It’s just a bare concrete slab, a sign that announces the skate park beneath the rumble of the I-84 Connector. “This is my table,” says Max Mohammadi.
In his makeshift dining room, he spreads aluminum pans of leftovers with efficiency and a sense of urgency. A couple of men know the drill, and they help him curl back the foil, checking the afternoon’s offering. This is a hub where homeless men, women, children and families gather with various degrees of patience and direction, biding their time until the shelters open for the evening. Max comes here on purpose.
He adds a spread of paper-wrapped sandwiches and then backs off. People are waiting. People are hungry.
He says: “When I go down there, you get re-focused, because they’re thankful for what they have. … I put the food out and — gone.
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“Hunger is an everyday issue. An every meal issue. … It’s breakfast, lunch and dinner.”
He feels that keenly, for Max’s career has always been feeding people. He’s one of the former owners of Cazba Restaurant and Opa Lounge in Downtown Boise (now closed), and he was known for quietly providing a gratis meal to people who couldn’t afford to pay.
Under the overpass, Max is drawn like a magnet to a family with two young girls. Little Jenova is in the stroller, and Max grabs a napkin to wipe her face and hands as he engages her dad in small talk.
“I see children down there. … (There is) a lot of pain in our society.”
In response to that pain — his pain — nearly 20 years ago Max started a community Thanksgiving tradition called Feed the Need.
“I was always searching for giving back. I want to do that so my children will learn.”
On Thanksgiving Day, Cazba would be officially closed, but it would be the busiest day of the year. Armies of volunteers would cook turkeys and deliver them to a neighboring restaurant where another cadre of volunteers would carve and assemble the feast. The restaurant was decorated to the nines and the free meals served on china with real napkins.
“I was looking for a purpose to give. … My community will see that together, we can do amazing stuff.”
The first year, the handful of volunteers — most of them family — served 160 meals. The last year, before the restaurant closed, the ranks of volunteers had grown to nearly 300 people who served 1,600 meals.
“The majority of people who came were homeless. But for me, I call it Feed the Need — we never knew (who people were). I had flight attendants who would come because everything else was closed. … They would want to give a contribution to the cause (but) I said honestly, it’s just community work.”
The whole banquet came from the generosity of regular people, and Max is proud of that, too. He wouldn’t allow corporate sponsors or those who wanted to help just for a tax write-off. Nor would he take a tax deduction, either.
“It was purposeful. I wanted to make sure people were doing it — it was coming from the heart, not for economic advantages.”
In fact, the name “Feed the Need” transformed into a play on words: MaxGiving.
“I thought it had a good rhyme to it. You know, you’re giving to your max: that volunteerism, that time, commitment — all of that. MaxGiving was not necessarily just my name, but you’re giving to your max, you’re doing the best you can.”
Since the restaurant closed, the Thanksgiving dinner has ceased. But feeding people hasn’t.
Every afternoon except Sunday, Max is the courier for the skate park spread. He gets leftover bread and sandwiches from Zeppole, and the leftover buffet from Mai Thai — if there isn’t much, the chefs have been known to add to it. Sometimes people call out of the blue with an extra pie or boxes of apples or homemade cookies, and he’ll take that, too. He figures he’s served about 70,000 meals in the past four years.
Once a homeless man asked him suspiciously about why he was providing this food and accused him of just trying to feel better about himself.
“(He said) you feel like you’re better than we are. … I say, you know what, I’m just another human being, reaching out to another fellow man and woman. And I don’t judge. And he goes, well, God bless you.”
• • •
Max was born in Tehran, Iran, and came to Idaho when he was 16 years old to study. Although it was his intention to return home, he stayed. Max graduated from Fruitland High School and then from Eastern Oregon State in La Grande, majoring in business economics and personnel management.
“I left there as a boy. I became a man in this culture, in this society. I’ve kept the good values of my culture and discarded the ones I didn’t agree with.”
Philanthropy was one of the values that he kept and pondered.
“I was always searching. My grandparents, my father and my family, they always had certain times of the year they did give-aways, making food for people. That’s part of their culture, part of the religion, to help others.”
Young Max watched his grandfather treat his farm hands with great dignity and respect and noted that neighbors would come to him for advice — to his grandfather: uneducated but humble and devout and wise. Those are traits Max ingested as he grew.
“One of the things I’ve learned in this volunteer work is we don’t judge. … I am here to serve.”
On his way to the bridge, Max drives by the bus station to see if anyone is trying to go home; he pulls up to a stop sign and rolls down his window. “What’s your name?” Max asks of the man with the sign that says he’s homeless. Max hands out a muffin, a cookie, a loaf of bread. “God bless,” says the man — Jason — his hands full. “Good luck, buddy,” says Max. “Have a great day, brother.”
“It goes back to a saying we have in the old country, my birthplace: That humankinds are all of the same clay. We all come together, we are the same creation, and we are all here basically to help one another. …
“A good human being. I try to be doing this not under any religious flag, if you will, but under a human flag.”
Max has some “Max-isms,” little rules that he likes to follow.
“They’re all based on the good in people and doing good as a human being.”
• • •
Under the bridge, a man named Cory works his way through his heaped plate. Although the curry is a little hot for his taste, he’s not complaining. “Whatever you get is a blessing,” he says. “There are days where I have nothing.”
That’s why Max does what he does. And it is so important to him to be out in the community, meeting people. Looking them in the eye, learning their names, recognizing them from day to day and corner to corner.
“People who sit in the comfort of their home, they think they have it all figured out. …
“It’s foot on the ground. Soldiers. You have to deploy the soldiers on the ground. … (Writing a check as) part of the contribution is great, there are a lot of layers. But I think time — commitment and time is so pivotal to this social issue.”
He has a philosophy that he calls “walking barefoot.”
“You notice when you walk, you feel everything, the smallest tiniest thing. … (You notice) the impact you’re doing to other things — you’re being thoughtful, you’re careful about how you’re impacting, no matter how big or small. …
“You need to be reminded of that: Do good and teach well.”
After dinner is underway, Max hauls a handful of jackets and vests from his car — nice clothes, name brands. He had cleaned out his closet. “I have so much,” he says. “I want to make sure they get back (to good use).” He hands them out to men his size, grinning and shaking hands. He doesn’t question whether they’ll take care of the clothing or if they really, truly need the items. He offers goodwill and trust. That is enough.
“You’ve got to walk the talk. Be a good example, be a right example. …
“I think my daughters will remember Dad as someone who taught them the values of humanity and what is really the bottom line — not to hoard, not to have too much that you have to worry about it. Live comfortably and give to others.
“When I went through economic hardship, I always told (my daughters that) I have given away everything. … I got (life insurance policies to) make sure you are covered, but the rest of the stuff is given away.”
The restaurants closed because of financial difficulties with a former employee. Max has worked hard to pay off his debts; so when he works with people who have nothing, it doesn’t feel that far removed.
“I have come this close to losing it all. …. The restaurant by itself, I lost everything; whoosh, gone.
“But the highlight of that is that I’ve been able to do more. It is amazing. With so little, I’ve been able to do so much. You know what I’m saying? You have the trust of people. You become a shepherd of whatever is given you, to protect and to serve. …
“You don’t have to have money to give commitment and time.”
Although Max was offered a full-time job, he chose to be a consultant — he was insistent on time to do his volunteer work. He also works as a medical interpreter for refugees, a liaison between doctors and non-English speaking patients. His investment in the families, of course, goes beyond what he gets paid for.
“I have one of those personalities I have to be busy. Even now, I am not necessarily working, but my time is fully taken. If I don’t have anything else to do, I’m doing volunteer work, helping friends move; whatever it might be, I help out. …
“You know what is amazing? I have so much peace in my life — despite all the stuff that’s happened. I do more with less. …The barefoot analogy is to always be conscious about what I am doing …”
• • •
On his rounds Downtown, Max fishes a stack of cookies from the stash in his car. “These are pretty tasty,” he says. He pulls up to the street corner, where a guy named Bob, it turns out, has a sign saying he’s stranded and asking for help. He is not someone who inspires gregariousness.
That doesn’t faze Max, who pulls up to the stoplight and sticks his hand out the window.
“Oh, yeah,” says Bob, breaking into happy smile. “Peanut butter cookies.” He’s a different sort of guy with a grin. Max inquires about his name, offers his hand. They shake and then Max is off. There’s someone else at the next corner.
WANT TO HELP?
Thanksgiving Day dinner under the bridge is taken care of, courtesy of Old Chicago Downtown and Max Mohammadi’s family, who uses it as an opportunity to teach their children about service and generosity.
If you want to do more, Max suggests supporting organizations that support good work: Mai Thai Restaurant, Zeppole Baking Co., Snake River Provisions, Bittercreek Alehouse and Red Feather Lounge, Old Chicago Downtown and MaxGiving.
MaxGiving as a Thanksgiving Day dinner has ceased to exist, but the name MaxGiving lives on, as an organization dedicated to helping non-profits organize fundraisers. Max gave the name to Dan Harrington, who founded the organization. Learn more at MaxGiving.com, and attend a First Friday community luncheon. The monthly gatherings benefit a local charity. Get connected on Facebook.