It was a perfect Sunday afternoon on the Upper West Side. A 15-minute wait at the Popover Café was well worth it for the strawberry butter alone. But patience and luck afforded me the coveted corner booth with ample room for the Sunday New York Times and a basket overflowing with hot, oversized popovers, as flaky and airy as they are enormous.
“Out of Many Homes, One?” The headline caught my attention, along with the elaborate five-story floor plan on the front page of the City section. A landlord had been locked in a battle for several years to remove rent stabilized tenants from his Lower East Side building, many of whom had lived there for three decades or more, in order to convert their 15 small apartments into one 11,000 sq. ft. home — his.
It’s such gross exaggerations that make New York City such a wonderful spiritual guide. It draws you down a path of righteous indignation, luring you to pontificate by yourself over brunch how no one needs an 11,000 sq. ft. home, except maybe that family that has 18 children whose names all begin with the letter ‘J.’ And surely no one with a conscience would take away, as wanton luxury, what others need simply to survive.
But then I got up to pay my bill, having barely made a dent in the basket of football sized popovers on the table, and passed a homeless man right outside of the restaurant looking for change for food. I knew he’d be there before I ever grabbed hold of the door handle, because the feverish sermon in my head was starting to take that kind of a cruel turn.
And a new headline materialized in my mind: “Food for Five, Feeds One?” There’s even a color diagram of a gigantic popover right there on the front page under the headline, with mathematical calculations as to how many small, starving nations it could feed, and a picture of a crowd of protestors with signs — because guilt is just that neurotic.
When is enough enough? When does faith actually reign in our desire to grab hold of as much as we can, simply because we can, and find virtue in taking just what we need? It does in my head all the time. I’m very grounded in faith in my own mind. It’s my actions that trip me up most of the time. Restraint is hard enough for me at the salad bar. But when it bumps up against a cultural religion that preaches, “Bless yourself,” it’s hard to tell sometimes which choir I’m singing with.
Am I really concerned about the displaced tenants or am I just jealous of the man’s five story Manhattan home? Yes. It’s kind of like driving a hybrid car. I am fueled by faith in Christ until I run out of energy, or my self-worth needs a monetary or material or makeover boost, and then I switch over to guzzling everything that the world reminds me I need and deserve.
Just take a look at my closet, or my pantry, or my garage. Am I the only one with a back-up microwave or two out of three sections in my closet with clothes I cannot wear — the ones for when I lose weight and the ones for when I gain back more than I started with?
”Out of Many Homes, One?” How much of what I have ought to find a home with someone who really needs it? Isn’t that part of the miracle of abundance? Having what we need and still having 12 full baskets left over to share with others? Or am I a product of the myth of scarcity, going through life trying to fill all 12 baskets for myself?
I wonder sometimes if we haven’t created a hybrid religion to accommodate our cultural wants and needs and convinced ourselves that it’s better for the spiritual environment. Ours anyway.