When you ask people what they are thankful for, they tend to be specific. When you ask them what they are thankful for on Thanksgiving Day at Valois on 53rd Street, they tend to be prolific. It was around 4pm and a dozen diners were sitting behind heaping trays of food. A bearded man spoke loudly to one of the restaurant owners about a recent picture of Obama on the wall, and though the owner stood far away, seemingly disinterested, he replied in a thick Greek accent that the President had stopped by the joint during his last visit to Hyde Park.
Since the majority of the cafeteria’s customers sat alone, the room was quiet, and unlike most other days at Valois, no children were present. A man and woman sat at a table near the counter. Their eyes were closed and they held hands above the trays in between them. They were saying grace.
A poster board boasting the Thanksgiving specials was hanging in front of the menu: roast turkey, baked ham, roast beef, or baked fish or chicken, with a choice of soup or salad, and a couple of sides, all for $8.95. Not bad considering what it would have cost me to fly home for this meal.
Veteran James, the bearded man, greeted me as I wandered past his table. I asked him what he was thankful for this Thanksgiving. Without contemplation, he promptly replied, “I am thankful for the Jesse Brown Medical Center taking care of my medical needs for the past seven years.”
A woman sitting a few tables away was vaguely gazing at the muted Dr. Phil on the television. She spoke quietly and told me her name was Linda. “I am thankful for the safety and health of my children,” she said. She paused. “And for my new job,” she added. I jokingly asked if there was anything for which she was not thankful; she smiled and answered with levity, “For not having a good man in my life.”
Fully clothed in University of Chicago paraphernalia, two students were eavesdropping at the next table.Â They were international relations students, and in unison said that they were “not thankful for North Korea right now.” They must have been alluding to the reckless artillery attack it carried out against South Korea last week.
Two other students were feasting in their winter coats at a table nearby. It was unclear whether the meal they were having was their breakfast or their dinner, for they seemed to have just rolled out of bed. In fact, one of them, Andreas, said he was thankful “for good nights of sleep and not thankful for the fucking flu.” His friend Jeremy was eager to say he was thankful for art and sternly added that he was unthankful for “the obligatory requirements of technology in our everyday life.”
In the corner by the entrance, a couple in their mid-20s, Nick and Jen, were dining. Jen, in a plaid flannel shirt, said she was not thankful for capitalism and globalization. Clearly she had another economic design in mind because she also said, “I am thankful for my dog Georgie, and for my bike, and decaf coffee.”
Her friend Nick declared, “I am not thankful for hate. That’s it.” He then earnestly added, “I am thankful for leg warmers, sweatpants, wind, earth, water, fire.”
In fact, at the risk of sounding trite, it seemed that many of the students hadn’t been thinking too much about the question.
An habituÃ© of Valois, an old man with a hat, a cane, and a trench coat was making his way around the restaurant, saluting busboys and customers. All he said when asked what he was thankful for was, “I am just glad to be here!”
One of the employees was helping Ahmed and his wheelchair get settled at a table. Ahmed’s response to my question was: “Family. I am thankful for family. They’ve been so good to me this year. And the grace of God. It brought me this far. I am grateful for today. For talking with–what’s your name?–for talking with you, Kim. Did you write that down? Talking with Kim? I’ve been through thirteen surgeries. Now I am healthy and wise…I got that from the Bible, healthy and wise.” He also asked me to write down that he was not thankful for people not having health insurance in this country.
Elaine was serenely sitting alone and looking out onto the street. She told me she was thankful for the many Thanksgivings her son gave her and for all the places they had gone together. She explained, “Today he’s in California and his girlfriend has diabetes, but I am thankful I can help. I am thankful I can sit here and enjoy this meal. For all that I have. For my apartment. And everyday, I praise the Lord, the Holy Spirit. I am thankful for the past and for the present. And I am thankful for you asking me this question!”
A woman and her son overheard my conversation with Elaine, with whom I was speaking loudly, since she was hard of hearing. She came up to me and said, “I have things to be grateful for. Will you write them down?” I nodded. “To be alive! That’s a great thing! To be able to eat and pray. I’ve had problems with gastric reflux and I was in the hospital, unable to eat. And being here now…” She paused and laid her hand on my shoulder. “Being able to eat is a great thing.”