SOMETIME IN 1985, when she was working as a volunteer at a hospice on the Lower East Side, Ganga Stone took a bag of groceries to an actor who was dying of AIDS. She parked her bicycle and walked up to his apartment, not without trepidation. AIDS was then ravaging the gay community in New York, and almost nothing was known about it. Its victims were stigmatised and isolated. When the man, Richard Sale, opened the door to her, he was stick-thin and covered with lesions. She had never seen anyone look that bad. And when she handed over the groceries, he deliberately dropped them on the floor. He was far too weak to cope with cooking them. One packet of bread-mix so frustrated him that he tossed it across the room.
What he needed, she realised, was a hot meal delivered directly to him. That day she bought one at the corner deli and took it up. This was better, but still not perfect. Richard needed food that was tailored to his illness and could tempt the jaded appetite of someone dying, so she did research and, the next time, cooked something for him herself. This worked, and also seized her with a sudden idea. She would give up her current job, selling coffee from a cart on Wall Street, and set up a system to feed AIDS sufferers in their homes: every day, free, all over the city. And she would call it “God’s Love We Deliver”. At last, here was purpose in her life.
It started in the tiny kitchen of her apartment with her room-mate Jane Best, both of them taking phone orders and buying ingredients with their own money, but soon outgrew anything their stove could manage. She turned to take-out, recruited friends, urged restaurants to give spare food and put collecting tins beside cash registers in stores, talking up the cause with her blue eyes blazing. Besides that she was still chief courier, racing round Manhattan on her bike, because it was sheer joy to place that bag of good fresh food in someone’s hands, and see them smile.
She could not do that job for long, however. God’s Love swelled like a proving loaf. By 1993 it was providing two meals a day to 550 clients in all five boroughs, with 1,700 volunteers helping. That year it moved from a church basement to a 16,000-square-foot building in SoHo, and still that was too small. The service expanded to include almost anyone who was homebound and struggling to find food. Celebrities, including New York’s mayors, gave donor-parties and brand-new delivery vans. Money poured in, two-thirds of it in private donations. By this year, when God’s Love had proved its worth all over again during the covid lockdowns, 17,000 volunteers were feeding 2.5m New Yorkers on a budget of $23m.
Why “God’s Love”? people asked her. It sounded too pious, but she thought it was funny, like a lit-up restaurant sign. God was not someone or something she hid, and it could be any God: Jesus, Shiva, Allah, Supreme Truth, consciousness. Perfectly non-sectarian. Food was part of that love, unconditional as a mother’s, given constantly and with pleasure by people who expected nothing back. No questions were asked when an order came in, but the meals, as irresistibly delicious as she insisted they had to be, were sent out at once. Never a day missed. Since she herself hated to stand in line in a restaurant, why should her clients wait? This was love that went beyond the personal.
At the personal kind she was not so good. Her marriage, to an Australian busboy with flowing blond hair she had met while waitressing at Max’s Kansas City, was a disaster from day one. After 13 months she walked out, with a son now, but somehow she could not connect with the little boy, who went to live unhappily with his father. In 1987 a one-night fling with a Wall Street customer resulted in a daughter, Hedley, whom she kept close, though the father bolted. Single life was no joke, but New York, she concluded, was a hard place to find a man. Sometimes she seemed picked on from the start, with a violent father and the sense that neither of her parents thought she was good for much.
Only one person thought she was: Swami Muktananda, “Baba”, as she called him, whose ashram in India was her home in the late 1970s. Baba, to her, was part of that greater and universal love she longed to enter into. It was he who called her Ganga after the Ganges, the ever-surging energy of Shiva. After his death she wore a red bindi for a year and bought a wedding ring, as though she had been his wife. But this spiritual marriage was tough, too. At the ashram she scrubbed stone floors and did not speak for almost a year. And when she bowed before Baba, he sometimes hit her. She took it as a gift, a training in self-control.
His more lasting training was in how she should see death. She had gone to the ashram still mourning her mother, who had died 12 years earlier of motor neurone disease. Baba taught her that death was merely the dropping of the body by the soul, which then moved on. It was the most important moment in a human life, and nothing to grieve about.
For her this teaching was as vital as hot meals. Food had to come first; then, as equal comfort, news of the immortal self. She began to lead “death classes” for patients and their partners, and in 1995 stepped down from God’s Love to focus on that work. Sadness had no place in it; instead, she told death-jokes. She wrote a book called “Start the Conversation”. (“The One who sails through death and out the other side is who you are. Have you got that?”) And, once again, this put some people off. How did she know? Where did that piercing certainty come from?
She would say, from experience. She had proof of her mother’s continued existence, as well as Baba’s, whose life still sparked in her like electricity. God’s Love, too, had been set up originally for those near death. In its first year, 400 clients died. She had treasured those last weeks, when even young men welled up with the wisdom of the old, and yet the world avoided listening.
One of those clients had been Richard. After their first difficult encounter, they had become brief friends. And in retrospect, even his throwing of the bread-mix was wisdom. It started something she and all New York turned out to be grateful for. ■
This article appeared in the Obituary section of the print edition under the headline “Tales of love and death”