They were let in in groups of five, a motley crew of men – and some women – from the toothless to the mentally ill, from the veteran to the almost clean and blond couple too young to be living on the street. All received a bag with turkey sandwiches, fruit, water, cookies and crackers. And a greeting with a smile. This being Los Angeles, vegetarian and vegan options were available.
Some kept their eyes on the ground, shuffling their feet, opening a dirty plastic bag for us to drop the food in. Others smiled broadly, needing to engage with a few words, before proceeding to the coffee line.
A motley crew of a different kind, including yours truly, prepared the sandwiches barely an hour before: from teenagers to retirees, chatting about an upcoming wedding, the bride’s dress, while working as an assembly line, cutting, sorting, piling the meat and the cheese, wrapping. The lady to my left – big, inflated lips and long blond hair – wrapped at lightning speed. The old gentleman to my right, silent and sullen, was in charge of the lettuce.
It was my first turn at a food pantry, on a bright Sunday morning, in marked contrast to a spur of the moment jaunt, just a couple of days before, through the Annenberg Space for Photography to see an exhibition by Lauren Greenfield, Generation Wealth.
Photos of Beverly Hills teenagers driving pricey cars; a nose job at sixteen to look less ethnic; the latest statement bag on the woman shopping on Rodeo Drive; cosmetic surgery procedures to attain impossible standards of perfection; ostentatious displays of wealth. Lauren Greenfield has been documenting all this since 1992, when she started taking pictures of fellow students at her high school in Santa Monica and, ever since, has been trying to explain, not so much the culture of excess, nut what has given rise to it.
I am always amazed at the wealth on display in Los Angeles: how many Teslas and Bentleys are on the road, how many mansions can coexist, how many moneyed men with eye candy on their arm, how many boutiques with improbably priced merchandise. And, like most metropolis, a few miles South or East, squalor and poverty still abound, with everything else in between.
Maybe not coincidentally, the food pantry I worked at was started with money from the Annenberg endowment, the same philanthropic family that built the Space for Photography, possibly because they were trying to strike a fair balance between helping the arts and helping the needy.
At 54, I cannot aim to change the world, to make a lasting impact on my surroundings. But I can change my community, I can change what I see. I can let go of empty criticism, of hollow rants and get to work within my boundaries. I will not repair the world single-handedly but my brick, one of many, will one day help support the bigger structure. I have no choice but believe that.
All images by Lauren Greenfield – Generation Wealth on view until August 13, 2017