minutes later, the box on the stoop was mostly empty, and my bags were filled with the manna I would enjoy for the next few days and — in the case of the tea bags I’d brew to make iced tea all summer — the next several weeks.
My season of living on roughly $50 a week for food and transit lasted about two years. At the end of it, I moved from Brooklyn to the San Francisco Bay Area with no job, but a new church home, a couch to sleep on (thanks to generous, longtime friends), and a forthcoming book-advance check. And once again, God provided, By the end of the two-month storage window my moving company had given me, I’d been invited to move into the house where I still live today and begun temping at the company where I will, Lord willing, celebrate my five-year anniversary as a permanent employee next year.
Sabbath has a different meaning now, as does a splurge, but I haven’t left my salvaging, scavenging ways. I now think that maybe God even leaves things for me to find sometimes, whether what takes me there is an evening prayer walk (the occasion for many fine furniture finds) or an organizing project. Nor have I left behind resourceful cooking.
When I first joined the four-person house in the East Bay, the kitchen was rather disorganized. Pots and Tupperware, cutting boards and cookie sheets were stowed willy-nilly throughout the cupboards. So, at my suggestion, the housemates let me go through and empty everything out, sort what they had and re-stow in a more orderly fashion (making sure to label all the doors and drawers so they could find things).
One of the “treasures” I found in the kitchen, buried beneath a mound of bags and boxes, was a sack of potatoes and onions. At first it looked like all were spoiled, but after a little scrubbing and shearing the spuds of all their nubs, I determined most of my treasure sack's contents could be salvaged (I am, after all, the niece of a woman known for her potato-peel soup!). After a lengthy but ventilated sojourn on my shelf, my find finally got cooked up. Since the prospect of using up several large onions was daunting for one who generally picks them out of everything, I decided to make a potato soup based on the new Joy of Cooking's recipe for Chicken Paprikash.
These days I do more salvaging in the bargain bin at Berkeley Bowl, but God continues to shower me with manna . . . and quail, wine, honey, and every good thing. It’s easy to forget how unfailingly kind He is, but little by little I’m learning and finding the courage to trust that He is as good in my longings for love as He is in my body’s hunger. How have you been provided for?
A Scavenger’s Potato Paprikash Soup
(Click here to download a PDF recipe card to print, use, and use again.)
1. Slice three onions thinly and cook about 10-15 minutes (until softened) in 2 tablespoons of butter or olive oil (I used 1 tablespoon each).
2. Once the onions are softened and getting translucent, stir in ¼ cup of sweet paprika (I used half sweet/half hot, for more of a kick), plus 2 tablespoons of flour. Stir this a bit, then add 2 cups of chicken stock, a bay leaf, ½ teaspoon each of salt and pepper, and 2 minced cloves of garlic (approx. 1 tablespoon).
3. While this starts to boil, peel and chop 7-8 small potatoes to size desired (about 4 cups), add these to the broth with a little more water, and let simmer.
4. After 45 minutes or so (or ‘til the potatoes are soft), scoop out the potatoes and purée, reserving 1-2 cups of broth and onions in the pan.
5. While you purée the potatoes, cook the broth down on high heat until very thick, almost pasty. Take it off the heat, and stir in 1 cup of sour cream until well blended.
6. Add the purée and bring to a boil until soup reaches desired thickness.
7. Season with salt and pepper and a little juice from a lemon. Served with some chopped fresh cilantro on top, I found it very tasty and substantial (and friends who ate it agreed!).
Yield: about 6 cups.
Anna Broadway is a writer, web editor, music fiend, and knitter living near San Francisco. The author of Sexless in the City: A Memoir of Reluctant Chastity, she is also a contributor to the Her.meneutics blog. In a previous life, she was featured in Rolling Stone, The Village Voice, and the San Francisco Chronicle, but these days she tools around on her folding bike and, of course, cooks. You can find her on Twitter @annabroadway.