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Tuesday, March 19, 2013

If your friends eat while you can’t, they’re not your friends

Harry Riskie’s lesson …

I was talking to a young man about the difference between our national political parties, and which to choose. Harry Riskie’s lesson came to mind.
My father had a small business in Philadelphia, making and installing draperies and liturgical furnishings for the many churches throughout the city. We lived in Brigantine along the South Jersey shore, but he kept an apartment above his shop in Germantown and commuted twice a week. In summers I worked with him. In Philly we dined out on Mondays and Tuesdays, usually with one or two of his friends.
One of those friends was Harry Riskie, a WW II Marine veteran who was a partner in a small gas station in Germantown, the kind of place where Harry and his partner got under the hood to fix your car and scrubbed the grease out from under their fingernails at closing time. Harry knew a lot about the world, but wasn’t given to preaching.
One night we went for dinner at the Wayne Diner, a green and yellow place with a little strip of shrubbery outside that was lit up at night to mark off the relatively civilized world of the diner from its ugly industrial neighbors. As we took seats in a booth, Harry eyed three kids at the counter near us, kids about my own age of 16. Two were eating burgers. The countertop in front of the third was empty.
After we gave our order to the waitress, Harry looked at the three kids, caught the eye of the one who had no dinner, and beckoned him to our booth.
“How come you’re not eating?” he asked the kid.
“Didn’t have the money,” the kid answered.
“Those guys your friends?” Harry asked.
Reaching into his pocket, Harry gave the kid a few bucks. “Lemme tell you something, son,” he said. “If your friends eat while you can’t, they’re not your friends.”
Harry said it better than I’ve ever heard it, and the lesson stuck. Millions of American kids go to bed hungry every night. There are always, thank God, guys like Harry Riskie in the world willing to give a few bucks to feed a kid. Food banks do their best, and Atlantic City had a home-grown saint in “Sister” Jean Webster, who started cooking for the homeless in her own kitchen and drew support from everyone who learned about her. There is Second Harvest and a host of other well-meaning and hard-working groups who pitch in to gather and distribute food. But it is
not nearly enough, as most of them readily admit. It’s a heavy lift, and gets heavier when jobs get scarce and more families need help.
The surest help comes from the Federal Government’s food stamp and school lunch programs. Under those programs, bitterly opposed from their inception and all through their existence by the Republican Party, millions of kids eat better, sleep better, and study better. Much the same applies to programs to create jobs, build housing, and improve education. Now they all face drastic cutbacks in funding under the infamous and ongoing budget crisis – a bastard child neither party wants to admit fathering, but conceived by politicians who think expensive and obsolescent weapon systems are better for America than its own children.
I can’t damn all Republicans. I’d have to damn my relatives, friends, and politicians I respect. I think Harry Riskie was Republican, although his partner Jimmy Amos, also a combat Marine, was a West Virginia Democrat of the FDR variety. The Republicans I knew growing up were the first to volunteer in their communities and churches when disasters hit, and were there in strength when Lyndon Johnson and my old boss Sargent Shriver got Headstart started. We need such Republicans to counter the loonies of the far left in my own Democratic Party. But that sort of Republican has pretty much disappeared, driven out of their own party by extremists intolerant of moderation.
Which brings us back to Harry’s lesson, still true: If your friends eat while you can’t, they’re not your friends. That’s the best way to judge a political party.
Copyright Joseph T. Wilkins

Joe Wilkins is a semi-retired lawyer and former municipal judge who lives in Smithville, NJ. He is the author of The Speaker Who Locked up the House, an acclaimed historical novel about Congress set in the Washington of 1890, and The Skin Game and other Atlantic City capers, a richly comic account of the stick-up of an illegal card game as Atlantic City’s casino age began. You can email him at, visit his website at , catch his author’s page on Facebook, or follow him on Twitter @jtwilkins001. This Joe Wilkins column, along with previous editions, can be found online at

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