Having witnessed the Occupy D.C. movement only on television or the occasional downtown drive-by spy, I felt it necessary to visit the steadfast soldiers of the 99% in order to ask them a very important question: What are you eating?
The beauty of being a food writer visiting the active volcano of political statements currently erupting at McPherson Square was that my presence remained neutral. I was Switzerland and was not there to indulge in dogmatic banter or critique the functioning of their operation or lack thereof; I was there to uncover what it was these people, camped out in the dead of noon and night, were noshing for nutrients.
The members of Occupy D.C. are of all shapes, sizes, colors, ages and financial statuses. Arriving around lunchtime, I walked amongst them searching for a place to call kitchen. My first encounters were a homeless man asking for a hug (which I quickly side-stepped,) a group of young Occupy drifters swigging vodka-lemonade and an older woman, self-named, Mother Jones asking for help to unload food from her car. This was my cue.
I followed Mother Jones and another group of volunteers to a white beat-up Subaru station wagon filled to the brim with containers of fresh fruit, cookies and other goods labeled mostly 7-Eleven and Trader Joes. “Where did you get this from?” I asked. “Where do you think I got them from?” Replied Jones: “People!”
Mother Jones lives in Glen Echo and is one of a handful of “runners,” who are hooked up to a network and called upon to transport donations made from various sources. It appears many local people and businesses prefer to remain anonymous in their donations. This made it difficult to pull specific names out of Mother Jones for this story. For her, it was irrelevant who donated. For her, it only meant fulfilling a desire to be participant in movement she believes in. Later that day, I saw her standing proudly aside one of the founding members of Occupy McPherson who was loudly rattling off missions for that afternoon to dwellers, visitors and mostly anyone who was listening.
While unloading Mother Jones’s car, I met Ralph Dantley, an articulate middle-aged man who was simultaneously unloading his own beat-up Subaru station wagon parked next to us. Dantley is the President of Good Success Servant Services, a small nonprofit organization operating in D.C., I assume, only thanks to the good will and hard work of its very president. Dantley has also offered himself as donation runner for Occupy and was, in that moment, unpacking a large amount of doughnuts from who knows where, and bags of chips that had “fallen off the Utz truck.” He led me to a nearby tent to unload the donation boxes.
The donated food was placed upon a table situated outside of a large blue and well constructed tent near the corner of 15th and K. Surrounding the tent was a mausoleum of half-clean, half-dirty pots, a collection of wires ducked taped together — the skeleton of what appeared to be the previous kitchen structure — and a makeshift stove onto which a large pot of water was boiling for dishwashing. As witnessed at any workplace, within minutes the food Mother Jones and Dantley had delivered was readily torn through by the surrounding crowd.
I spoke with a smiling young man, 25, from Silver Spring, who had snatched up some of Mother Jones’s packaged cantaloupe from 7-Eleven. He told me he had the money to purchase a sandwich from the Pot Belly across the street, yet preferred to stick it out with the group he marches and sleeps through the night with. Though he said if things did get desperate enough, he would slip away and use his debit card.
Catching my attention, Dantely asked if I wanted to meet the “hero” in the kitchen. Clearly, this is what I came for. Unlike the chaotic front yard of the blue kitchen tent, the inside surpassed all expectations. The shelves were stocked carefully with loads of canned and dry products like rice and pasta and even taco shells. There were organized plastic containers of onions and potatoes lining the walls, a table positioned up front and cutting boards for prepping. Amazed at the neatness of the space and, quite frankly, humbled at the thought of my own disorganized kitchen, I spun around to meet Vasant Khalsa, the hero.
How on earth? I asked. How did you? Who helped you? Where did you come from? The questions were stuttering from my mouth. Not at all flattered by the attention, yet unconsciously charming, Vasant, 29, recounted his three-minute story. He came to D.C. from Oakland, originally for the Martin Luther King ceremony and surrounding events in October. While checking out the Occupy movement for the first time in person, he noticed a desperate need for leadership in the kitchen department. McPherson Square needed someone to spearhead the building of a proper and hygienic tent to store and organize edible donations and cook “hot” meals. Not only was Vasant up to the task but what he has been able to accomplish with what he was given is remarkable. Dantley confirmed that within one night, Vasant had rebuilt the kitchen tent, found shelving and single-handily arranged everything into what it looks like today.
Learning to cook simply from being “on his own at home,” Vasant was prepared to whip up a lamb stew that evening for his fellow Occupiers. He spoke to us without hesitation of his self-assigned kitchen duties but was occasionally interrupted by people asking for his help with this or that. I stepped aside, while he poured hot water into plastic containers outside the tent for dishwashing. When I returned to the tent only minutes later, Vasant’s laptop had been stolen. He sat on his prepping table slumped over in disappointment while Dantley comforted him, “You didn’t deserve that, son.”
Having yet to pose for a picture displaying his hard work and dedicated community effort, Vasant was reluctant to smile for the camera and I was reluctant to force him. “Someone will return it,” I said. “You should wreak havoc until they do.” “What for?” he replied. “It won’t matter anyway. It’s just what happens the second I turn my back.” Shortly after and within the safety of his orderly kitchen, he sat emotionless on his prepping table facing the opening flap. We snapped the shot needed for this article, shook his hand and uneasily reassured him good would eventually return.
What I learned that day in McPherson Square was more than what I set out for. Amongst the bedlam of tents, improvised solar panels and rivers of people passing through with signs of discontent, there exists the voices of those individuals who have dedicated their days to make this movement possible. The District has extended Occupy’s lease at McPherson until February 2012. As the bitter cold approaches, my thoughts will be with Mother Jones, President Dantely and Vasant. And just maybe, besides another round of Lamb Stew, the universe might bring Vasant an opportunity to exist sufficiently in the world of the 99% or at the very minimum, bring back his laptop.