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A personal story
About charity - and charities - in our time
I first started giving money to City Harvest more than 30 years ago.
City Harvest was founded in 1982 with the mission of bringing New York City restaurant food that would have been thrown out to soup kitchens - a small way to deliver some of the city’s incredible wealth to its poorest people.
I can’t remember how old I was when I sent in money for the first time - 14? 15? - but I kept on giving. At some point, City Harvest told me I was its longest continuously active donor. It was a scrappy little charity with crowded offices near Times Square and an even more crowded warehouse in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. It had a few big-name chefs associated with it - Eric Ripert of the famous Le Bernadin was a board member and a huge supporter.
But it wasn’t the Met, the museum or the opera. It wasn’t in any way fancy.
I made more money and gave more money, especially after The Faithful Spy, my first novel, sold well. City Harvest was growing too. In 2006 it hired a new executive director, Jilly Stephens, who was smart and driven and wanted City Harvest to run less like a scrappy little charity and more like a professional nonprofit.
In 2008, City Harvest asked if I would join its board. I was surprised. Nonprofit boards usually consist of big donors and people with relevant professional expertise, and I didn’t really fit in either category. But of course I said yes.
I was basically a fly in the ointment, the troublesome investigative reporter who asked the right/wrong questions. Along the way, City Harvest grew dramatically and its profile rose. Rescued restaurant food became only a small part of its poundage. It moved its delivery operations to a much larger warehouse in Queens, and it began to look for bigger donations.
In New York City, that pursuit meant getting more Wall Streeters on the board. The galas got bigger and at some point a “golf outing” in New Jersey was added.
Which I understood, though it made me a tiny bit sad. Rich people like golf. And they like feeling like they’re getting a little something something for their good deeds.
Anyway, who I was I to judge golf in Jersey? I’d long since left the East Village behind myself. I even offered to leave the board, since I felt like I missed too many meetings and never went to the galas, much less the golf, but Jilly and Jim Kallman, the head of the board, seemed to like having me around.
Then the owners of the Queens warehouse decided to sell. City Harvest needed a new distribution center pronto, and it was competing with private equity companies that had decided New York City industrial space was a great long-term play.
Suddenly it needed even bigger donations. Not millions anymore. Tens of millions. In May it received its biggest gift yet, $20 million from Steven Cohen, the billionaire hedge funder who had just bought the Mets, and his wife Alexandra. The money is for a nearly-block-long new distribution center in Brooklyn, which is an old warehouse that is basically being rebuilt from the basement up.
Wall Street taketh away, and Wall Street giveth.
Anyway, you’ve probably guessed by now where this is going.
At the end of July, I was sitting in a Panera when I my phone rang. It was Jilly. And even before she said anything I knew.
I’d become a problem. I’d been a problem for a while, I suppose, but now I was a problem. “Vaccines make free,” I’d tweeted, a reference to the “plan to freedom” that Australia was promising its citizens, as well as the famous “work makes free” sign at the gates to Auschwitz.
People didn’t like that tweet. Or they pretended not to like it. Nazi and Holocaust references are only acceptable when Donald Trump is being compared to Hitler. And I had just been locked out of Twitter again - my fourth strike.
Who had complained, I asked?
Both staff and board members, Jilly said.
On the one hand, Jilly and Jim probably should have stood by me. I hadn’t done anything illegal. I hadn’t even done anything wrong. I’d expressed my opinion. And I’d been a loyal board member who had given City Harvest a much larger fraction of my family’s assets over the years than Steve Cohen.
I was their longest continuous donor, for feck’s sake!
On the other, City Harvest’s mission was a lot bigger and important than I was. And the kind of donors it wanted now had lots of choices for their charitable dollars, and they didn’t need to be associated with a charity that had a board member making Holocaust jokes - even if they weren’t jokes - and saying the Centers for Disease Control was lying, even if the CDC was lying.
Maybe especially if the CDC was lying.
So I fell on Jilly’s sword.
It was a privilege to serve on the board.
That’s almost but not quite the end of the story.
Whatever you think of City Harvest’s actions, its mission is food rescue. Not defending free expression. I used to be a member of PEN America, whose stated mission is to “champion the freedom to write.” I was a “literary host” at the PEN America gala.
(Side note: Are you starting to see why describing me as a “conservative author” may fail to capture some essential truths?)
The Freedom to Write. The Freedom to Write. It’s the backdrop.
So, yeah, PEN American is having its big annual gala tonight, Oct. 5, 2021, at the American Museum of Natural History. I know, because I got the email yesterday:
…nothing compares to being together, uplifting and defending the freedom to write.
Finally, that moment will come Tuesday night here in New York City. We'll be honoring illustrious luminaries like game-changing historian Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., corporate icon Bob Iger, and courageous public health experts Mimi Hall and Gail Newel...
Good for them!
Guess who won’t be there, though. Guess who most definitely was not invited?
If you said the only PEN America member who was actually censored this year, you get no points, because are any of us actually surprised? All woke charities are the same now, they should all just merge. A month ago, the American Civil Liberties Union came out in favor of vaccine mandates.
I repeat: a charity whose name includes the words “civil liberties” endorsed the idea that healthy adults should be forced to be injected with a biological treatment that did not even exist less than two years ago.
None of it makes a bit of sense, except it all makes perfect sense. It is echo-chamber madness, a fundamental misunderstanding of the role of dissent and debate, and most of all a no-longer-creeping power grab masquerading as powerlessness.
Do they believe what they’re saying? I’m not sure they even know what they’re saying anymore.
Have fun tonight at the museum, PEN attendees. If there’s any leftover food from your million-dollar shindig, let me know - I’ll tell City Harvest. In the unlikely event they still take my calls.