Dreamer 'n the 'hood

From a tiny food counter in South Dallas, Delvin Gray struggles to change the world

RAP, he admits, has few members.
Most of the time at Community Kitchen, there's one man trying to pull together that elusive community in whatever way possible. And when he isn't cooking food for his customers, Gray is calling around to drum up support for his children's summer camp, planning karate classes for project kids, or writing his RAP newsletter, which he hands out to people he meets.

"Community and family are the things most important to this organization," he has written in typically unadorned prose in the newsletter. "Not profit for self."

In Community Kitchen's front window, Gray has placed books on Pan-Africanism, Malcolm X, and philosophy. In one section are photographs of members of the New Black Panther Party of Dallas. Elsewhere is a collage of obituaries--scraps of news on people who've died violently in the Ideal neighborhood. Their faces are black--very young and very old.

Under the obits, he's written a plaintive message in black marker: "See what we do to each other? It's hard, people. We live on death row." He's saved a spot on the window for his own death notice.

Community Kitchen sells hamburgers, fried chicken, and egg rolls, among other simple foods. Gray makes everything from scratch, spurning pre-packaged goods. The nachos come in generous portions: a pile of tortilla chips smothered with ground beef, cheese, and tomato chunks. Gray charges $4.21 for the dish, a steal--and certainly more appetizing than the colorless slice of baloney swimming in grease available at one of the corner groceries.

All of Gray's dishes are underpriced, which explains, in part, why Community Kitchen is not pulling a profit these days. "Last night, we made $29," he says with a shrug. Still, he tries to see beyond profit. He has to. "The kitchen was designed as a model," he explains. "This is what a business should do. It should contribute heavily to the development of the community, not be a liability. Not take your money and run."

Another reason the cafe struggles is competition. Even though Caroline and Delvin are the only employees, Community Kitchen stays open 12 hours a day, feeding a sporadic stream of customers. But queuing at the liquor stores starts early and goes on through the night. People are already waiting in line when the doors open the next morning.

Yet Community Kitchen fails to make a profit because Gray runs it like a charity--even when he knows he can't afford it. Every Sunday for almost a year, Gray gave away hamburgers and soft drinks to hordes of neighborhood folks. All day, he and volunteers doled out plates of burgers till the food or the line was gone--whichever came first. Most of the hungry people walked over from the nearby projects.

Gray started the feedings in cooperation with the New Black Panther Party, a small group of local militants who've adopted the name of the famed radicals from the '60s and early '70s. The group abandoned the project after a few months; Gray decided to carry it on himself. He's since severed his ties with the organization.

"He does it for the kids," says a neighborhood homeowner, Sheila Crawford, one Sunday afternoon. "But our little drug-using population shows up, too. He doesn't turn anybody away.

"Here you go," Crawford says as she pushes a few dollars into Gray's hand. She looks different than most of the others in the line, more middle class.

"It's free," Gray says brusquely.
She insists on the donation. "I like what you do," she tells him with a smile.

Crawford lives down the block in a modest frame home on Ghent Street. She'd watched as month after month, Gray gave away free food.

"The Lord will bless him," she says. "But I don't know how long he can continue without help."

Truth is, he can't. Gray halted his Sunday feedings in late September after tallying up how much he'd spent: $21,000. "It's not fair to Carolyn, it's not fair to Julius, and it's not fair to me," he explains. "Sometimes you get the feeling you're being pimped, but if it helps someone, it's a good cause. I just can't afford it right now."

But he can't help himself. Just the other day, a woman came up to the window. In her early 20s, she had the robotic twitches common to crackheads. Her hair was unkempt, her face swollen, eyes blackened. She smelled like sex. Someone had beaten her up--bad.

"Baby," she whined to Delvin as he came to the window, "I've just got beat up and raped. I ain't had no sleep. Honey, could you make me a little something to eat?"

Delvin hesitated. He was low on cash. He was sinking further into debt. But she was in a bad way, no doubt about it. He rustled together some nachos, piling them high on the plate. He passed them through the window.

The woman looked at the plate of nachos and recoiled. "I don't want this shit!" she shrieked. "I don't eat just any goddamned thing!"

She turned to passing cars and startled pedestrians across the street. "This mutherfucker's trying to sell me this shit," she yelled.

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