NEW YORK -- There was an obvious question to ask Walter Wengert Jr. yesterday: What does a 40-year-old unemployed man living beneath the West Side Highway have to be thankful for? But at noon he was too busy to ponder it. Company was coming for dinner, and he was behind schedule building an oven.
The oven was a rusty old file drawer scavenged from the garbage that he was lining with aluminum foil. It would go on top of the wood fire blazing inside the blue tarpaulin that makes the walls of his home. On the dirt floor nearby were a 13-pound turkey, the ingredients for stuffing and pumpkin pie, sweet potatoes, corn on the cob, biscuits and a cookbook -- also scavenged from the garbage -- titled "Larousse Gastronomique."
"I've always loved to cook, but I ain't had much chance to do it the last few years," said Mr. Wengert. "Last Thanksgiving I was living in a parking lot in Chelsea." For the last six months he has been living at the edge of Riverside Park at West 72nd Street, next to the entrance of a 2 1/2 -mile railroad tunnel.
The tunnel is home to squatters called the Mole People. Several would be emerging for dinner with Mr. Wengert and his neighbors.
The exact number for dinner was uncertain -- one invited guest, for instance, was a possible no-show because he was in hiding after stabbing a man -- but Mr. Wengert was cooking for 10, an unusually large gathering among squatters who like to keep to themselves.
"Normally I don't invite others," Mr. Wengert said. "But a couple of us got the idea of pooling our food stamps for a Thanksgiving feast, and we got plenty of food, so I thought today would be a good day to be cool about it with others that aren't as well off. That's what Thanksgiving's about."
That sentiment was shared by Douglas, 45, one of the Mole People, who did not want his children to read his last name. "We'll be glad to give them food," he said of the guests, as he helped Mr. Wengert with preparations. "But they'll have to bring their own plates. We don't have enough to go around."
Dinner preparations had gotten off to a late start the night before for two reasons. One was a second jug of wine the men had drunk. The other was a faulty clock, which caused Douglas to miss a 9:30 appointment for his regular job, parking the car of a clerk at the Offtrack Betting Corp. parlor at West 72nd Street near Amsterdam Avenue.
Douglas responded by beating the alarm clock to death with a log. "I only get angry at inanimate objects, never at people," he said good naturedly, and headed off to forage for firewood in Riverside Park. Mr. Wengert went up to the Gristede's at 263 West 72nd Street for some last-minute shopping: raisins, whipped cream, pie-crust mix.
He had to improvise on some things. After deciding that a hammer handle would not make a good rolling pin, he flattened the pie-crust dough by hand. But he had the essentials of a kitchen -- table, cutting board, utensils.
There is no running water, but there are fire hydrants not too far away that provide water for the dozens of squatters on the railroad land and outside and inside the tunnel. Some have built wooden shanties; others have been living for as long as 15 years in cement-block buildings scattered along the length of the tunnel.
Their secluded life was interrupted this year. An article about the Mole People appeared in the New York Times in June, and soon there were camera crews from American and foreign television networks tromping through the tunnel. "Donahue" inquired about doing an entire program inside the tunnel.
"The media leeches descended," Douglas complained.
Another intrusion has been the new track that Amtrak is laying in the tunnel for its trains from Albany, N.Y. to Pennsylvania Station. In April trains are scheduled to start using the tunnel for the first time in a decade. Officials from Amtrak and the city's Human Resources Administration have been visiting the squatters, telling them they will have to move, and offering to help them relocate.
Mr. Wengert finally got a chance to relax after dark yesterday. The oven had turned out two nicely browned pies and an appetizing turkey. There was stuffing with onions and mushrooms for the turkey, and a topping for the pie with peaches, strawberries, honey and blackberry brandy.
There were eight people, all neighbors, for dinner: seven men and one woman. It was probably one of the more racially diverse Thanksgiving parties in New York, and probably one of the more jovial. The guests
brought their own plates. Before eating they considered what there was to be thankful for.
"Life. I think that says it all," Douglas said.
"Health and strength," said Isaiah Laray Davis, 25.
"I'm away from all the racket," said C. Harris, 30. "Away from all the phony people sitting at the table praising things they know they don't live up to."
"It's just another day, that's all," said Mr. Wengert's 37-year-old brother, Thomas, who lives with him.
"No, it's not," Mr. Wengert said to his brother. "This is the first Thanksgiving dinner you and I have had together in 10 years. I'm thankful for that. This is a day you should be with your close friends and family, not at some dinner in a church. When I go to one of those church dinners, I feel like an inmate getting fed. I'd rather go back to jail.
"Today I got to make all this good stuff and everyone will have something to enjoy. I got a lot of good people around me. We ain't in Penn Station, we ain't in a parking lot, we ain't sleeping in a cement truck somewhere. It's a great, beautiful day."