It was 2006 and I was totally broke in New York. Living with my best friend in my first apartment in Brooklyn, my bedroom didn’t even have a window. The room was so small that the twin bed stopped me from opening the door more than half way. On my shelf was a jar of coins filled with money that I found each day on the subway, which is partially how I paid for food.
This is the story of how going hungry changed my life. It is the synthesis of lessons I learned, which have framed the way I live.
I was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. But I never really fit in there. All I wanted to do was to live in New York City. It was cosmopolitan, gritty, worldly, and strange — everything I always wanted. The problem was, I couldn’t really afford to live there.
Too proud to ask my family for much money, I struggled to make it work. I took odd jobs, scrimped and saved, and would go long stretches without a decent meal. For more than four years, in NYC and then in DC, I lived at or around the poverty line. What was rendered out of that hunger became the makings of an entrepreneur, a hustler, a gamer.
The Five Dollar Footlong
The low point in my life happened at a Subway sandwiches in Greenwich Village.
Have you ever had so little money that you bounce a debit card payment on a five dollar footlong? I have. And it sucks the life right out of your soul. Want to know what’s worse? Trying to split that same sandwich across two cards and still coming up short. Welcome to the end of the road, my friend.
The one and only time I thought about stealing food, and I mean really considered it, was at a sad little Subway sandwiches shop. It was just me, a sub, and an older Indian-American purveyor. And I gotta tell you, he knew exactly what was about to go down.
With my hand on the sub and two empty cards on the counter, I was about to make a run for it. And that’s when it happened.
This old man looked at me with pity, asked if I would like a drink with my sandwich, and smiled at me with those eyes that said “I know what’s about to happen — so you might as well just take it.”
I had reached a new low. For a very short period of time, I came to rely on the kindness of others in order to get by. There is no shame in this — but no pride either.
That night, sitting there in the dimly lit Subway shop at 9:45ish, I made a commitment to myself that I would never let this happen again. The next day, I picked up a second job. But I had learned something in the process.
Lesson Number One: Accepting Kindness Is Not A Weakness
Tuna Salad Sandwich
Bodegas are life. Filled with cheap eats, essentials, and frills like pink snowballs — these magical stores feed the hungry, quench the thirsty, and stock the pantries of the working class. Nothing is healthy — not too much is even that tasty. But when you’re starving, everything is amazing.
I lived around the corner from the Yemen Classon Deli in Crown Heights (now “Prospect Heights”). For $5.50 you could get a tuna salad sandwich, cookie, and AriZona Iced Tea. This meal was built to last. I would grab one on my way back from the subway at about 7:30pm, eat half, and eat the rest in the morning. Ahh…the sweet goodness of day old deli tuna at 7:00am.
Within a few weeks, the owners of the deli knew my name, my order, and most of my problems in life. The poor guy working the flat top grill subbed in as a therapist from time to time. But man, could he make one hell of an egg on a roll.
Everyone from the neighborhood came to the Yemen Deli. The guys who ran it were some steely-eyed and smart-headed people. They had to deal with grifters, scammers, hookers, and even the likes of drunk jackasses (like me…sometimes). But they were smart. They figured out that they could charge whatever they wanted. And if you were smart too, you realized that the price fluctuated with how well you treated them.
Even though I had stepped up from a $5-footlong to a $5.50 sandwich, I figured out how to even the cost because of…
Lesson Number Two: Be Good To The People Serving You
The “Recession Special”
Grey’s Papaya is a staple of good food and drink. When I started eating there, they were serving two hot dogs and a drink for $3.50. This was known as the “Recession Special.” But be warned, prices were on the rise.
Meat in tube form, as my hero Anthony Bourdain puts it, is a classic cuisine of the working class. Mystery meat, shoved into a casing of its own providence, grilled, and then served with condiments made of unseasonable leftovers (e.g., pickled cabbage…err…sauerkraut). It’s not a luxury item, but damn it, it’s good nonetheless.
I remember it clearly. I was walking past Amsterdam Ave and W 73rd St on a Tuesday evening. Wearing a cheap suit, an ill-fitting shirt, but a decent tie, I made my way into Grey’s. Having about $6.00 in change and bills in my pocket, I ordered the recession special, only to discover that the price had indeed gone up. This was a problem because I could either get fed or get home on the subway— but not both. I was a bit short. This…well let me tell you…this was no good.
The first time I ever pan handled was in front of Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts. I needed to come up with about $2.50 to make it all work. And, being a loving patron of the arts, what better place to hustle for cash than in front of the most financially well-endowed arts center in the world.
After twenty minutes and a series of soul crushing looks later, I was on the train back to Brooklyn, mouth full of grilled meat, and hand wrapped tightly around an ice cold papaya juice. Nothing had ever tasted so good.
Lesson Number Three: It Tastes Better When You Earn It
The Chicken Wing
After years living and loving in New York, I moved to Washington, D.C. A few months of bar backing and bussing behind me, I finally caught my big break: an unpaid internship in the US Congress.
Internships are the steak and potatoes of a young political career. Highly coveted and sadly competitive, I was riding high on my new “very important” success.
I started out with a crop of others just like me. We were ambitious, smart, fast-moving, hard working…and damn hungry…for food. You cannot imagine how much you want to eat your problems away after watching the bloodsport of Congressional politics. Luckily, Wednesday was twenty-five cent wing night at Capitol Lounge on Pennsylvania Ave.
For about $6, you could get good and filled up. For a few bucks more, you could get a few beers too. If you were an intern or staffer for the right office or party, most of the bartenders and wait staff would take care of you too. But why would they do that?
At some point, I had made myself somewhat valuable and began to get paid, pulling down a solid $28,000 a year. It was enough to pay my rent and take out my friends. I was one of the first of us interns to make it to the big show: a paycheck.
Being the benevolent soul that I am, I treated four of my friends to wings and beer upon the receipt of my first tranche of money. A hefty $55 tab later, I went to pay. It was the first of the month and I was ready to spend my hard earned. Thing is…the money hadn’t hit my account yet. This was my first paycheck and the timing hadn’t lined up as expected.
When the bartender pulled me aside and told me that my card had bounced, he did so with this lingering in his voice that let me know something was coming. Like myself, he was also young and enterprising. He realized that if I had been promoted, that there was an internship to be filled. Let’s just say that the bar tab disappeared and he got the interview he had been looking for a few days later.
Lesson Number Four: Everyone Wants To Trade Something
Everything Tastes Better With Grit
Looking back, going hungry made me a better person, a stronger fighter, and a more resourceful entrepreneur than others I know who never ran the risk of coming face-to-face with the consequences of failure. I am not advocating that people should go hungry, as it makes people do all sorts of things — most of them not good. But on occasion, it motivates and teaches.
The fear of going hungry sustains my drive and passion to succeed. Living without a safety net catalyzes that fight or flight mentality inside of us. In my case, I learned how to use it to my advantage. The lessons from my hunger have become an invaluable recipe book to me. Success tastes better when it is hard earned.