“Debt,” a Flavor Town USA nonfiction essay by Christopher Bowen

Flavor Town USA: Christopher Bowen


Are you hungry the way I used to be? When I was a culinary student, I was always hungry and thought people will need to eat, too. They will always need me here for that and I’d always have a job because of that. I wrote and traveled, too. These were a few of the things I needed, things I was hungry for.

But culinary school was a debt to society. I worked full-time as a hospital cook for years, sometimes shutting down two kitchens in what would be a fifteen-hour day on my feet, including the sixty minute commute to the community college.I’m sorry. You’re hungry. I mean, are you hungry enough for what I can make you?

Because for six months I’d travel to Cleveland just for the work. I’d get up and do it the next day because of the hunger and how hungry all these people were. But I wouldn’t change that, no, I couldn’t. Never.

Four or more years ago in the fall, I closed a small press edited on school grants and my own book came out from another in Buffalo. So I took an author tour that had already been planned: a weeklong, five city, east coast tour. Because life is short and because of my hunger. And then I remembered for a while the time I watched a man outside my cooking school in downtown Cleveland pull a Styrofoam clamshell of spaghetti out of the trash.

That lingered with me, but not long and I’m sorry, I should make you something.

Standing with my back against the granite pillar of the old Macy’s building where my lectures were—the place nationally known chefs demonstrated cooking techniques and high-profile banquets were held—we prepared an entire buffet that could feed a good three dozen, tasted it with plastic spoons, and threw them and the buffet in the trash. Because we are hungry, hungry for all sorts of things. Like getting ahead. I know now that people always need to eat because of that hunger. We, too, were a sorry bunch.

I offered the man a dollar or two from the parking garage from out of my wallet and some food from the school behind me. But he was too embarrassed and walked away dismissively, leaving me to shrug, turn my back, and walk away into the glass-paned doors of the school. But you see he left me with something more. I turned my back and didn’t talk to him the way I’m talking to you now. Sure, he was grizzly with fits of red hair and a beard.

Hunger hurts sometimes.

Around that time, I lived in a cash only, month-to-month apartment an hour south of the city and I could tell you some more stories here if you’ll sit for a minute. This is the Midwest and the town was in the grips of the heroin epidemic. There were ambulance runs at midnight. This happened twice a month, more often in the summer, and was never to be confused with the times I left my car headlights on after dark. That was when the mentally disabled guy my age downstairs would knock on the door to let me know. No, Rebel, the neighbor, really only knew about bikes and when I say bikes, I mean bicycles. It was the only thing the state allowed him to operate and had saddlebags. I’d see him all over town on that thing but when he saw those car lights on he would come racing up three flights banging on my door, sometimes out of breath.

No, this is about the overdoses in those halls, the time the K-9 unit searched my apartment for a suspect the dog had traced into the building, how intrusive that was. I feel ashamed describing that to you because I’m better than that. But you know what, do you see how I’m talking about hunger now?

The officers, those police, felt hunger like any of us. I remember leaving my foot at the base of the door, cracking it to make sure any muscles from construction as a kid could hold back the people who pushed it.

Look, you could be the ex-con with the teardrop tattoo just out with a group of tenants at my building’s steps staring me down as I try to move past you. I say excuse me because I’m still wearing my chef coat from work or school or just about everywhere I went, it seems. Chef whites are not something to die in. They just aren’t. So I choose my battles. I live, I walk on and walk up those stairs.

Child and family services asked one summer if the neighbor with the newborn in 302 across the hall was home. She had strapped the child in a stroller from Goodwill and I had watched her and the teenage daughter walk in the afternoon around the block. It was sunny. I remember the stroller had a hood and things were OK. That was honestly the very first time I’d ever seen a baby like that, like a preemie, up close.

You see, things get put into perspective, in hindsight, like this. We live the way we think the world should, adjusted, tweaked just a little for us and our hunger, our past. Those three wanted a normal life for twenty minutes that would take them down the street sidewalk, over the tracks a block away, and back again to the building. I know it. I know this is about hunger but for the best of reasons, I just have to tell you, it’s also for you.

Just don’t live with regret.

I walked past a homeless man with a blue tarp for a blanket once. I think he’d been riding the rails of the train not a block away. It rolled through town at the worst times, making the whole building shake and the walls rattle in the middle of the night. I used to think of him as freer than me. But when he gestured to me that night walking past him the only thing I could say was, “You’re OK, but don’t be here in the morning.”

You’re OK. Assume nothing.

That happened in my hallway one floor below me on the second landing near the window where you could see the storms at dusk, you could see summer storms roll in through that particular window because it overlooked the town and seemed to split it in half like the railway tracks. All life and drugs and hunger. Or when the power was about to go out, the flickering in the houses down the street, you could see that, too.

So, let me ask you again, are you hungry? Do you really want me to feed you like this? Be careful how you answer. Assume nothing. Because you can have it all, I trust in that.

Once, I went to the large mens’ homeless shelter in Cleveland with a group of co-workers from the supermarket I worked at. They had five pods with bunk beds and all the beds had the same woolen gray, sad blankets and flat pillows. I remember that just as much as the man with the tarp. Each pod denoted one of five stages to recovery the men were on and how much help they still needed. The pods were further color coded with lines of three or more colored tape that wound around the room and into the next like a racetrack. The pods were all connected because we are all connected. At the last pod sat a typewriter on a stool that had a lace tablecloth. Pinned sheets of typed paper in plastic slipcases like music sheets lay beside what the center called a desk. They don’t even make typewriters anymore. But that’s where the men could get the help in editing, revising, and making their new resumes. Color portrait photos hung outside the room on the wall of men who had made it out, termed “graduated,” or gotten back on their feet.

I was paralyzed at the one who’d gone blind while working a full-time salary job in information technology. He had never gotten a degree but lost his job, then his house. He couldn’t see anymore, so he needed help just to type his resume. He was so grateful for that gift and one day, he left.

I worked that lunch in their kitchen with the head chef who was also in a halfway house himself on the other side of Cleveland. And I asked myself how can I help? We’re talking about a need here, a necessity. But I’m sorry, I think I’ve forgotten about you sometimes because I need you, too. We need to talk about what it’s like to eat a bite in this cafeteria and feel full and somewhat happy.

I volunteered as an adult literacy tutor for ESL and GED students before I’d actually commit to culinary school too, before the one managing chef pulled me aside, invested in me at the hospital after a year and told me the company would pay for me to go back to school. I tutored a woman not much older than me from the Philippines who recently found herself divorced with no income or job experience. I could tell you about the eighteen- or nineteen-year-old kid who’d been given all the chances and was there on court order, but he was my first student and never showed up after the second meeting with the algebra.

“I’m here to help you and I want you to succeed.” That’s what I told him, what I said to him the last time I met him before we both tucked in our desk chairs. I still remember him. He was frustrated. Come to think of it, I should’ve just said that for you, too, maybe. And I think I just did. Do you mind if I think that way about your success and well-being? I want you to have a gratifying life.

The Filipina woman, on the other hand, would giggle and smile at those times I told her she had both pronounced and identified a verb correct. A noun. An adjective. This was gratifying. She couldn’t read English past a few traffic signs and was pleased when I taught her how to write using the words resume, factory, job in a sentence. These were the things she needed in life.

This is how we move forward, looking back, by enabling each other. I’ll enable you and for a single night a week for a month tell you to grab a newspaper because they are cheap and circle the words you know to build on that vocabulary. Because I remember you. We’ll connect the dots and you will get there. I promise. I have the fullest faith in you. These are the things I wish I had said or expressed more often as her diplomas from the island country never did translate.

Please, stay calm. Please, assume nothing. Keep reading because I’m doing this for both of us.

I only shelf the books, not scan them, in the evening once a week at the rural library uptown. When I first started volunteering here, they had me go through eight-foot-tall fiction and nonfiction shelves looking for broken, wavering and split spines. It’s amazing what people will read. There’s a book glue the director Matthew and staff use to reshape and repair them.

You hold them tight with rubber bands to seal the glue overnight or for a few days.

You hold them tight.

I’ll graduate to the circulation desk soon, once the books are in good condition, but don’t hold that against me. Please, because there are a lot of times I wish in the deepest parts of myself that I often had a person to unabashedly hold tight in dark times like those. And I’m afraid, scared really, to the bone and marrow of my being that one day I will.

Is that a window near you? Like the one at the apartment I lived in where you could see the storm coming over the town in swirling dark? They’re cutting staff hours at the library by a couple hours a day throughout the week this summer. After school child programming will fall soon, too, like a domino because of this and this isn’t just for the summer. I leave my salary job as a chef manager and am happy to be around the books, the pace, no worries or misconceptions, like old friends.

I found one last week I’ve been meaning to read in the back of my mind for years. I’ll tell you about it. A River Runs Through It, like the movie, and I hate to spoil it, but I remember the one brother Paul who was found dead at the gambling shack in Montana with all the bones broken in his right hand. I used to think it was because he went down fighting, like literally breaking his hand bones as he fended off debtors. But now I think he really just had a hunger and it’s really, in the end, what killed him.

Let go of the armor, I think it’s what’s killing all of us.

So speaking of hunger, I do feed unending numbers of students to make my living. I earn funds towards a 401(k) by varying percentages throughout the year, with exactly six percent total of my contributions matched by my employer and, by changing those percentages as a basis for the health of my overall savings right now, the total deposit into the account also changes, never dropping below that six percent employer contribution rate.

That’s a lot of math, but the word sounds gratifying to me. Contribution. Someday I’m going to retire like the kid on court order quit tutoring.

We’ve all been so hungry in our lives, but it’s the business of hunger that has me. It really does. And we’re all going hungry, so this really isn’t a choice. Though we can start here. I’ll be careful what I assume and you do the same.

Maybe you’re standing at a city street reading this waiting on a bus. I could be wrong. Maybe you drove here. But you got here yourself, to this moment, and we are going to work. This is weird, this crosspoint with me in your life, the career and meeting me? Am I assuming too much? The work.

A recent morning, I heard about the mower that didn’t start for one of my cooks at work who was trying to cut their grass before the shift. How hungry they were to feed their family that they made it there to feed others.

There’s a story I wrote that takes place at a ballpark: a man and his wife meet with a future employer over business while catching a baseball game in Boston. The hopeful man eyes the famous left field wall of Fenway, the Green Monster, throughout the story and their conversation. But it isn’t until you realize until the end, how we’re all so imperfect and hungry from the scratch, that we’re really just racing ourselves to that green monster.

My life is an accumulation of the things that I’ve been taught and seen, things that make me feel like a newborn more often than not, and I mean all the time. But it’s OK to feel like that, too. Trust me, because I trust you, and not even newborns can feed themselves.

Debt was originally published by Chicago author Ben Tanzer in late 2017 as the second of a two-part book series called This Handbook Will Change Your Life. A portion of all sales of Debt were originally donated to The Greater Cleveland Food Bank, ACLU & ADL. While Tanzer has moved his original blog with direct-to-publisher buying links, the book is still available at Amazon with more information on Goodreads.

Christopher Bowen is the author of the chapbook We Were Giants and When I Return to You, I Will Be Unfed, a semi-finalist for the 2017 Faulkner-Wisdom novella competition. Debt is his only work of nonfiction. He blogs from burningriver.info.

Image: milwaukeerecord.com

Check out HFR’s book catalog, publicity list, submission manager, and buy merch from our Spring store. Follow us on Instagram and YouTube.