The Food Thief At Karma Kitchen

Posted by Nipun Mehta on Dec 28, 2008
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[A stocky guy with a shaven head and tattooes on his neck and a Cuban accent, walks into Karma Kitchen yesterday.  He helps wash some dishes, we have lunch together, he gets home and sends in this story that he had shared in person.  This is the true story of one Piero Amadeo Infante.]

I was 17 years old.

Circumstances were grim at that time in my life. I was homeless, my mother was out of the country, and I usually spent my time wandering around hungry, or playing drums and getting into trouble, with my friends, several kids like me from Berkeley high and Oakland tech high schools.

I was homeless, but prideful. Most people didn't know that despite the fact that I dressed sharp, I would wind up sleeping on the roof of Willard junior high, or on one of the several steam vents on the UC campus.

And I was always hungry.  It's hard to explain how that shaped my life, always being hungry. A desperation often crept over my thoughts, heart, and life. It affected everything.

Some days I would go to the plentiful plum and apricot trees that line many of the streets in Berkeley, especially the area above Telegraph Avenue between Dwight and Ashby. Sometimes I would take a piece of the fennel that grows all around Berkeley and chew it and put it under my lip, they way beetle nut users in Southeast Asia do, to quell hunger pangs.  Once as a child, I met Swami Prabhupada, founder of the Hare Krishna movement in the United States, who prepared a meal for me, and said, "Eat my child, eat." It would be one of the many times I relied on the kindness of spiritually elevated people for my survival.

I remember the concept of spiritual food as the devotees would bring the public "prashadam" or "holy food", as I would come to understand it. Back in those days, the food was offered freely to the public as a spiritual blessing; after the founder's death in 1977, it changed a little with the requirement of some donation or other gift. Like a restaurant. And I was made to feel guilty and uncomfortable coming there for food.  Guilt and shame became regular emotions associated with food.

On a good,day, a day when I could swallow my pride, my Godmother always had something for me to eat.  Her and her house were the only place I felt safe and she has been a loving friend my entire life.  But I still felt shame at my situation.

In my hunger of those years, I became something I am not proud of, but also have no shame for today:

A food thief.

I remember timing my visits so that I could snatch some food from a temple kitchen on Stuart Street. Later I would master stealing fruit from places on Telegraph Avenue for my younger brothers. Even later, I would become an expert in what is now called "dine and dash" ordering sumptuous meals at expensive restaurants and then running without paying the tab. I became a master at feeding my family, through thievery at the age of 17. I was the oldest of an extended family of 13 and my talent for stealing food for kids became well known to hungry kids in the neighborhood.  And there were always a lot of hungry kids in the neighborhood.

I would wander all night long, looking for bare necessities for survival.  I discovered that underneath some of the outdoor areas of restaurants in Berkeley and Oakland, that coins fell through the panels, and would scoop some up periodically.

Once, around 4AM, I happened across the old Colombo French Bread Factory (which used to be on the corner of market and 40th), and smelt the delicious fresh bread.  I wandered inside saying that I was interested in how the bread was made, and I remember how an old man there instantly figured that I was hungry and kindly handed me a loaf of bread.  I will never forget that man.

Other times, though, I would steal.  One of the restaurants I would steal from regularly was at the corner of Shattuck and Virginia.  I don't remember the name of the place, but in later years, I would play music at a Cuban restaurant next door called 'Siboney'.  Anyhow, I stole food from these places on a regular basis, and we would feast, laughing with my family at our latest haul -- the way pirates do after seizing some treasure.  Despite our situation, those were good times.

So, decades passed. I played music, became very loved and popular here in my home town and became a man. My personal philosophy matured to one principle, in particular: "No one goes hungry on my watch."  All my life I have wondered at the blindness of those more fortunate, and now I was becoming one of them.

I developed food issues. Having it, sharing, acquiring it, and preparing it, became obsessions for me. My weight fluctuated.  Nutrition became the focal point for all my interests.  With my growing spiritual condition as well with my growing understanding of food, I saw food as a basic human right that no one should be denied of.

Later, a girlfriend -- Linda Partida, who has become the greatest teacher I have ever had and who initiated the "vegetarian food for prisoners" movement --  taught me about the idea of "Primary Food", which is to say, food for the soul, heart, and mind.

After receiving these blessings, some of which I often felt unworthy of (common feeling amongst kids whose parents that didn't feed them), the past year in particular has become the time of my greatest spiritual growth and understanding of myself and others. I began pondering the next move in my spiritual development.

Then one day, walking down Shattuck Avenue on my way to coffee, I saw a banner titled "Karma Kitchen" in colors that reminded me of the Krishna temple of my youth. My curiosity overwhelmed me, and I entered, suddenly remembering this place as the place where in my desperation I had stolen food as a youth.  Imagine my surprise!

Coming inside, I, like many others had the same incredulous reaction when I was told, "The food is offered on a pay-it-forward basis.  Your meal is paid for by someone before you and you pay forward for those after you."  It implored you to consider your place in the world.

I was stunned. Could not speak for several moments -- a rarity for me!  I saw the volunteers all smiling and felt the love emanating from the place.  I suppressed a desire to cry for several minutes, until I was seated, and then cried freely, hoping no one would see me.

In that moment I felt freedom, and love, and kindness of people who understood what food really was -- medicine for the soul, and the life-sustaining love of the world that everyone needed. So strange that I, by fate's hand alone, would come, over 30 years later to the same place where I was a thief, and be given loving spiritual food freely, and with only the direction to "pay forward."

The delicious vegetarian food they brought me was fragrant, fresh and beautifully prepared.  It healed me greatly, to know that someone would know so well, the kid I once was, and still am, and feed him.

It is with a great of joy that I found you all, and myself, in Karma Kitchen, and look forward to being of whatever service I can, and I have found in the humble actions of washing dishes, a happiness I would have never expected in the company of people who understand that food, is in fact, love.

I wish you all the love in the world. Thank you for helping heal me, and the hungry child that still lives inside me. You do all of us a service by reminding us that there are many ways to pay for a meal, but the most valuable one is to pay forward.

I HIGHLY recommend that you all visit Karma Kitchen on Sundays.  It has changed my Sundays, and my life.

Love,

Piero

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Comments (29)

  • six wrote ...

    The people so often sleepy, weary, enigmatic,
    is a vast huddle with many units saying:
    "I earn my living.
    I make enough to get by
    and it takes all my time.
    If I could do more for myself
    and maybe for others.
    I could read and study
    and talk things over
    and find out about things.
    It takes time.
    I wish I had the time."

    The people is a tragic and comic two-face: hero and hoodlum:
    phantom and gorilla-twisting to moan with a gargoyle mouth:
    "They buy me and sell me... it's a game...
    sometime I'll break loose...
    Once having marched
    Over the margins of animal necessity,
    Over the grim line of sheer subsistence
    Then man came
    To the deeper rituals of his bones,
    To the lights lighter than any bones,
    To the time for thinking things over,
    To the dance, the song, the story,
    Or the hours given over to dreaming,
    Once having so marched.

    Between the finite limitations of the five senses
    and the endless yearnings of man for the beyond
    the people hold to the humdrum bidding of work and food
    while reaching out when it comes their way
    for the light beyond the prison of the five senses,
    for keepsakes beyond and hunger or death.
    This reaching is alive.
    The panderers and liars have violated and smutted it.
    Yet this reaching is alive yet
    for lights and keepsakes.

    The people know the salt of the sea
    and the strength of the winds
    lashing the cultural corners of the earth.
    The people take the earth
    as a tomb of rest and a cradle of hope.
    Who else speaks for the Family of Man?
    They are in tune and in step
    with constellations of universal law.
    The people is a polychrome,
    a spectrum and a prism
    held in a moving monolith,
    a console of organ of changing themes,
    a clavilux of color poems
    wherein the sea offers fog
    and the fog moves off in rain
    and the labrador sunset shortens
    to a nocturne of clear stars
    serene over the shot spray
    of northern lights.

    The steel mill sky is alive.
    The fire breaks white and zigzag
    shot of a gun-metal gloaming.
    Man is a long time coming.
    Man will yet win.
    Brother may yet line up with brother:

    This old anvil laughs at many broken hammers.
    There are men who can't be bought.
    The fireborn are at home in fire.
    The stars make no noise.
    You can't hinder the wind from blowing.
    Time is a great teacher.
    Who can live without hope?

    —C. Sandburg

  • Rajen Thapa wrote ...

    Expression is beautiful.Story has to say a lot.
    Thanks for giving us an opportunity to share your feelings.

  • Piero wrote ...

    But I'm Cuban American!!
    Must be the name.
    Do I really have an Italian accent? that's cool!

    love you all for feeding me, both at heart, soul, and body levels.

    Piero

  • Jeff A wrote ...

    Very powerful stuff, Piero, and very well said!

  • Rahul wrote ...

    This is brilliant, Piero!!:)
    Very inspiring and very honest!!:)
    Beautiful!!:)

  • kristin F wrote ...

    Beautiful Story! What a great concept to "pay forward". This story reminded me of how much I have and often I take for granted. Thanks Piero!!
    K

  • Sam wrote ...

    Thanks Piero for an inspiring story! You have paid it forward 100X by your example. It brought tears to my eyes. Best to you and your family in 2009. Hope to see you at the Kitchen!

  • Pancho Ramos Stierle wrote ...

    Another example on how to Planetize the Movement of the Ahimsa Revolution through inspiration...

    The Robin Hood of food... calling deep into ourselves, appealing to the spark of the divine that is our real nature...

    The kingdom of heaven is within us.

    Please receive my secular blessings hermano Piero. Thanks for the tears of joy brother.

    Hasta la victoria siempre! :-)
    Abajo y a la izquierda... está el corazón.

  • Dhrumil wrote ...

    A deeply touching story!

  • Debbie wrote ...

    Piero: Thank you for sharing your darkness and the light that made it fade.. wish I lived there so I could visit you and enjoy Karma Kitchen firsthand! May all be fed in this abundant nation of ours.
    Deep bows my friend
    debbie

  • Linda wrote ...

    Is there any way I could start a Karma Kitchen concept in the Detroit Metro area?

  • Sheila wrote ...

    Seriously, thanks for sharing! Inspirational, indeed...

  • jyothi wrote ...

    Brought tears to my eyes. Food IS love....so true. More energy to the volunteers at Karma Kitchen ...and thank you Piero for the beautifully expressed article on how your life has blossomed.
    Best wishes from Malaysia!!!


  • karen denise wrote ...

    there is so much food available even if you dont have money to buy it...when i was raising my son (in american type poverty) several nights a week i would put on my best clothes and go to restaurants at closing time and ask them if they had any food to give to me and my family that was still good but could not be used the next day or that they had been planning to toss out -some people are very generous some try to be mean -i would say thank you and move on if the answer was no or abuse. also vegetable trimmings for my rabbits created excellant vegetable soup - another resource for me has been dumpster diving and knowledge of the location of berkeleys many free and low cost food giveaway programs both church and state sponsored...vegetarian,hindu christian and others give away food also -the city is literally overflowing with free food-i also knock on doors of houses with unpicked trees with good results - if i get too much i share it - this is one way to fight poverty - yes i am a fanatic and i decided to live as far from a materialist life as possible when i was a kid-im 62 and do believe in and practice this still.its very hard to be generous having been raised to believe in profit and wealth..ive loved reading every ones remarks -this is an essential subject - which leads me next to the question "who pays the rent"love/peace/karendenise

  • susan bradley wrote ...

    Piero, thank  you for sharing your story of your discovery of karma kitchen... mostly a bit of the story of you!

    I sit and reflect on your story,Piero, the description of the plum and appricot trees, gathering coins under the deck of a restaurant, smelling fresh baking bread & feigning interest in bread making and receiving bread, of discovering Karma Kitchen and how your tears flowed and a healing of you took place! *ripple*

    I am wowed at the simpleness of food, of feeding someone, of hospitality, of feeling and being loved, of the feeding of the belly, the soul and the heart ...  *ripple*

    I reflect about upon the ripple effect of the Mehta family, of Nipun and his vision, and Karma Kitchen... *ripple* the blog of the beautiful woman in Spain that left her job to study Spanish and Flamenco...*ripple* whose story of sharing about karma kitchen and the gifting economy to her spanish class there in spain... *ripple* inspires her German roommate to consider starting a Karma Kitchen in Germany... *ripple& and  brought me to this page to learn your story Piero!!! ... *ripple*...

    ...the ripple effects of actions and deeds...

  • Bradley wrote ...

    What a beautiful reflection, Piero. The struggles that many have to go through are many and you did what you needed to in order to survive. Now, you're able to give back to your community. We need to all realize that every life affects another, in either good or bad ways. We are all connected and need to care for one another.

  • satwinder wrote ...

    So touching.
    Sikh religion is very much like that. Go to Gurudwara on Sunday ( Two are in neighbourhood of Berkeley - On in El supernate ( sp? ) and one is in Hayward . One is in Fremont and San Jose too ) and have free lunch. No strings attached.

    Free food is custom of Sikh religion and they love to do it all over the world.

  • Liz Pimentel-Gopal wrote ...

    Piero- thank you for sharing your story filled with wisdom on what food is and how/kind hearts can providw joy-love-sustain life. You are a BRAVE Kind heart. I have learned so much by reading your story. May all the good energy / blessings guide your life. Abrazos: Liz

  • Liz Pimentel-Gopal wrote ...

    Piero- thank you for sharing your story filled with wisdom on what food is and how/kind hearts can providw joy-love-sustain life. You are a BRAVE Kind heart. I have learned so much by reading your story. May all the good energy / blessings guide your life. Abrazos: Liz

  • Liz Pimentel-Gopal wrote ...

    Piero- thank you for sharing your story filled with wisdom on what food is and how/kind hearts can providw joy-love-sustain life. You are a BRAVE Kind heart. I have learned so much by reading your story. May all the good energy / blessings guide your life. Abrazos: Liz

  • Liz Pimentel-Gopal wrote ...

    Piero- thank you for sharing your story filled with wisdom on what food is and how/kind hearts can providw joy-love-sustain life. You are a BRAVE Kind heart. I have learned so much by reading your story. May all the good energy / blessings guide your life. Abrazos: Liz

  • Liz Pimentel-Gopal wrote ...

    Piero- thank you for sharing your story filled with wisdom on what food is and how/kind hearts can providw joy-love-sustain life. You are a BRAVE Kind heart. I have learned so much by reading your story. May all the good energy / blessings guide your life. Abrazos: Liz

  • Liz Pimentel-Gopal wrote ...

    Piero- thank you for sharing your story filled with wisdom on what food is and how/kind hearts can providw joy-love-sustain life. You are a BRAVE Kind heart. I have learned so much by reading your story. May all the good energy / blessings guide your life. Abrazos: Liz

  • Liz Pimentel-Gopal wrote ...

    Piero- thank you for sharing your story filled with wisdom on what food is and how/kind hearts can providw joy-love-sustain life. You are a BRAVE Kind heart. I have learned so much by reading your story. May all the good energy / blessings guide your life. Abrazos: Liz

  • ELIZABETH wrote ...

    Piero's reflection is heart-warming and a reminder of how small acts of kindness ripple for years in people's souls. It is beautiful to be part of this community at Karma Kitchen. I've been on the other side (hungry child) and indeed/ kindness through food heals minds, body and spirit. It is even more beautiful to read how Piero emerged to become a leader in kindness... may we follow his footsteps.

  • ELIZABETH wrote ...

    Piero's reflection is heart-warming and a reminder of how small acts of kindness ripple for years in people's souls. It is beautiful to be part of this community at Karma Kitchen. I've been on the other side (hungry child) and indeed/ kindness through food heals minds, body and spirit. It is even more beautiful to read how Piero emerged to become a leader in kindness... may we follow his footsteps.

  • ELIZABETH wrote ...

    Piero's reflection is heart-warming and a reminder of how small acts of kindness ripple for years in people's souls. It is beautiful to be part of this community at Karma Kitchen. I've been on the other side (hungry child) and indeed/ kindness through food heals minds, body and spirit. It is even more beautiful to read how Piero emerged to become a leader in kindness... may we follow his footsteps.

  • ELIZABETH wrote ...

    Piero's reflection is heart-warming and a reminder of how small acts of kindness ripple for years in people's souls. It is beautiful to be part of this community at Karma Kitchen. I've been on the other side (hungry child) and indeed/ kindness through food heals minds, body and spirit. It is even more beautiful to read how Piero emerged to become a leader in kindness... may we follow his footsteps.

  • ELIZABETH wrote ...

    Piero's reflection is heart-warming and a reminder of how small acts of kindness ripple for years in people's souls. It is beautiful to be part of this community at Karma Kitchen. I've been on the other side (hungry child) and indeed/ kindness through food heals minds, body and spirit. It is even more beautiful to read how Piero emerged to become a leader in kindness... may we follow his footsteps.