My old friend Sy, a true child of the Great Depression, has always been food insecure. Afraid he might not have enough to eat, he kept full cupboards, a packed refrigerator and a separate freezing unit. That most of the items in his larder were perhaps years past their expiration dates did not bother him in the least.
Occasionally he would remind me, “Bromberg, you never know.”
Sy came about his food insecurity quite understandably. He was raised by a single mom, who had been forced to place him in an orphanage when she could no longer support him.
Sy and I share a birthday. My friend, Marilyn, whom he barely knew, happened to live a few miles from him. When she invited me over for a birthday dinner, I suggested that she invite Sy as well.
An hour before the dinner, he called with a question: Would it be OK to bring his daughter, Karen?
“Of course,” said Marilyn. “I’d love to have her.”
Meanwhile, I was thinking: Marilyn never even met Karen. How nice to invite her.
A few minutes later, Sy called again. Would it be OK for Karen’s friend to come?
Then, at five-minute intervals – Karen’s friend’s boyfriend? Another friend who just came by? And finally, could he bring Uncle Lou?
Uncle Lou wasn’t even Sy’s uncle. He was the uncle of a friend, and was renting a room in Sy’s house.
“The dinner would not be the same without Uncle Lou,” said Marilyn.
When they arrived, Marilyn was very welcoming, and somehow managed to get all of us seated comfortably at the dining room table. Sy was overjoyed when he saw how much food there was.
Everything went quite smoothly until Sy got up and left the room, taking his plate with him. No one except Marilyn seemed to notice. I mouthed the word, “later,” and she nodded.
After Sy and his gang left, I explained that because of his upbringing, he was exceedingly food insecure.
“OMG!” she exclaimed. “That’s why he took his food into the bathroom!”
“Yup! He didn’t trust us. Not even his daughter or Uncle Lou.”
A few months later, Marilyn gave a party for about twenty people. By the time Sy got there, it was in full swing. He came with a friend, who, it turned out, was a baker.
Sy placed a huge white box on the dining room table and opened it. It was filled with bun-sized pastries. Very ceremoniously, Sy took out the pastries and placed them on three or four large serving platters.
Then he just stood there, looking very proud. He and a few other people helped themselves. Marilyn whispered to me that Sy had been very generous. And indeed he was, even if his friend had done the baking.
Half an hour later, Sy and his friend made their apologies. They had another party to go to. Then Sy packed up the pastries that had not been consumed, and he and his friend were off to the next party.
Not surprisingly, Sy’s favorite parties were potluck brunches. He always brought the same offering – three large cans of tomato juice. They were the same cans, because invariably, the host or hostess would ask Sy to take the cans home when he left. In fact, they had even begun to rust.
When Sy was leaving, he grabbed a couple of shopping bags, and always made sure he took the cans – along with whatever leftovers might otherwise go to waste.
Did you know that one out of every two guests using your bathroom checks out your medicine cabinet? Guests might also check out your furniture, your books, and maybe peek into your bedroom. Sy? He’d head right into the kitchen, open the refrigerator, and peer in lovingly.
One brunch host, perhaps with a different type of food disorder, had taped his refrigerator door shut. Sy asked him for a knife. Thinking he might have needed the knife to cut a bagel, the host handed him a small bread knife.
“Don’t you have anything longer?”
“What the hell do you need it for?” Sy looked at him in disbelief. Finally, curiosity got the best of the host. He handed Sy a long knife.
Sy began to cut the tape on the refrigerator door.
“Stop!” yelled the host.
“Who tapes up their refrigerator door?” asked Sy.
“People who don’t want guys like you snooping in there.”
“Are you nuts?” yelled Sy. “You hide the most interesting part of your home?”
When Sy’s daughter got married, he happily paid for the wedding, which was held in an assembly line facility. It was set up for you to move from the hors d’oeuvres room to the chapel; and from there into one of three dining rooms. The weddings were staggered an hour apart.
Sy, resplendent in his tuxedo, managed to sample every appetizer, and almost had to be dragged into the chapel to give away the bride. But when we were ushered into our assigned dining room, Sy had disappeared.
Even after the guests had all found their tables, Sy’s chair was conspicuously empty. Just before we sent out a search party, the doors flew open and in walked Sy. He had a large plate in his hand, filled with chicken wings, spare ribs, egg rolls, and six or eight other appetizers.
Karen rushed over to him. “Daddy, we were so worried about you! Where were you?”
“Karen, you should have come with me. The wedding after yours? You should go in there and taste their appetizers. They’re even better than ours.”
A woman I was dating was having a barbecue in her backyard, and asked me to invite a few friends. I knew that Sy would never forgive me if I didn’t invite him. He promised not to bring those cans of tomato juice, and that he would even restrain himself from looking in Jill’s refrigerator — unless she was giving him a tour of her kitchen.
I don’t know if I had ever seen Sy happier than he was that afternoon. He could get almost as much pleasure from just looking at food as from eating it. But that afternoon, he got to look at his barbecue and eat it too.
After everyone left and we had cleaned up, Jill and I finally plopped down on the living room couch. She was smiling.
“Your friends were quite nice. But that big guy?’
“He looked like he was having such a good time!”
“I know. Whenever he’s around a lot of food, he’s in seventh heaven.”
“Well bless him! He certainly does have quite an appetite.” She paused for a few seconds. “But did he really need to carry two huge plates of food into the pool?”
A recovering economics professor, Steve Slavin earns a living writing math and economics books. His short story collection To the City, with Love was recently published.