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Food Fight! NYC's Community Fridge Scene is a Feisty Free-For-All
Plus! Readers explain themselves!! Weird Trash Photo #23!!!
Welcome to Issue #51 of CAFÉ ANNE!
Phew, a lot of feedback on the profile of Roosevelt Island in Issue #50. Some emailed their own accounts. My favorite, from reader Heather Q. in Mt. Tabor, NJ:
“Roosevelt Island is the creepiest place on Earth. I never knew anyone who lived there, but my uncle once dated a girl in college who lived there, this would’ve been the early ‘80s. They got in a fight and he took the tram and left. But even though he’s terrified of heights he took the tram back so he could have the last word. And then left again. That’s very much my mom's family.
The place has changed a lot from when I first went about 20 years ago, everything looked Soviet - buildings were labeled “Church” and “Store” and so on. No skyscrapers. The view of the skyline was like being in the front row of a movie theater. The insane asylum was the least weird part of it. And the people were frightening, but that was then. Now it’s guys like the one who doesn't want to be associated with Queens. F you buddy, you’re on the F, you are associated with Queens.”
Reader Matt C. meanwhile, wrote to note that Roosevelt Island “has its own futuristic giant vacuum trash collection system.” How come no one mentioned this while I was visiting?
And reader Tim in Massachusetts emailed to note that the former neighbor mentioned by Ken Anderson was actually an infamous Howard Stern show regular—the "Elegant Elliot Offen.”
I also heard from a few folks explaining why they voted against me going to Sunnyside, Queens to investigate who or what is behind the TREE OF RESPECT spotted by my little brother.
“I’m part of the mysterious 37% of your readers who voted to maintain the mystery around the tree of respect,” wrote Julia S. on the Upper West Side. “One reason is purely aesthetic -- to make the poll more interesting. Who wants a poll that is 100% ‘yes! go find out!’? That to me is not only a bit boring, but not credible.”
She also cited the pleasure of formulating her own explanation, a sentiment echoed by Frank F. in Ohio. “The mystery always is better than the reality!!!” he wrote. “Do we have to know everything??!! I'm 69 and closer to the biggest mystery than you, and I find the infinite possibilities absolutely enchanting!!”
Then there was the following in an email from reader Asta K:
“I voted to keep the tree a mystery and IMMEDIATELY regretted my vote even as I hit the button. Somehow my mind glitched and thought my imagination might create a more interesting story, mystery intact, but then remembered that your entire newsletter is delightful because of how it highlights utterly interesting people we normally do not get to meet or hear about.
So, I look forward to hearing more about the person behind the TREE OF RESPECT.”
Thank you Asta! I’m planning to visit my brother for dinner in Sunnyside tomorrow (he’s making meatloaf!) and will head up early so I have time to investigate the tree. I’m hoping to have the full report for the next issue.
Speaking of mysteries, I got a cool tip last week from reader Emily in Forest Hills, Queens. A man had just run the NYC marathon with a pineapple on his head! She included a link to his Instagram. I immediately sent him a note requesting a phone call. But the athlete, an older man named Moshe, responded immediately: “I don’t interview.”
Wow, this made me love him even more. He’s not doing it for the publicity. ITS ALL ABOUT THE PINEAPPLE.
When I related this story to my friend Lisa, btw, she had a great suggestion: “Did you contact the pineapple directly?”
I was also delighted to receive an email from an anonymous reader commenting on last issue’s Pigeon of the Month, Kellyn Shensky. The reader wanted to correct Ms. Shensky’s grammar: “People have great difficulty with the verbs ‘lie’ and ‘lay’ and their various forms,” the person wrote. “Tell this lady that ‘as I lie in bed’ is correct.”
Wow! Having someone write in to correct the grammar of an entitled Brooklyn pigeon may be the greatest thing that has ever happened to me.
Finally, huge, intergalactic platinum-plated pretzel CAFÉ ANNE shoutouts to new paid subscribers K Fontana, Ann T, Agaton S, Kelly M and Conrad C! The fact that folks pay when they can read everything for free gives me such a huge boost every time.
And a special thanks to Jennifer in Ponoma CA, who, upon receiving the little thank-you surprise in the mail that I send to all new paying subscribers, mailed me a little surprise in return, the nature of which I cannot reveal, as that would spoil the surprise for everyone.
I’m very excited for this week’s issue, of course. We’ve got an EXCELLENT weird trash photo and a fun look at the NYC community fridge scene. Please enjoy.
Weird Trash Heap #23
I was extremely pleased when reader Kyle in Brooklyn sent another photo for the ongoing Weird Trash Heap series. This example, which he spotted on Atlantic Ave., is a real dandy:
Contents: 33 Hershey’s Kisses—intact in their purple foil wrappers; one Michael Jordan cutout head (featuring championship rings!); one cigarette butt; one packet of soy sauce; one feather.
I asked Kyle to interpret. “The soy sauce, cigarette and candy symbolize human beings’ three main vices,” he wrote in his reply. “The feather represents hope that not all is lost.”
Please send your weird trash photo to email@example.com and I will include it in a future issue.
Food Fight! NYC's Community Fridge Scene is a Feisty Free-For-All
One of the upsides to the pandemic in NYC—which included the expanded outdoor dining scene and the dispersal of many fair weather “New Yorkers” to distant suburbs—was the proliferation of community refrigerators.
This very cool trend had volunteers setting up street-side refrigerators to which anyone can donate food or help themselves. No screening, no red tape, no fundraising. Just, “Hungry? Have a sandwich!”
Whenever I pass a community fridge, I always peek in, just because I’m nosy. If you had me over, I’d peek at your fridge, too.
So I was thrilled, a few weeks ago, when some fellow Substack writers suggested I explore the city’s community fridge screen. One,, even offered to be my research assistant. (She’s a professor and author of , a fantastic new newsletter devoted to the note-taking of folks ranging from Harry Houdini to Robert Caro. Check it out!)
I started my adventure by consulting a crowd-sourced map of NYC’s curbside pantries. Sorting through listings and photos, I learned there are 115 community fridges in all five boroughs. I also discerned what seems to be a set of unwritten customs governing the city’s community fridge scene. Each fridge must:
1) Have an Instagram account.
2) Sport colorful, childish art—suggesting that virtues like generosity and caring are the exclusive domain of the mentally underdeveloped.
3) Have a name that includes the words “community,” “love,” or “people” to reassure folks that the project is not run by a nefarious private equity firm.
I decided to focus my investigation on the Lower East Side, an area with a high community fridge/people ratio. Jillian and I agreed to meet up last Tuesday afternoon at a community fridge in Chinatown.
Chinatown Community Fridge
Address: 96 Baxter Street, Chinatown
Refrigerator Type: Dukers commercial cooler with double sliding doors
Environs: Located outside the Chung Pak Local Development Corp. senior residence
Contents: 40 cans of La Croix and 365 by Whole Foods Market brand sparkling water—plain, ginger and black cherry flavors
When Jillian and I arrived, the fridge was locked behind a cabinet. It’s only open in the morning. Happily, a volunteer named Nicole came out and unlocked the cupboard so we could see inside.
I didn’t realize at first, but Nicole was a high school student. This fridge is run by a bunch of teenagers from public schools all over the city! She was soon joined by her pals Jonathan and Fiona.
The huge cooler was empty except for maybe 40 cans of seltzer. Weird! Jonathan said the area’s locals don’t like carbonated drinks.
“This is the fridge this morning!” said Fiona, displaying a photo on her phone. “And this is a photo from Saturday.” The fridge gets big donations from local markets in addition to individual residents.
Jillian and I marveled that the fridge was run by high school kids. We had originally assumed they were adult volunteers, or at least college students.
“I take that as a compliment,” said Nicole. “I look like an adult!”
“No you don’t!” said Jonathan.
“F— you!” said Nicole.
“She’s aways like this,” said Jonathan.
“You’re always weird,” Nicole shot back.
“No I’m not!”
I asked if they could translate the Chinese characters on the cabinet.
“She doesn’t know how to speak Chinese at all,” said Jonathan.
“F— you!” said Nicole. “F— you! I know phrases.”
“All she knows is curse words,” said Jonathan.
I asked what was the weirdest thing they’ve ever seen donated.
“I can tell you the most stressful thing,” said Nicole. “That day we had all the meat and eggs? Our boss got punched!”
“No she didn’t,” said Jonathan.
“They’re very violent when it comes to free food,” said Fiona. “Very violent.”
I can understand that. I get little aggro myself at events featuring a free buffet.
“It was really good food,” said Nicole.
“Plus inflation and stuff,” said Jonathan.
“The line was so long, there were so many people. This entire area was crowded,” said Nicole. “That was a really stressful day. Jonathan usually handles the line because he’s intimidating.”
“I’m not intimidating,” said Jonathan. “I just know the language!”
“I always figured a community fridge was a peaceful affair,” I said.
“It is,” said Nicole. “But when it comes to free food, people can get aggressive sometimes.”
The students are unpaid, but sometimes they help themselves. They’re unofficially allowed to take home a few items each day.
“I brought a mini cake home and my brothers ate the entire thing before I could even get a slice,” said Nicole. “The fat asses, they ate it all. It was chocolate too!”
Fiona, who had been translating the Chinese characters with her phone, finally piped up with the answer: “It says, ‘Chinatown Community Fridge.’”
The teens suggested Jillian I each take a seltzer.
“I would like a drink,” I said. I was thirsty after riding my bike to Chinatown from Brooklyn. “How bad would that be? We’re the worst reporters ever!”
“But you guys are great!” Jillian told the teenagers.
“We are!” said Nicole. “Or I am. Jonathan…”
“You’re horrible!” Jonathan interrupted.
They were still arguing when we left.
Essex Market Plant-Based Community Fridge
Address: 220 Broome Street, Lower East Side
Refrigerator Type: Aventio double-doored cooler
Environs: Located outside the south entrance to the Essex Market
Contents: One slice whole-wheat bread, wrapped. Two bananas, overripe. Two small crouton packets. Single cans of chick peas, yams, apple sauce, tomato sauce and spaghetti sauce.
“This looks like my grandmother’s pantry,” said Jillian.
Jillian had bought some carrots and hummus so she’d have something to donate, and put a bag of each in the fridge.
We noted that this refrigerator had an “out of order” sign. Also, one of the sliding doors was missing. I asked Jillian what award we should give our second subject.
“Most in need of improvement,” she said.
Sixth Street Fridge
Address: 638 East 6th Street, Alphabet City
Refrigerator Type: Whirlpool double-door kitchen fridge with freezer
Environs: Located inside a gated area beside the Sixth Street Community Center
Contents: One potato
When we arrived at this fridge, there was one person ahead of us. She took the last remaining item—a potato—and started combing through an assortment of canned vegetables piled beside the refrigerator.
“A lot of cans!” I remarked.
“Yeah,” she sighed. But she brightened upon spotting a bottle of Worcestershire sauce, which she slipped into her bag. “It’s like a treasure hunt!”
“Worcestershire sauce and one potato,” I observed.
“This is a win,” she laughed, and went on her way.
Julie Powell, a community center volunteer who helps oversee the fridge, happened to be onsite. She said the fridge had been full earlier in the day, and was due to get a CSA delivery tomorrow morning.
“What’s the fanciest thing you’ve ever found in the fridge?” I asked.
“Someone just left some Worcestershire sauce!” said Julie.
“And someone just took it!” I said. “The lady who came by just now! She got a potato and one bottle of Worcestershire sauce.”
“That seemed fancy to me,” said Julie.
“What do you do with it?” Jillian wanted to know Worcestershire sauce.
“You put it on a potato,” I said.
That is not true. it’s actually a steak sauce.
I asked Ms. Powell if she ever helped herself to food from the fridge.
“Oh absolutely!” she said. “I also help donate to different fridges. There’s another organization that works here, I actually have their teeshirt on—EV Loves NYC. On Sundays we make meals that go to community refrigerators and churches. The mission statement of EV Loves is that the food is very high quality. So we have different chefs that come, we make beautiful chicken dishes. Our rice is really beautiful—with tumeric and other spices!”
I asked if someone like me could take a meal.
“It’s open to everybody! That’s part of it,” said Ms. Powell. “And hopefully if you have the means, you give back and put something in it. If you have extra stuff in your pantry, donate!”
There’s been a decline in food donations since the pandemic receded, she added.
“I was worried about that,” I said. “Not that I’ve ever donated any food, so I should shut up, right?”
We all laughed.
“Can I donate some food?” said Jillian.
Jillian was making me look bad.
“I have hummus,” said Jillian. “It’s so nutritious and delicious!”
“Do you think most people are donating old food they don’t want, or do they buy food just to donate, like Jillian did?” I asked.
“It’s like 50/50,” said Julie. “We’ve definitely gotten nice shopping bags of groceries from Trader Joe’s.”
I took a final quick inventory of the dry goods: pinto beans, canned spinach, spaghetti sauce. I had to restrain myself from filching a jar of peanut butter.
Loisaida Community Fridge
Address: 602 East 9th Street East 6th Street, Alphabet City
Refrigerator Type: TurboAir single-door commercial cooler
Environs: Across the street from Tompkins Square Park
Contents: One mustard green leaf
Ms. Hess had a hot date with the research gods at the New York Public Library in Midtown, so now I was on my own. Not that there was much to see at the Loisaida CommUnity Fridge.
While the enclosure was extremely charming, the contents were not: the fridge offered one dried-up mustard green leaf while the adjoining cupboard contained a single unwrapped “Frida Mom” maxi pad. There was also a Chiquita banana carton to one side which I hoped might contain bananas. Alas, it offered an upturned container of cold french fries. Crinkle-cut, mind you, but still cold.
East Village Community Fridge
Address: 197 First Avenue, East Village
Refrigerator Type: GE kitchen fridge with top-loading freezer
Environs: Outside Sarita’s Mac and Cheese restaurant
Contents: Two half-empty quart containers of takeout wonton soup
This location looked so promising! But the fridge had just two half-containers of wonton soup, and the cupboard was bare.
I was photographing the empty interior when I heard a voice behind me. “Are you donating or taking? Either is fine.”
“Just taking a picture,” I said and turned to view my interlocutor. It was Jesus Christ, with a big box of food!
Actually it was just a tall guy with long hair and a beard. “Stick around,” he said, “and you’ll be taking a picture of a very full fridge.”
He introduced himself as Leon and said he was with a volunteer group, The House of Good Deeds, that collects and redistributes overstock food. He roped me into helping him unload his overflowing van.
As we hefted boxes of yogurt, bottled water and ice cream, three elderly ladies surrounded the fridge and grabbed at the containers.
“Hello!” Leon greeted them. “We’re going to fill this up. It’s going to take a few minutes and then you can take any darn thing you like! We just need to fill it and take a picture of it. There’s plenty for everyone. Don’t worry. You’re first on line. How’s that?”
“Deal!” said Anna, the leader of the pack.
We continued stocking the fridge and cupboard: snack bars, kettle corn, Diet Coke, kosher marble cake, dog food. The crowd was growing to include a young man on a bike, an old man with a cart and several middle-aged ladies in hoodies speaking Russian.
“Give us five minutes, thank you for your patience!” said Leon.
“Half-n-half! Oh my God!” one lady exclaimed.
And with that, the crowd descended on the fridge. I gave up on my photo.
“I can’t believe how fast this stuff is going,” I told Leon.
“Every time!” he said. “Hundreds of dollars worth of stuff. It’s good, but my concern is people take a lot. There’s different groups. There’s the hoarders who take as much as they can carry of everything, and they aren’t going to eat it. And then there’s other people who get stuff to sell it.”
“People love the community fridge idea because there’s no rules, right?” I said. “But there’s drawbacks to that.”
“I’m not a big fan of rules, but I think it’s important to have guidelines,” said Leon.
Leon, it turns out, is the executive director and a founder of The House of Good Deeds. “It’s a horrible, horrible story,” he said. “It’s an organization my late wife and I cofounded when we found out she had terminal cancer right after we got engaged. Crazy, crazy story. But people from all over the world helped us. We made one post on social media, it went viral, we raised thousands and we started the charity together. Unfortunately, she passed away just a few months later.”
That was five years ago.
He interrupted our conversation to break up a knot of men squabbling over bottled water. “Easy! Easy!” he told them.
His organization grew a lot during the pandemic, he said. It often partners with supermarkets and delivery services like GoPuff that have overstock. His outfit has a van and a graffiti-covered school bus to deliver food all over the city.
“What are you living on?” I asked.
“Ha,” he said. “Well a lot of the food we collect—I’m not earning a salary—so I’m suckling the public teat, so to speak. But rescuing resources means you don’t have to spend money on them. I’ve gotten very good at saving things for myself to eat and drink and spending money sparingly.”
His outfit also rescues clothing and housewares. People call when they move or someone dies.
He gave me his card. It said, “Leon Feingold, Esq.”
“You’re a lawyer!” I said. “It’s funny—when I first saw you I thought you were Jesus.”
“I get that a lot,” he said. “Haircuts cost money. Whatever donations we get go to insurance and fuel. We’re doing our best to break even.”
Before Leon took off, he asked if I had a sweet tooth and rummaged in his van. I was hoping for chocolate but instead got a five-pound bag of gummy worms.
“We like to give our volunteers first dibs,” he said. “Because everyone’s in need, but we like to reward people for being altruistic. And you were kind enough to help.”
I deserved no reward, but took the bag for my meditation center. A mouthful of gummy worms, as you know, is rocket fuel for spiritual growth.
As I biked home with a bag full of candy, I reflected on what I’d learned:
Timing is everything.
NYC’s free food scene is not for the faint of heart!
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