It’s a Friday afternoon in an uppermost section of Manhattan, New York. The neighborhood of Inwood moves at a blue-collar working pace. Eighteen-wheelers hustle around the narrow streets to pick up loads from one of the small factories or food distribution centers in the neighborhood. A garbage truck’s rumbling stings earlobes. Uptempo latin jazz floats from a greasy auto-body shop. Streams of locals cruise in and out of a deli with sandwiches in hand. And an elementary school’s blacktop gets trampled on by the frenzy of students feeling the inexcusable freedom of recess.
Looking onto the bustling scene, Eddie Torres—or “Kitchen Eddie”—warmly says, “Let’s go for a little walk.”
Standing at a stern six feet, his 64-year-old frame glides along the tattered neighborhood sidewalk. Some peppery gray hair sits under a newsboy cap that has certainly seen its day. Glasses adorn his almost-always smiling face. And even in a neighborhood as colorful as Inwood, Eddie stands out. His bright orange chef’s coat can be seen from several blocks up. He likes this. And why wouldn’t he? That coat represents so much more than the title of “chef”. It is his garment of victory. A badge of rebirth. The symbol representing his life being saved.
As Eddie walks up the block, he begins talking about his job as the head chef for the New York City Love Kitchen. Established in 1987, the Love Kitchen serves up around 100 plates a day and, as Eddie puts it, there is no over-the-shoulder service. Each person that strolls through the doors will be seated and given their plate of food from the front. Just like at home. Three people, or greeters if you will, stand in a line at the entrance and shake hands, high-five, or hug whomever will permit. Names are then exchanged as the greeters take determined mental notes about who is who. “Calling them by name is a key factor to getting them to come back,” Eddie explains.
name is a key factor to getting them to come back,” Eddie explains.
At the end of the block, Eddie stops walking for a moment and peers across the street. Another quick glance at the traffic signal gives him the okay, and he strolls to the other side. He stops talking as he crosses the street. Eddie’s eyes zero in on a man lugging a humongous black trash bag stuffed with soda cans. By the time Eddie reaches him, the man is already flipping the cans into a recycling center’s bin, waiting to get it weighed. This man, along with a few others at the recycling center, has just finished a full day’s worth of foraging cans and bottles from the city’s streets.
Eddie walks up to the man and explains in Spanish that in about two hours, his kitchen will be serving dinner just around the corner. The man listens with serious eyes. Not in the mood to converse or joke, he looks back at Eddie with a very real sense of suspicion. Eddie assures him that the food will be there, and it will be free. All he has to do is show up. The man’s grizzled and sun-worn face breaks into a slow nod. Eddie then gently pats him on the shoulder and says, “God bless.”
As Eddie turns away to continue walking down the block, the real meaning of his orange chef coat comes into full view. He feeds, with the help of several other volunteers, the homeless, the hungry, and the down-on-their-luck. From 4:30-6:30 p.m. every weekday, the Love Kitchen feeds those that really need it.
And Eddie knows, more than most, that is the greatest need to be met. Because, as he would say, you never get used to being hungry. He would know. Eddie spent many years in the same shoes as the men and women that walk through the door at the Love Kitchen.
“I spent thirty years drinking and drugging,” Eddie recalls.
He got jailed 17 times in six different states and completed 14 different stints in rehab. He also attempted suicide twice. And he spent the night in several psychiatric wards. Yet, each try at help, at suicide, and at resolving his addictions failed. The same afternoon he'd get released from a drug rehab program, he would use again. No questions asked.
In the late 80s, Eddie started living on the streets of Harlem, New York. He rattled loose coins in a cup every day as he sat on sidewalks and on park benches, pleading with people to give him something...anything. People sometimes gave. Some days, it was better than others. But people also snickered. Veered to the other side of the sidewalk. And openly commented on the stench coming from his unwashed clothes.
For 10 straight years, Eddie lived homeless. His daily spot became the same set of benches in Harlem’s Fort Tryon Park. As the sun set on the park, he would huddle into his layers of clothes and sleep away the hunger pains. As the sun rose, he’d grumble to himself about where to walk that day, if anywhere at all. Loneliness took hold and did not release him for a decade.
“I’d stand here all day, and I was the invisible man,” Eddie says. “People would come out of [grocery stores] with tins of soda crackers. There were a thousand crackers in a can. And you would think someone would pop a tin open and give me a handful of crackers or the end of a loaf of bread. Nah, I would stand there for hours and be the invisible man.”
Sometimes, Eddie sat on his bench in Fort Tryon Park, rocking back and forth, repeating his name, “I am Eddie Torres.” Over and over, he whispered to himself, “I am Eddie Torres. I am Eddie Torres.” He longed to convince himself that he was still a person. Still somebody with a beating heart and a functioning mind. Since no one else acknowledged his existence, he desperately needed to remind himself that he was somebody worthy of a name.
That’s why, at the Love Kitchen, they always try to address the guests by name. Because it is quite possible that no one else in the world does that for them.
As Eddie nears the end of the block, he points to the opposite corner and explains that the blue door in the middle of a white brick wall is where the Love Kitchen sits. He then turns to the left and points to a small park huddled next to the Hudson River. That is where a lot of the Love Kitchen regulars sleep, Eddie explains.
“We always make sure to clean the tables [at the Love Kitchen],” Eddie says. “Every time someone gets up, we clean the table for the next person. If they were at home, they would have a clean table. Don’t they deserve that? That is just one small thing that we do. A lot of these ideas have come from me incorporating what I have experienced because I was in their shoes.”
He walks into the small park that resembles more of a picnic area than a park. As he sits down at one of the tables, he explains how many of the people who walk into the kitchen don't share their names. Either because they can't remember or they don't want to remember. So Eddie will sometimes give them a nickname, just so they know they are remembered. The man that always rides his bike is affectionately called “bicycle man.” The guy that always asks for two plates of food is lovingly called “hungry man.” Treating each guest like family becomes top priority. And as Eddie always likes to say, “When they give you hell, you gotta give ‘em heaven back.”
Eddie’s healthy chuckle fills the park. To say this man embarks each day with joy is accurate. But to say that that was an easy task is not. The reason Eddie emits so much joy today is because he had so little for so long. And now, he can fully appreciate the ability to smile day in and day out.
now, he can fully appreciate the ability to smile day in and day out.
He walks out of the park and pauses for a moment. He points at the Love Kitchen doors.
“You can see the doors from this park,” Eddie explains. “So when the people hanging out here see that blue door swing open, they know it is time for a meal.”
His voice changes a bit when he talks about the the blue door. His tone deepens as humility and gratitude seep from his mouth. Eddie will never forget the day he entered that same door for the first time.
In 1995, a 45-year-old disheveled Eddie was just about to sit on yet another bench to continue his daily routine of begging for money. He hadn’t showered in days, his pants were crusted over with dirt, and a long beard hid his grumpy face.
“As I was about to take a seat on the bench, there was a New York Times newspaper just sitting on the end of the bench. And I was a little upset because the paper cost $1.25,” Eddie remembers, “And then I thought to myself, ‘Eh, why don’t I put it in the garbage? This guy [who left it] is probably more of a bum than I am to leave it here.’”
He shuffled over to the end of the bench and bent over to grab the paper. Underneath the paper nestled a little book with the title, The New Testament. Eddie had never seen one of these before. But as he opened it and read the first few pages, he could tell it was a church book. The name “Jesus” was on every page, someone he knew little about, but he kept reading on anyway. The language kept him intrigued. He kept wondering what the words meant. Several pages into the book, he realized it was getting late, so he started walking to his girlfriend’s apartment. But unlike almost every night prior to that, he decided against buying his usual bottle of liquor.
that, he decided against buying his usual bottle of liquor. Eddie wanted to get home as quickly as possible to continue his reading of the little book.
“The liquor stores were open all night,” Eddie remembers. “I figured I could just go out and buy it later.”
As soon as he landed on the sofa of the apartment, he whipped out that paperback version of The New Testament, the second part of the Bible that chronicles the life and overall impact of Jesus Christ. Eddie just kept reading. And reading. As his eyes scanned one sentence to the other, his mind began to calm. He stopped thinking about the rude people on the streets. The ones that jeered at him. He stopped thinking about that drink he usually needed at night. The whole bottle of rum. And he stopped thinking about committing suicide. It would have been his third attempt.
And for the first time in almost 30 years, Eddie’s eyes closed, and he fell asleep without a drink, a drug, or prescription pill flowing through his system.
“When I sat on the couch, I read, and then, I fell asleep,” Eddie says. “God was starting to comfort me before I even knew what He was doing. Just by the reading of God’s word. God said, ‘I am going to take you and give you some rest.’”
Several hours later, however, Eddie woke to a full-fledged series of physical withdrawals.
“When I got up, I was trembling and shaking,” Eddie says. “And as I am trying to get down the hallway, I'm trying to hold myself up against the wall. But then, I just fell down and hit the ground.”
Eddie stayed in the hallway, shaking, sweating, and panting for breath for the next 36 hours. His body began a process of discharging the toxins in his body. He vomited several times on the floor. Then, uncontrollably, he urinated and defecated on himself as his upper body trembled frantically.
and defecated on himself as his upper body trembled frantically. The strength in his body completely vanished as he lay there groaning from pain. His girlfriend did all she could to help by cleaning the mess around Eddie. And seeing him writhe in pain, she continually offered him a drink to stop the violent withdrawal.
“And when I would wake up, I would call her over to help,” Eddie remembers. “And she would come running over, saying, ‘Please, please, take a drink. You are gonna die. Have a drink of wine, or you are gonna die on me.’ But I would say, ‘No, just give me the little book.’ And she would give me The New Testament, and I would read some more.”
In the midst of the physical pain, Eddie felt an emotional pull to Jesus. Something kept telling him that the little book was more vital than a drink.
After 36 hours, Eddie woke up on a Sunday morning and felt enough strength to crawl down the hallway and into the apartment bathroom. His frail arms reached up to turn on the shower as he slowly climbed in and rinsed off. Afterward, feeling somewhat better, Eddie crawled over to the sofa.
“I sit down on the sofa, and I just begin to weep,” Eddie says. “And somethin’ made me cry out, ‘I need God.’ And then, I remembered that I had passed church services on T.V. on Sundays.”
So Eddie picked up the remote control, and the first channel that came on had a man on stage, sharing his story. As the man spoke, Eddie’s eyes widened, and he leaned closer to the T.V.
“I had never been to church before, and I didn’t know what a testimony was,” Eddie explains. “And this man was giving a church testimony on how he owned a million dollar business. How he had traveled the world with Little Richard and a bunch of rockers. But how he left his family. And how he felt like there was a void in his life. And how he spoke to his pastor about it, and that pastor contacted the ex-wife. And after they met, they decided to remarry, and he got his life back together. And as I start to listen to this, I realize it is nothing like I am going through. But this God that he is speaking of really helped his life.”
Eddie couldn’t do much on that couch. His body had just spent two days battling a full scale withdrawal from alcohol. With no options to go anywhere, he sat thinking about what it meant to have God help him. To give Jesus the opportunity to clean him up. To give Him the chance at helping Eddie stay clean.
Those thoughts kept swirling as the man on the T.V. finished up his talk. When he was finished, another man walked onto the stage. Eddie couldn't believe what he was watching. He blinked a couple times to make sure his eyes weren't playing tricks on him. The man, who now had his arm around the one who just shared his story, was Tom Mahairis, his junior high classmate. Eddie started getting the hunch that all of this was more than mere coincidence.
The program ended by saying that Tom pastored the Manhattan Bible Church. So Eddie grabbed a phone book, searched for the church's number, and dialed. The person on the other end told Eddie to come up to the church on Wednesday night. Eddie said, “Okay,” and hung up, still in shock.
That Wednesday, Eddie waltzed up to the corner where the church stood. But just as he was about to open the door, he hesitated. Suddenly, he became very aware of his physical state. My beard is too long. My clothes are too smelly. I don't know anyone inside of this building. Doubt became the topic of conversation in his head. He decided to wait on meeting Pastor Tom until he could fix all of that stuff. He wanted to turn around and walk home, but he needed a little food for some energy to walk the four-mile journey home.
needed a little food for some energy to walk the four-mile journey home. Just then, he spotted another homeless-looking guy walking into the church’s side door, the blue door. Eddie thought he was going into an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting.
“They always have cookies and cakes in those meetings,” Eddie says. “So I thought I would get some coffee, put a lot of sugar in it, and have some energy for the walk home.”
Upon entering the blue door, right there, right in front of him stood the same man he saw on T.V. sharing his story. The same man that spoke on T.V. about losing everything, only to watch God restore it all back. It was Jewel Jones. Without knowing it, Eddie had entered the Love Kitchen. And Jewel, the director of operations at the Love Kitchen, stood at the entrance, waiting to greet the guests. Eddie nearly fell over from shock. The coincidences had stacked up too high. This could only be a miraculous work of God.
“I opened the door, and there were three people: the greeter and the other two attendants,” Eddie recalls. “And then, I look up, and there is the man I saw on television! And I was like, ‘Wow!’ I said, ‘God, what are You doing to me? This is the man I saw on T.V.’ And then, he came over and introduced himself.”
After meeting each other, Eddie explained that he had come to meet Pastor Tom after seeing him on T.V. Jewel excitedly rushed Eddie over to Pastor Tom’s office. But as the door creaked open, Eddie wondered what Pastor Tom would think of him in his current state. He smelled bad. His clothes crusted with dirt. But when Pastor Tom saw Eddie, he immediately got out of his chair, walked over to Eddie, and wrapped his arms around him, hugging him tightly. Eddie wondered if his smell bothered Pastor Tom, but Pastor Tom didn’t let go and started crying.
didn’t let go and started crying. “I’ve been praying for you,” Pastor Tom told Eddie through tears. “I’ve been praying for you.”
“And he was just holding me,” Eddie remembers. “And I was thinking, ‘What’s wrong with this guy? Don’t he smell me?’ And he just kept saying, ‘Jesus loves you, Jesus died for you.’ And then, he tells me that, for the last 27 years, he would take people for lunch up to Fort Tryon Park. And after lunch, they would walk on the small path to the gardens. And the [reason] he took them there was so they could go and look for me and pray for me. For the last 27 years, several members of the church had gone down there to pray for me. And this was a miraculous answer to prayer.”
Eddie’s new life began when he walked into the blue door on the side of the Manhattan Bible Church. For the next several years, Eddie mopped the floors, took out the garbage, and patched up any of the handy-man work in the building, especially in the Love Kitchen. As he learned what it meant to have faith in Jesus, his desire to drink and use drugs faded. Instead, he craved helping people. He wanted to act like Jesus. And the best way to do that, from what Eddie could tell, was to help serve the homeless at the Love Kitchen.
“I just told [them] that this was the one thing that was going to work in my life,” Eddie says. “Not the other programs, not the Sigmund Freud, not the Thorazine, not the Paxil, the Memora...none of those psychiatric drugs they tried with me. I think this thing of faith is what is going to put me over the mountain.”
As Eddie finishes up his walk around the block, the Love Kitchen comes into full view. It means everything to Eddie. That was where he cleaned up his life. That is where he met Jesus.
In 2003, after several years of attending the church, helping out here and there, and actively volunteering at the Love Kitchen, Eddie asked Jewel to teach him how to cook.
there, and actively volunteering at the Love Kitchen, Eddie asked Jewel to teach him how to cook. The chef at the time was retiring at the age of 86. So there was an opening, and Eddie wanted to give it a try. Jewel figured Eddie could replace the cook until they found someone more qualified. He taught Eddie how to make a pot of rice, thinking that would ease him into it. But that is all Eddie needed to get a head start. For the next three weeks, Eddie watched the Food Network at home. The next time he saw Jewel, he said in a very serious tone, “Jewel, order whatever you want, I can cook it.” Eddie has been the head chef ever since.
“I gave him a little help in the beginning...and he was on his own after that,” Jewel says. “He told me one day, ‘I watched the T.V.’ and he was on his way. We have real good team effort. Everybody has the same compassion for people. And if you don’t have that, you shouldn’t be here.”
When Eddie walks through the kitchen doors, he greets the other volunteers, who are cleaning the dining area and prepping for the guests. He, then, heads straight to the refrigerator. He checks what they have in stock and mentally preps the menu. And then, when Eddie slaps on his oven mitts, he means business. Every weekday, he puts together a feast with the donated foods that show up at the kitchen. That’s no easy task. Preparing 100-plus meals in a kitchen five days a week is no joke. But Eddie can’t last more than five minutes without joking or laughing about something. Whether he is lifting a pot’s lid, pulling trays of food from the giant oven, or taking out the garbage, Eddie keeps smiling.
He doesn’t get paid. This is a volunteer position, but as Eddie says, he gets paid in smiles and hugs from those that enjoy his cooking. He often gets a “review” from some of the guests, and they always say his cooking is better than the other free kitchens in the area.
than the other free kitchens in the area. Each plate not only carries a protein, a vegetable, and a carbohydrate, it also carries the pure passion Eddie and other volunteers put into it. That is enough to keep Eddie cooking for months at a time without a vacation.
According to its website, the Love Kitchen has served over 1,000,000 guests in its 25-year history. Several times during that history, they would have been enjoying an afternoon of food service when an unrecognizable individual would walk in with a suit and tie and simply say, “Thank you.” And then, that person would explain that it was the Love Kitchen that helped him turn his life around, get off the streets, and pursue a different path.
The Love Kitchen has impacted people near and far. As more and more people walk through the door to eat, others walk through wanting to help. Local schools started donating leftover lunches, giving the Love Kitchen the opportunity to open on Saturdays to give out food to low-income families in the neighborhood. Additionally, the Midwest Food Bank, located 18 hours away in Bloomington, Illinois, often sends semi-truck sized loads of food to the kitchen. And a couple of times a year, they send tour buses filled with their volunteers to help with big events at the kitchen. And Eddie is always there, stirring a stew, chopping some vegetables, flipping some hot dogs, or doing whatever it takes to feed those who need it.
The NYC Love Kitchen keeps opening its doors day in and day out, welcoming in the hungry for a meal. But even before the guests sit down for their first bite, they know this could be the very spot that saves their lives. Just like it saved Eddie’s.
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