If it were up to Miguel Perdomo, no New Yorker would go hungry on Thanksgiving.
Be it a family from a nearby shelter tucking leftovers into a bag or a 90-year-old woman hesitating at the door, Perdomo has made sure that everyone who comes to his annual Thanksgiving dinner leaves with a full belly and a happy heart.
“I always stand by the door, encouraging people to come in. You sit down, grab a plate, listen to some music, talk to some people,” Perdomo, 56, said. “I let my crew know, we’re not turning nobody away on Thanksgiving Day.”
Perdomo, who has worked as a United States Postal Service mail carrier in East Harlem for 16 years, has been serving free Thanksgiving dinners to about 300 people from his community on the fourth Thursday of November for the past decade.
Every year, he goes all out: 20 turkeys, eight trays of rice, five trays of candied yams, four trays of mac and cheese, cornbread, cookies and cake from Costco, cranberry juice and tiny apple juice boxes for the children.
The meal, which costs $1,000 to $1,200 each year, is partly funded by Perdomo’s fellow letter carriers and clerks at the USPS Hellgate Station on East 110th Street. Most of them contribute $20 each, and Perdomo covers the rest.
Perdomo said the tradition began 10 years ago, when the owner of the supermarket opposite his post office sought help with starting a Thanksgiving dinner for the homeless. Five years in, the supermarket closed down and the owner moved away, leaving Perdomo in charge of continuing the feast.
“People of the neighborhood came to ask me ‘Hey, Mike, are we going to get Thanksgiving dinner this year?’ I was scared. I didn’t have any of those resources. All I did was collect money and give it to him,” Perdomo said. “That meant that I went to my co-workers. I went to my route.”
Walking along that same route on a cold Tuesday morning on Nov. 14, Perdomo pushed his mail cart down East 110th Street. Dressed in muted gray pants and a USPS jacket, with a slightly askew National Association of Letter Carriers beanie, he was interrupted by every other pedestrian. Greetings and questions from residents rang out, and he responded to every single one of them. Even as he flitted in and out of buildings, sliding letters and packages into mailboxes with a deft hand, members of the community stopped by to relay the latest news of the neighborhood.
It is this relationship with his community that allowed Perdomo to continue the Thanksgiving tradition. He convinced the older residents from a senior center on his route to season a few turkeys and a couple of friends helped with the rest. A bakery, Vallecito, offered to provide the ovens and relatives from New Jersey, Massachusetts and Maryland agreed to serve the food. His wife, Milly Perdomo, took charge of everything else.
“This is the beauty of what we do,” Perdomo said. “The entire community is involved.”
He also convinced the Edwin Gould Housing Program to provide a space for the event at no cost. EGA, which provides apartments to 51 young adults, has been working with “Mike the Mailman” for seven years.
“Welcoming Mike to the space is at the core of our work -- to create a community where youth thrive and feel supported,” program director Eshawn Hall said. “We look forward to partnering with Mike for many years to come.”
Having attended the dinner for the past three years, Ramon Diaz calls Perdomo “Mr. Mike.”
“He’s a really, really great guy,” Diaz said. “Most of my family’s gone. It’s just me and my brother, so a big turkey is not feasible for us. When I saw the flyer, I didn’t expect much, but it’s like a family atmosphere there.
There’s nothing rude. It’s all nice and the food is very, very good,” Diaz added.
The flyers, which Perdomo persuaded the staff at Edwin Gould to make, are distributed by his co-workers on their routes, as well as outside shelters and around low-income housing. For the 11th annual Thanksgiving dinner, which will be held from 12:30 to 4 p.m. on Nov. 23, the flyers will start going up in East Harlem on Saturday.
“We feel it’s amazing how many people don’t have a place to go eat on Thanksgiving,” Perdomo said. “It’s a lot of lonely New Yorkers.”
After a decade of serving free Thanksgiving dinners, Perdomo said he can recall “thousands” of stories: A young teen, whom Perdomo had seen sleeping in the park, came in one year and heaped his plate with food. But before he ate, the teen disappeared into the bathroom for a half hour as Perdomo watched his plate.
“You know what he was doing?” Perdomo asked. “He was taking a shower. That broke my heart. I gave him food to take with him after that.”
Perdomo insists on treating everybody the same on Thanksgiving Day. He also issues a warning to volunteers: “If you think that you cannot handle any kind of person, then this is not for you.”
Many people request to take food home with them, and he never says no. He also makes sure there is enough turkey and rice for the visitors who come in later, and in his characteristically generous manner, he leaves the leftover food for the youth at Edwin Gould.
“I get goose bumps. I get so emotional when all these people who have nowhere to go on Thanksgiving come to my dinner,” Perdomo said. “These are the people I see every day ... I am their mailman. ”