Anyone speeding down Roosevelt Avenue in the Jackson Heights section of Queens, under the elevated tracks of the Number 7 line, could be forgiven for not even seeing the shuffling gaggle of men at 74th Street. It is night-time and the intense cold means nearly everyone is in heavy black coats and hoods.
Most of these men come here every night and then wait. Shortly before 9.30pm, they spy a white car approaching from the east and they instantly form a neat queue along the edge of the pavement, boots scraping the frozen veneer of pigeon droppings. False alarm; the vehicle glides right on by.
The mercury is plunging. Jorge Munoz is late, which is unusual. His day job is driving school buses and today he was delayed because of a class trip to a bowling alley. Finally, just before 10pm, he draws up in his white pick-up truck. Not that anyone had any doubts. Munoz, otherwise known as the Angel of Queens, has been stopping here, his truck laden with hot free food, every night for five years.
Everyone knows the drill. It takes barely a minute for Jorge, his sister Luz and two friends to transform the bed of the pick-up into a steaming kitchen. A plastic canteen is filled with sugary hot coffee. Metal trays contain chicken pieces, spicy and hot, that are placed one by one into polystyrene boxes that are already filled with macaroni salad. The men slowly shuffle forward and collect their helpings.
"Friends of mine told me about the Angel this week and this is my third night," says Dominic, who is 67 (though he looks a good deal older), and is from Argentina. His only income, he says, is a weekly disability cheque, which doesn't get him far "in the most expensive city in the world". He grins gratefully as he takes his small white box and extends his other hand for the coffee.
Another man, a little younger, reaches the pick-up boasting a fresh black eye. He is a regular, so Luz asks, in Spanish, what happened to him. He looks embarrassed, almost like a child, and mutters something about being hit by a ball. "Yes," says Luz under her breath. "A ball with five fingers."
For the next 45 minutes, Jorge and the team have little time for chatter. That is how long it takes to get the little boxes, a fork stuck into the lid of each of them, into the hands of everyone under the subway tracks tonight. A busy night? Fairly, though he has seen crazier.
This year, he explains later in the warmth of the pick-up's cabin, has been hard because the numbers turning up keep growing. He was feeding something like 90 people a night in the spring and now it's up to 150 every day. Two things may be involved, he says – the economy and the publicity that he has received this year when CNN, the 24-hour news network, nominated him as its 2009 Hero of the Year and when British chef Jamie Oliver featured him on his recent television series about food in America.
Otherwise, the sudden burst of media attention has not impressed Jorge, a diminutive 44-year-old native of Colombia who is now an American citizen. He has no time.
It's past 11pm by the time we are finished. Jorge gets up at 5.15am daily for his driving job. As soon as he gets home in the evening, he joins Luz and his mother in his small apartment preparing the food for that night's run. In five years, he has served 70,000 meals, he reckons, with no financial aid from the city or anyone else.
He does, though, have volunteers and friends who donate time and food. As they started serving today, a gentleman with white hair yelled at them from the other side of the avenue. It was Joel Weber, who with his wife has cooked 45lbs of chicken for Jorge every Thursday night for the past year and a half. "It comes out of our pockets," Joel confirms, before jumping back in his battered Mazda to rush to a nearby Colombian bakery that has some leftover bread they want to donate.
Asked what sustains him on this mad routine of selflessness – his commitment is to be at this spot at this time 365 days a year, come what may, Christmas included – especially Christmas – and Jorge evokes the higher power. "God is the one who supports me," he says flatly. "And we will continue to do this until God makes us stop." That and the fact that these people now rely on him. "None of these people have work so without me they would have the simple choice: eat or pay the rent."
It all started, Jorge says, when he used to come to the neighbourhood for a few drinks at night. Leaving the bars he'd notice men huddled near the subway tracks, waiting for the police to go away so they could settle under their shelter to sleep.
He spoke to a few of them and, moved by their plight, began turning up most days with paper bags containing an apple, a biscuit and something to drink.
In 2004, his mission grew more ambitious. Jorge had been on Long Island driving the buses for school summer camp when he noticed men dumping huge amounts of prepared food into rubbish skips outside a plant that made airline meals. To this day, the factory is still one of the most important donors to Jorge and his team, but he can't identify it, because technically what they are doing is illegal.
Tonight, Jorge and Luz have more food than they can give away. "Who wants more?" he shouts, pushing his ladle through another pan of chickens. Most of the men who were here an hour ago have melted into the frigid streets, every nearby litter bin spilling over with empty white boxes. A few remain, eating quietly against the wall beneath the subway station. They shake their heads, smiling.
Robert, 35, from Peru, spends every morning waiting on a nearby corner in search of casual day labour on construction sites. Right now, he says, he is lucky if he gets one day of work every fortnight.
But what he can rely on is the Angel of Queens. He is here every night without fail and has been for more than a year. If Jorge wasn't around, how would he cope? "No eat!" he says simply.Reuse content