I am going to start by asking that you indulge me with the use of your imagination…
For over a year, you planned for this evening. You scrimped. You saved. You cut back…all to save money for this one, special evening. The reservations? Hah! You made those almost a year in advance of this night. Nothing…absolutely NOTHING is too good for the day that marks the anniversary of you and your spouse becoming husband and wife.
This is no ordinary restaurant where you are going to spend your evening…uh uh. This place is not just regionally or nationally well known. Its sophistication of menu, service and ambience is world-famous. They don’t take checks, but although frowned upon, they will accept your credit card. Here, the ‘dead presidents’ are the preferred form of payment, and with those you are well stocked for the mid-three figure tab that you may well see at evening’s end. Tonight, you two will be dining with the elite in black tie and evening gown, and at this price, what could POSSIBLY go wrong?
You pull into the parking lot where your valet opens both of your doors, then takes your keys to park your car. The fact that yours is the only Chevy in a parking lot full of Mercedes, Cadillacs, BMWs and Audis is completely overlooked by your valet…after you pass him that $20 tip. As you begin to walk to the door though, you are greeted by something completely unexpected. On both sides of the walkway are shabbily dressed, unkempt and rather odiferous homeless people. To get to the door, you must run the gauntlet between them as they ask you for money, spare change…anything.
Is this what you anticipated upon arrival at one of the most exclusive and expensive restaurants in this part of the country? What is going through your mind as you draw your spouse a little closer, and quicken your step in heading for the door?
Once inside, you relax and breathe easier. Your outer garments are checked, and you are escorted to your awaiting table. As you walk in, you see why this place is as expensive as it is exclusive…the ambience is breathtaking, yet tasteful. Your maître d’ has selected a perfect table for you, and assists you and your spouse in being seated before calling for the staff to attend to your every imaginable need. With a wave of his hand and the call of ‘Garçon!’, your sommelier arrives with a wine list, the names of many you find unpronounceable. This is indeed the life! You swell with pride as you see the staggering numbers in the price column, knowing full well that if you wanted a full bottle of that Chateau Lafite ‘95, you could afford it. This…this is what you scrimped and saved for! Tonight, you and your spouse are amongst the elite of society.
Suddenly, out of the corner of your eye, you spot something strange. There, a few tables away, is a group of people wearing…sweatshirts and jeans? Okay, the sweatshirts appear to be Ralph Lauren, but still it is so, how do you say it…lower class. As your attention continues to be drawn away from your spouse, you see more tables in the not-to-great distance where the dress is nice, but casual. What? How can this be, you ask yourself. Their tables are not as well outfitted, and their service is nowhere as extravagant as yours, but still…they are here. They have no sommelier; their beverages all carry the name, Faygo. As you scan this section, what is going through your mind?
As you are still staring in disbelief, you smell something familiar, and the odor is growing more potent. You turn around in your seat to find the maître d’ escorting in, of all people, the homeless crowd that you had to pass on the way in. They are being led right past you, off into a distant section of the establishment that is devoid of any frills whatsoever. The only place where the exotic foods are present is in your section. The casual section has what appears to be bag lunches, while the distant section where the homeless are has nothing…they sit and wait for leftovers, or table scraps from your section.
Your wait staff is in the process of bringing out your opening courses, but you cannot get your eyes off the horrifically dressed and rancid troupe that was just led right under your defenseless nose.
What is going through your head? What are you thinking? What are you feeling? Are you ready to call your maître d’ over to discuss this? Take your time and think about it. Are you offended? Disgusted? Disappointed? Has your evening been ruined?
I know that is a lot to ponder and contemplate. You are being forced to examine yourself at a deep level, that in dealing with socioeconomic status and personal biases. It may well make you uncomfortable, but that is exactly what the Northwest Ohio Community Action Coalition (or NOCAC) had in mind when they staged an event very much similar to the hypothetical scenario that I just presented to you on the evening of March 24 entitled, the Hunger Banquet. The oxymoronic title of the event served a very distinct purpose.
The attendees to the event pulled into the parking lot at the Williams County Veterans Memorial Hall in Montpelier. As they approached the door though, they were bracketed on the left and the right by ‘homeless’ families who were asking for help of any kind. Once inside the building, attendees drew dice out of a hat. I drew a green, placing me in amongst the wealthy. Others drew different colors, placing them in various socioeconomic classes below the wealthy, with different seating arrangements and different meals to match their circumstances.
Emceeing the event was Kevin ‘Squishy’ Barber. He made sure that the classes were separated properly, and when the time came, he also made sure that the homeless families from outside were seated by walking them right between the wealthy and upper middle class sections, where they could see how the upper crust dined…and the upper crust could see their stares. This is exactly what Barber and the NOCAC team wanted to do…force attendees to think, to contemplate, to evaluate their own deep-seeded behaviors and beliefs. They did not stop there.
Pointing out one of the homeless families, Barber challenged the attendees with the question, “Why, do you suppose, are these people are homeless?” An answer he received back was, “They made bad decisions.” As it turned out, their plight had nothing whatsoever to do with decision making, it was about being on the wrong end of a bad break that forced the father’s employer to cut his job. A deep-seeded bias was exposed in the exchange. Yes, bad decisions are made; in fact everybody has made more than one. Bad breaks happen too, and their consequences can be as bad…or worse.
The purpose behind the Hunger Banquet, according to NOCAC Executive Director Deborah Gerken, was to give the community, “…an awareness that they have the problems of homelessness, food insecurity, different socioeconomic classes, and how to better understand them so that they can help each other. People have difficulty communicating with different people in different socioeconomic classes.” The Director of Head Start, Janet Yaros, added, “We wanted this to be a moving, hands-on experience for everyone, so that they actually were a part of the experience.”
Socioeconomic differences do not build barriers. That is done by people who cannot get around them to see or speak outside of their comfort zone. Once that barrier is in place, it becomes a nurturing environment for misconceptions, often turning them from postulations into self-assured, but very erroneous fact. The NOCAC staff did a splendid job of sticking a proverbial crowbar in the conscience of every attendee at the Hunger Banquet, prying out things that many never knew existed within themselves. When those things were exposed in the privacy of each mind, the light of reality was able to shine through, leading each person to ask themselves what else they did not know about themselves.
Timothy Kays can be reached at