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The City That Was: The Criminal Act of Feeding the Hungry

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In The City That Was, Bohemian Archivist P Segal tells a weekly story of what you all missed: the days when artists, writers, musicians, and unemployed visionaries were playing hard in the city’s streets and paying the rent working part time.

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Thanksgiving season, the time when America prepares to gorge itself on variations of the usual turkey dinner, argue with relatives, and watch sports on TV: hardly anyone mentions being thankful about anything. I would like to give thanks, at this appropriate moment, to people who have risked arrest to make sure that their poor fellow citizens got something to eat, if not gorge, when they were hungry.

The recent arrest of a 90-year-old man in Florida for feeding the hungry reminded me of one of those local heroes, a man named Keith McHenry, who ran a chapter of Food Not Bombs, feeding the poor and homeless in the Haight. McHenry got arrested 99 times for this act of mercy because the food was not made in a commercial kitchen.

Each time he was brought to trial in San Francisco, taxpayers paid a thousand bucks for the court costs, and more for keeping him in jail with the other criminals. The city spent $100K, at least, to stop him from endangering the health of recipients with homemade food. Far better to let them starve, right? Or better yet, the city could have given him commercial kitchen space for a decade for that amount of money.

My old friend Peter Doty came up with a classic event to protest this idiotic waste of taxpayer money, called “Let Them Eat Cake.” On Bastille Day, a bunch of us would dress up as French aristocrats, circa Marie Antoinette, and give out beautifully decorated pieces of cakes, made at home, in front of City Hall. We never got arrested for it, but it was street theater, after all, and not ordinary criminal food service.

When Keith McHenry was going to trail for the 99th time, Peter talked a few of us into going to the pre-trial protest on the steps of the Hall of Justice. We put on our aristocrat costumes and went, stopping en route for to-go coffee and croissants. When we parked, Peter pulled out a big, heavy protest sign and two little poodle trays for us to carry. He suggested we put the croissant crumbs on the trays, symbolic of what the poor get.

I was standing there with the tray of crumbs in my outstretched hand when a reporter came up and said, “Are you aware of the fact that you could be arrested for giving away food?” I was about to say that the croissant was commercially made when a cop came up, grabbed both my hands, and handcuffed them behind my back.

I was wearing a gown with a hoop skirt underneath. A hoop skirt has concentric circles of whalebone sewn into the layers so that the thing stands out in a 6’ diameter circle at the bottom. When the cop tried to drag me up the stairs, I immediately tripped. “Look,” I said, “someone has to hold this thing up on both sides or I’ll trip on every stair.” He summoned a colleague, and the two of them held an elbow each and a side of the skirt until we reached the top. I gave them each a respectful bow, to the delight of the crowd. Then they hustled me, and my friend Lisa Archer—sensibly in 18th century male aristocrat drag—into the holding tank.

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We spent a fascinating day in jail, amusing our fellow jailbirds with tales of the San Francisco Cacophony Society. Fortunately, Peter, who was not arrested, found a friend with enough money to bail us out, minutes before we would have been held there until morning, when we had to see the judge.

The next morning, we sat in court until our arrest came up. We presented ourselves to the judge while he read the details of our arrest. He looked us over in exasperation, wadded up our arrest record, and tossed it over his shoulder. “Can we just deal with some real crime?” he said, and then, disgustedly, “Dismissed.”

We were thankful to be out of jail. And we were thankful that people like Keith McHenry were willing to go to jail for their convictions. We thought the city should have been grateful to him, too, and facilitated, rather than criminalized, an act of generous compassion.

The photo of the Food Not Bombs table was taken from the Internet, for which I’m thankful. The photo of Lisa Archer and me was taken by one of our fellow criminals in the holding tank. The police hadn’t taken Lisa’s purse (I guess I looked more dangerous, since they took mine), and it just happened to have a camera in it.

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P Segal - Bohemian Archivist

P Segal - Bohemian Archivist

P Segal is a San Francisco native, writer, therapist, and life coach. Literary agents have called her a clever niche writer, but none of them can figure out what the hell her niche is.