On Thursday, day 27 of the longest government shutdown in history, DC local Mary Wilkinson marched to the bank and took out $500 in cash. Combined with an existing $140 in her wallet, the private accountant set off to José Andrés’ emergency cafe on Pennsylvania Avenue, where the celebrity chef has pledged to feed furloughed employees and their families free hot meals until the shut down ends. Only two days in, the World Central Kitchen site has fed around 10,000 people and counting, according to one of the volunteer chefs.
A long line snaked around the US Navy Memorial Plaza where the cafe is located. Clad in candy cane-print leggings, Wilkinson began handing out $20 bills down the line of furloughed workers waiting for a warm meal in the cold.
“These are people that I owe a debt to because they’re doing a job on my behalf and they’re not being paid,” says Wilkinson.
She didn’t ask furloughed workers what they wanted to do with the money—she said it wasn’t her business, be it Metro fare, gas money, or simply a drink. According to Wilkinson, federal employees made the choice to dedicate themselves to public service and however they want to use the cash, that’s their choice as well. As she made her way around the building, many asked for a hug instead of the money. Next week, Wilkinson said she will be back again.
“At the core of it I’m a human being and I live here,” says Wilkinson. “I know how hard it is to get back up the economic ladder. We’re pushing people out of their economic social status as we speak. And it’s not going to take a week or two for them to recover.”
She refused to say Donald Trump’s name, instead referring to him as “P 45” (short for the 45th President). She condemned him for holding citizens hostage to special interests, especially those who need payment most. In her eyes, Congress in general is overly beholden to special interests, often at the expense of their own constituencies. Although she has plans to retire next week, her work isn’t done.
“My deep down personal feeling is that we live in a community. I am an American and I will gladly share whatever I have extra with you if I can,” says Wilkinson.
Having grown up in Northeast DC and currently living in Virginia, she says the federal employees at the kitchen are her neighbors. After she shared the money tucked into her plaid jacket with them, it was time to get a meal of her own.
“I walked around the corner and had lunch at a local restaurant and gave them my patronage because everyone is suffering right now in DC,” says Wilkinson. “It is not just the workers, it is every business, every laundromat, every restaurant, every place to get a drink. They’re all hurting. And it has got to stop now.”