No Fowl, Some Harm

Page 2 of 3

Mendoza threw the turkey out, not knowing how long it had been sitting wherever it had been. "I didn't want to risk it," she says.

"I don't see how anybody could consider that a dinner," she says. "It was free, I understand. But what gets me is all those people who signed up and never got anything."

In response to approximately 130 requests referred by Garfield school workers, Nick's apparently delivered a turkey to only one family: the Mendozas. It might be said that the rest got the bird.

Two weeks later came the monthly meeting of the Garfield neighborhood association.

Diana Delugan, the community youth worker who enlisted the services of Garfield school counselors, apologized and tried to explain that Nick's had inadvertently overextended itself and that the school was not to blame. But the damage to the still-fragile community relations had been done. City representatives present at the meeting stayed mum.

Says Paul Arter, president of the Garfield PTO: "The sad thing was that a lot of families, if they hadn't been promised anything, probably would have made plans. Everybody could have done something, however humble that might be--a pot of beans and some menudo, whatever. They would have dealt with it.

"But it was like, if a girl was going to kick back at home on a Saturday night with nothing to do, that's no problem; but if her boyfriend asks her out, and she's sitting there all dolled up with perfume and ready to go, and he doesn't show up, that's cold-hearted."

Nick Ligidakis, the man who dishes up thousands of holiday turkeys, is not afraid to be a ham. In his storied restaurants, he has been known to issue hearty harrumphs if customers suggest a substitution in any of his rich and abundant menu concoctions. Fawning reviews say this "tall, cinema-handsome" Greek immigrant creates meals "the way Mozart made music."

But image is not everything. Ligidakis, who is in his 40s, was forced to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in 1991 after back taxes and loans overwhelmed him. He's also had his share of trouble with the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, which fined him several years ago for hiring illegal immigrants, some of whom he later stiffed for thousands of dollars in back wages.

Ligidakis reportedly came to America on a professional soccer contract that fizzled, leaving him alive, but no longer kicking. He opened a restaurant and prospered, and he says his culinary creations come to him in his sleep, or in his car as he's driving down the road.

He does work wonders with artichokes and hearts of palm, but for one week of the year, Ligidakis concentrates his considerable energies on the creature known to science as Meleagris gallopavo--the lowly, dimwitted turkey.

Ligidakis says he lives for the Thanksgiving holiday, and not because of the attention his holiday feeding project has heaped on his restaurant. "My restaurant doesn't need publicity," he says. "My restaurant was here before this project got started."

On the first Thanksgiving of the project, he served 250 meals to the needy. Every year, the number grew, reaching into the thousands. Last year, Cathy Maiden, the Phoenix senior services supervisor, took notice and called Nick's to see if she could help. "Traditionally," she says, "he's received what he'd needed, even if it was right down to the wire."

Last year, the arrangement worked fine, and Maiden referred 2,500 requests for meals. But this year, she says, Nick's put out the call to recruit a higher number of people. "His only criteria," she says, "was people who considered themselves in need."

The application forms she devised did not inquire about a family's financial situation. And before long, they were all over the city, in the excited hands of social workers, with no screening method whatsoever.

Maiden says the city delivered the last batch of referrals to Nick's on Tuesday morning, but Ligidakis says he was getting forms as late as Wednesday night. The whole thing had waddled out of control.

With city referrals far exceeding the 16,000 Ligidakis says he asked for, drivers were struggling to keep up with demand. He went on TV to plead for more donations and volunteers. Meanwhile, referrals continued to spill in by fax; the machine was finally turned off. Nick Ligidakis was not about to say no to needy families, but some weeding was in order.

Volunteers tried making last-minute phone calls to ensure that recipients were truly needy, but many people weren't home. Other volunteers came back from delivery runs saying the people were answering their doors with portable phones in hand and nice furniture in the background. Others said the Wednesday deliveries turned out to be second meals for families who had provisions for Thanksgiving Day.

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Marc Ramirez