10 min read

Free Thrills

Walk into the food bank dessert first 🍰
A grocery-store rack packed with containers of cookies, cupcakes, and slices of cake
Not even the whole sweets rack.

“WHAT DO YOU think?” I asked my Syrian translator, Ahmad, as we walked around a grocery store in a Turkish-run refugee camp in 2013.

Taking in the packed shelves, he said, “It’s better than a grocery store in Syria”—with some attitude. He was a proud Syrian, and it was hard to hand it to the Turks that their prosperity flex of building refugee camps stacked with amenities, including beauty salons with free blowouts, was working.

The other day, I took a video of a cat and two horses staring at each other among sunlight and birdsong, while I sipped a cold local cider I bought with money I’m allowed to earn in a country I can move about at will. Which is to say: I am not a refugee. I am, as my dear departed bestie Rice used to remind me when I felt stuck, “young and white and free.” I am not low on options. But I am low on grocery funds, because my EBT card auto-loads with $282 a month, and if you have figured out how to feed yourself with food you’re excited to eat for that amount of money on West Coast prices, seriously please drop tips and recipes in the comments.

“We’re [all] humans,” one Turkish administrator responded when I asked why they gave the Syrians way beyond what refugees usually receive. Free internet and cable and being able to shop for one’s own groceries in deluxe markets (with auto-loaded debit cards, since refugees don’t have earning rights) were needs, he said.

Not niceties.

I thought about this last week as I biked to the food bank, recalling a conversation I had with another trans person who’s vehicularly housed. He’s been subsisting on food banks for many years and was telling me about his favorite one: It was set up like a grocery store, with groceries a person would actually want, not just old boxes of mac and cheese and cans of watery soup. “It was like, ‘Thanks for treating me like a human,’” he said.

“Yes!” I agreed. I’d been telling him about my local food bank, how it isn’t just not-sad, but my favorite place in town. I told him how stores donate bouquets that are too old to sell, so when you walk in, you’re greeted by a sea of flowers.

I HAVE ALWAYS been worried about being hungry. It’s definitely partly that I never saw an out trans person with a job in real life or in media for the entirety of my development, so I feared I’d end up starving to death. But then two years ago, a friend (hi gorgeous if you’re reading this!) recommended Journey of Souls: Case Studies of Life Between Lives, and after reading it I found a Life Between Lives facilitator, who led me through a past-life regression. I’d never done one before, but what it boiled down to was her guiding me through a short meditation that led to a past life, then asking me questions about that life that I somehow magically, inherently knew the completely bonkers answers to. Like: Where was I? In a hut. Was I alone? No, my parents were dead on the dirt floor. Did I see what happened? Yes, the big guy from the village killed them, because my mother was from a different ethnic group. How was I feeling? Distressed, and confused, and starving: I could not reach the place where they stored food, hung too far up the wall for my young height.

When she told me to jump ahead in time and asked where I was, I found myself saying that I was part of a troupe of forest-dwelling outcasts performing at a wedding. There, I saw the bride, who was the center of adoring attention from the whole town as well as her beautiful groom—and at the center of heaps of food. And I thought: Her. I want to be in the position of her.

In that life, I was male and AMAB—I was cis male in the majority of my past lives, I subsequently learned—and gay, again. It appeared to be precolonial India, and long story (the session took four hours) short, so many of my decisions were driven by food insecurity. Those decisions helped lead to my death; I pretended to not be male but be Hijra, then still a sacred third-gender role, to stay in the palace of my rich, closeted gay-male lover, who ultimately forced me into a crude sex-change operation I didn’t survive.


The facilitator had told me when I booked the session that my soul would pick which one of my past lives we visited. Though there were billions of options, it makes sense to me that my soul chose that one, when this life I’m living now involved a long road to getting my genitals restored, involved pretending to be someone else again—again for love and food, wearing a hetero-friendly, cis-woman costume that allowed me access to relationships with straight (or “straight”) men, as well as high-paying assignments in situations where, if I were myself, I’d be unsafe or illegal.

Already-made falafel, cauliflower, chickpeas with rice, and hummus, with a quick-pickled shredded veg.

“WHY DIDN’T YOU take two?” my darling friend Eli asked after I went to this food bank for the first time, when I told him I’d gotten only half of my dessert allotment from their sprawling selection. Though the sign that day said a single-person household (that’s me!) could choose two “sweets,” I got just one piece of cake. I’d been shocked to see any pieces of cake, much less such a variety of sumptuous, layered cakes: chocolate cake, German chocolate cake. Raspberry lemon cake, mango mousse cake, carrot cake, coconut cake. Champagne truffle cake, whatever that even is! Cheesecake. Whole cute little individual vegan birthday cakes, and whole giant Safeway sheet cakes. Pieces of pie—peach, marionberry, coconut-cream, apple—and also whole pies. Containers full of cookies and containers full of cupcakes, all of which counted as one selection each. Another time, there was, in addition to the usual overflowing sweets rack, a freezer full of fancy Van Leeuwen ice cream pints, and I was allowed to take two, on top of my selection from the rack.

“I just couldn’t!” I told my friend about the second piece of cake. I love cake, and could easily, happily eat two slices of it over the course of one week, which is how often people can visit the food bank. But that first time, I was overwhelmed by how nice everything was. I had only been to one other food bank, as a volunteer back when I had more money, and though it was in an affluent town (ahem *and country*), it was full of bland boxed and bagged starches I didn’t want to eat, cheap instant mashed potatoes and white bread. Enough to keep a person technically alive, if underjoyed and undernourished. So when I realized that my food bank was the repository of many bourgie groceries from many bourgie grocery stores, I couldn’t bring myself to take the second dessert explicitly allotted to me. Standing in front of the ample cake selection, I couldn’t convince myself that I could just have that much, free.

Somewhere in the middle of my second marriage, I got too exhausted, by breadwinning in an exhausting job plus housekeeping and the marriage itself, to keep cooking, and subscribed us to a prepped-meal service. After we separated, I got a boost of energy to feed myself with nourishing soups for a little while, but for the last several years, I was having an increasingly hard time motivating myself to cook again. When I stopped working so much and started running down my savings, back in 2017, my transition and sex-abuse therapy were really all—were really more—than I could handle. I started ordering meal-delivery subscriptions that cost well more than my total income now, and the food was excellent. But when the money ran out, I started eating a lot of things I barely wanted that could just be microwaved.

At this point, I’m so drained by so many things, like decades of taking care of myself and others and shopping and cooking, and now figuring out what I want from expensive grocers with limited funds. But I’ve been going to the food bank every week for several months now, and it’s not just the price—$0—that energizes me. At the food bank, the choices are condensed, and I have to figure out how to make something from what’s there. Or, I don’t have to make anything at all: There are premade items from grocers’ delis, a whole marinated-chicken-and-rice entree one week, a handmade, family-size mac and cheese the next. One day, I got already-made falafel, a rice-and-chickpea dish, and roasted cauliflower, plus a tub of hummus; I put it all together with a quick-pickled veg I made with a giant bag of shredded organic broccoli and carrots I also found there. Last week, I picked a bag of lentils and a can of diced tomatoes, then turned around to find one of those containers of chopped mirepoix I’ve always seen in stores but never bought. Suddenly, I was well on my way to a mostly-prepped soup.

Free mirepoix (atop cheap shiny shelf paper with which I plastered my counters. To quote the old hippie/RV tech who fixed my fridge on how they look, “I’m trippin’ out!”).

I grabbed two cans of collard greens to add to my materializing lentil stew. It would never have occurred to me to buy canned collard greens at all, let alone dump two of them into a lentil soup, but a few months ago, a cute sign at the food bank suggested it. And the sign was right. It’s delicious. Every time, I end up with foods I’ve never purchased or tried—last week there were vegan, “hand-tossed,” “high-quality” frozen pizzas made by a brand called Blackbird, and I got the Supreme. It was so good that I said several times out loud as I ate it alone, “Goddamnit that’s good.” The caramelized onion dip they had one day led me to bake it into the best quiche I’ve ever made. I’d never spent $1o on four chocolate cupcakes topped with towers of peanut butter ganache that were dipped in chocolate before. But it turns out they’re the best cupcakes I’ve ever had.

The day I was walking out with them, I ran into a trans person who works at the larger organization running the food bank, which also provides other low-income services.

“Do you want a cupcake?” I asked him.

“Are you serious?” he responded, eyes going wide.

“That would be so fucked up,” I laughed, “if I went around offering people cupcakes as a joke.” I opened the container and handed one to him. He split it with the person he was with, and ate his half as I loaded up my bike. It was so good, he said, making appreciative gestures; it made his day.

The food bank always makes mine. I still don’t take my total allotment of everything, but only because it’s too heavy to carry on my bike and too big to store in my RV, and frankly more than I can eat: Unlimited bags of legumes, plus huge allowances of canned and dried goods between beans, soups, vegetables, fruits, meats, and grains, among other things. I don’t take enough lentils to survive a war, however I feel like I’m in one sometimes. I trust that more will be there next time. But I do always make enough room in my bike bags for my full share of desserts now, every time.

Champagne truffle cake! Yes I did eat it. No I do not really know what it is, still.

I never know what they’re going to be. And for me, that makes grocery shopping a thrill instead of a chore, even though I often still have to go to the regular grocery store, making two stops, to get certain staples the food bank doesn’t have (condiments, for example, or ice cream minus that one time). I wonder what’s going to happen at the food bank!, I thought yesterday before I headed to the food bank. Nothing was happening at the food bank. They closed for Juneteenth, which I didn’t know, and which obviously more businesses should. But there is always a pleasant surprise, and often many. A party-size bag of Red Hot Blues. Deli-made Jamaican rice and peas. Those expensive Raincoast Crisps everyone seems to like. A humane-raised prosciutto platter. Chopped salad mixes I also never would have bought but which are my new favorite thing. Cleaned and sliced organic mushrooms. Whole pineapples.

Now, bolstered by the amount of prepared fresh foods I pick up at the food bank, I’m energized enough to prepare the raw groceries I get, too. All I wanted—all I’ve needed—was to feel a bit more taken care of. I know not everyone feels that way at their local food bank, so I’m intensely grateful for mine. It treats me not like I deserve to barely eat, but like I deserve to eat excellently, without having to make, or pay, huge amounts of money. Without having to compromise who I am, or where I’m at right now. It makes me feel like it’s okay to need help, and like I deserve to get it. It’s not just food I pick up there, but the lesson, over and over again, that even when I’m poor—maybe especially when I am—I deserve good care. 🖤