One Friday night in 1995, on a bench in the traffic island at West 116th Street and Broadway, Eddie Torres was plotting his third suicide attempt. Once back in his Harlem apartment, the plan went, he would drink a bottle of Bacardi, turn the oven on and wait for the gas to poison him.
“I felt I wasn’t seen,” said Torres, at the time severely disturbed after decades of drug and alcohol addiction and 10 years on the streets. “I was invisible.”
Fast forward to 2012, and Torres, 61, is in his eighth year as volunteer chef at the Love Kitchen. Instead of walking the streets, he’s responsible for preparing dinner for up to 100 people every weekday. “I’m beyond happy,” he said.
The redeemed chef is in good company. At the Love Kitchen, an unassuming gymnasium-style space near W. 204th St. and Tenth Avenue in Inwood, dinner comes with a side of second chances. As much as providing food, the organization’s mission, explained director Jewel Jones — who came to the kitchen after turning his own life around — is to help struggling men and women improve their lives. After all, feeding is just a means to reach the heart, Jones said.
Founded 25 years ago by evangelist pastor Tom Mahairas, the Kitchen provides about 450 hot meals and as many bags of groceries to needy New Yorkers every week, according to Jones. Of its $135,000 annual budget, $12,000 comes from the neighboring Manhattan Bible Church, also founded by Mahairas; cash and food donations from church members and others supply the rest.
The nonprofit is financially stable, Jones said. Over the years its dependency on donations has often led to uncertainty, but when all else failed, Jones said, God has provided — like the time years ago when, with the kitchen in desperate need of supplies, a truck suddenly showed up delivering $100,000 worth of meat.
“When God does it, he goes big time,” Jones said.
Roughly 15 percent of the Kitchen’s patrons are homeless, the director said. All have fallen on hard times for various reasons: unemployment, drug abuse, disability, old age.
“They come in here because they’re trying to supplement for a lack of income,” he said. “They can’t afford not to pay their rent.”
On a Friday evening in September, a couple dozen patrons, mostly men, cycled through the Kitchen’s long, rectangular tables. Some lingered near the serving bar, talking animatedly with Jones or other staff; others shuffled in silently, filling their plates and quickly finding seats.
Eating alone at the edge of the room was Wayne Kraus, who says he’s been clean for two years following 18 years of drug addiction — “chasing the dragon,” as he put it. Kraus said he used to work in sanitation but broke his neck in a 2008 accident. Now, physically unable to work as he did before — to talk to someone next to him, he rotated his entire upper body — Kraus sells water at traffic lights to earn a little cash.
“I don’t have money,” he said matter-of-factly. “To eat I come here.”
Francisco Arias, a Nicaraguan native and father of two, lost his maintenance job and became homeless over the summer. Since then, he’s been sleeping in Inwood parks and eating at the Kitchen. “I’m trying to get back on my feet,” he said. “My kids need me.”
Arias was eating and joking with his park “roommate” Francisco Uruano, a Mexican native who also became homeless this summer after losing his job as a busboy. Between bites of pork chops and rice, Uruano credited Jones and the staff with helping him transform himself after struggling with drinking and unemployment. When he and Uruano had nowhere else to turn, he said, they came to the Kitchen.
“Without them, we don’t know what we’re going to do to survive,” he said. “The people that work over here, they’re angels from God.”
While welcoming people of all faiths, the Love Kitchen also isn’t shy about its religious affiliation. Christian messages adorn the entrance and cafeteria walls, and Jones said he will urge — but not compel — troubled patrons to find Christ. “I tell people, ‘You guys should go to a church. You need to go and find God for yourself,’” Jones said.
It was the director’s own embrace of the gospel that eventually landed him at the Kitchen. As a teenager in Chicago, Jones was a member of the hugely popular doo-wop group the El Dorados. (“At My Front Door” was a number one R&B hit in 1955.) As a young man, he said, he was enthralled with the concerts, the money, the attention from young women.
“All that stuff kind of swells your head,” he said.
But early fame and wealth also left him with distorted priorities, he said, and he walked out on his wife and three children. During one particularly low period, Tanya, Jones’s youngest, said she would spit on her father’s grave.
“I destroyed my life, my family, and everything else,” Jones said.
Inside his opulent home one day, Jones realized his life had become empty. By then he had begun a second career as an IHOP owner, and when another franchisee shared his discovery of Christ at a convention, Jones listened. He joined the Manhattan Bible Church and Mahairas, opening the Kitchen, asked him to come on as director. He also sought his family’s forgiveness and began the hard work of repairing long-eroded relationships: After 13 years of divorce, Jones remarried his wife and over time grew close to his children — even Tanya, who did a stint working in the Kitchen.
A religious group made a film about the former star’s turnaround — “Love’s Lasting Call: The Jewel Jones Story” — and when it aired on New York television one Sunday morning in 1995, Eddie Torres was watching.
It was just two days after Torres’s aborted suicide attempt: At the height of his agony on the traffic island, Torres had discovered a volume of the New Testament under a newspaper. He started reading and didn’t close the book the entire walk home. By the time he arrived, the plan was spoiled. “I realized I didn’t buy the bottle of courage I needed,” Torres said.
Two days later, shaking and vomiting from alcohol withdrawal, Torres turned on the TV and saw Jones’s movie. “I started to cry and I started to say, ‘God, if you can change that little black man, can you do anything for the Latin from Manhattan?’” he recounted.
Eventually Torres made his way to the Manhattan Bible Church and then to the Kitchen, where he began as a dishwasher and worked his way up to chef. Because Torres is unpaid, like everyone on the staff of five except Jones, he still struggles to get by on $850 in monthly Social Security and disability benefits. But more than anything he is grateful, he said, for the opportunity to help others struggling as he once did.
“When I was homeless, it’d be cold, but you get used to it,” he said. “It’d be raining, soaking wet, but you get used to it. Sleeping in a park bench, it’s hard, but you get used to it.
“But when you’re hungry, you don’t get used to it. You feel it all the time.”