Feeding a Need

He held his bowl close to his mouth and with his chopsticks held together, quickly flicked the contents into his mouth without stopping until his bowl was empty. Then he filled it again, and started eating in the same manner. His eyes did not look at anything, not even the bowl. He made no attempt to make conversation, or even eye contact with his dining companions.

Watching him eat, I felt an inexorable sadness. I still think of him now, eight days later, and I still feel sad.

What was it about this man, in a restaurant full of patrons, that caught my heart? Clearly, he could afford to eat at a restaurant, so he must have some money. And he was probably with family, so did not feel the need to socialize. And I have seen other people eat like he did, with the rice bowl close to his mouth, shoveling the food in. But they had seemed to enjoy their food, or were simply filling an empty stomach.

I have felt like this on several occasions in my adult life, upon catching a glimpse of someone eating. Sadness. Pity. A desire to give the person something… They seemed to be feeding a need that will never be satisfied. I wonder – are they always hungry? Always, I sense some kind of loss.

I have never experienced the kind of hunger, or want, that I imagine these people to have experienced. I know my father has, when he was a prisoner of war during the Korean War. Imprisoned by the Americans, even though he was a South Korean medical officer, in a case of mistaken identity that was not resolved for many years. I don’t know how many. He rarely talks about his experiences as a POW.

Once, as we watched huge portions of food pass our table at one of the Italian waterfront restaurants on City Island, he said that people who have been poor and have known hunger must want to go to restaurants that serve large portions – they must want an abundance of food. We used to go to one of those restaurants whenever we went to City Island.

Another time, on one of the rare occasions that he accompanied me and my mom grocery shopping, he put a can of sardines in the shopping cart. “Gross”, I probably said. “Canned sardines?” He said he really had a taste for it. That evening, when my mom had doctored it up a bit and served it, he said that when he was a POW, one of the American soldiers had thrown him a can over the fence. He had never tasted anything so good.

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