Feeding Fifth Avenue
As New York prepares for today’s St Patrick’s Day pageant, volunteers from the city’s Irish enclave of Woodlawn have been working tirelessly to help Manhattan’s hungry and homeless
Mercy mission: New York City has an estimated 50,000 homeless people, including 21,000 children. Photograph: Chris McGrath/Getty
Mercy mission: people queue in Manhattan to receive food from Irish Volunteers for the Homeless
Mercy mission: Irish Volunteers for the Homeless feeds 500 people a week in Manhattan
Margaret Kelly sighs as the cast of broken people she has met flits across her mind. The former teacher from an old-money family who lapsed into chronic alcoholism; lost souls still caught up in the terrors of the Vietnam War; the Asian woman who skates around the city and uses her wheels to jump the food line; the man with the briefcase who solemnly swore that he would donate money to the Irish Center once he got back on his feet. She has handed soup to them all.
And Bryce, the only child she has encountered in her seven years volunteering on a food run that begins in the heartland of Irish New York and runs the length of Fifth Avenue, one of the most opulent and impressive thoroughfares in the world and the perpetual stage for the biggest St Patrick’s Day parade of them all.
Kelly has just returned from a wedding in Ireland. But a combination of habit and duty has prompted her take her place in the SUV as it speeds from Woodlawn towards Manhattan for yet another Monday-evening mercy act.
They are travelling in the opposite direction to the commuters leaving the last stop of the 4 train, deep in the Bronx, which has remained steadfastly Irish in mood and character. Crates of sandwiches, pastries and juice have been packed into the boot. Wedged between the middle seats of the car is a vat of chicken noodle soup that was collected from Mary’s Celtic Kitchen on Katonah Avenue. As ever, Claire McCartney is driving and, as ever, Joe Cremin sits in the front seat.
Two other vans from Irish Volunteers for the Homeless are making similar journeys, to Penn Station and down to the Lower East Side, but this is the Fifth Avenue gang. And it’s only when they begin to talk about the people they have been feeding that they begin to realise that they carry their stories long after they stopped feeding them. But Bryce is the person whose face they conjure most easily.
“The most loving little child,” McCartney says. “You could just eat him up.”
“His mum and sister were killed in a car accident, and they moved up here,” Kelly continues.
“They live in a halfway house on the Bowery, but his dad has to go back and forth to Jersey to work. And a few weeks ago his dad told me he has cancer of the mouth. And I was just thinking, Please, please don’t let anything happen to him.”
“Claire was bawling on the way home the first night we met them,” says Sharon Loane, another regular.
“Excuse me,” McCartney says. “I don’t think I was the only one.”
“It’s because he was really the only kid we have seen,” says Cremin. “That kid . . . I couldn’t get him out of my mind. He might be here tonight.”
At the first stop, a line of people has already gathered underneath some scaffolding. The group works quickly and efficiently, lining up the food on the footpath while Cremin and Loane set the vat on some steps and begin to ladle out soup.
“Careful, it’s wild hot,” Loane says. Her cut-glass Tyrone accent makes passersby look up and notice this improvised cafe. Some seem irritated by it, others puzzled.
Theresa and Kelly O’Brien, two American teenagers whose parents emigrated from Co Kerry, put chocolate and pastries in plastic bags while Dearbhla Crowe from Dublin hands out sandwiches.
A young man approaches Cremin. Gaunt and carrying a plastic bag over his shoulder, he appears a little distressed. “Just walked from 125th. Have no subway. Have to walk to Houston. I’m dehydrated.” He downs three glasses of juice, politely declines food and disappears down the avenue.