The Food Thief At Karma Kitchen
Posted by Nipun Mehta on Dec 28, 2008
[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.