Tom French is a Seattle chef who founded the nonprofit Bountiful Table to bring people of diverse viewpoints together to cook and talk about solutions to critical social issues. A self-described good guy, he was searching for a way to be part of the “spirit of giving” that followed the September 11 destruction of the World Trade Center, and he came up with the Heart of America Bus Tour.

He and two friends, Ella Dillon and Alana Karran, contacted friends around the country who wanted to host dinners where people could discuss what they could do about terrorism. They also decided to collect artwork, written statements, and taped comments on the subject, all of which would be taken to New York City by mid-December.

The three left Seattle in a chartered bus on November 21, intending to make stops in, among other places, Missoula, Chicago, Boston, and Washington, D.C. They arrived in Chicago late on November 29 and spent the next day meeting and organizing with friends and other activists, then went to dinner at the Heartland Cafe in Rogers Park.

After dinner Dillon and Karran drove over to Saint Jerome’s rectory, on Lunt, where they were going to help prepare a large community meal the next night. French decided to walk the couple of blocks. He hadn’t gone far when a group of six or seven Hispanic and African-American kids walked up to him. “One of them said, ‘Excuse me, sir, can you tell me what time it is?’ I told him it was around ten o’clock. Then this kid asked, ‘You got a dollar for me?’ And I thought, ‘Uh-oh,’ but said, ‘No, I don’t.’ Then he said, ‘Yeah, but you got a big motherfucking bag on your shoulder.'”

In the bag was a tape recorder and taped statements on terrorism people in Seattle and Missoula had given him.

“Somebody grabbed me with a choke hold from behind,” he says. “The next thing I know I was on the ground and they were all kicking me. Laughing, by the way.” They took the bag, though they didn’t take his wallet.

French, who lives with his wife and two sons on Whidbey Island–the sort of place where you’re more likely to run into a deer or raccoon at night than a person–lay on the sidewalk in shock. “I really think that the only thing that got me up and off the ground was thinking about my two sons.”

Bruised and bleeding, he managed to make his way to the tour bus, which was parked near the rectory. He was telling Dillon and Karran what had happened when a patrol car pulled up and an officer asked what was wrong. Sitting in the backseat of the squad car was another beating victim, who was riding around trying to spot the muggers. Three people were beaten that evening in what was evidently a gang-initiation rite. French filled out a report, but didn’t go to the hospital until the next day, when he found out his elbow was fractured.

He considered turning the bus around and heading back home. He felt he’d brought the Heart of America Bus Tour to the heart of America–and then been mugged. But he says he wanted to figure out what that meant. “I spent two days saying, ‘I’m fine. I’m OK. I’m cool.’ But I’m really not fine about it. This is a microcosm of the world. It has little to do with Chicago, and everything to do with the world. This was the rawest form of domestic terrorism. It indicated such a disregard for human life.”

He canceled the big dinner he’d planned, and that night he and a small group of friends and activists discussed what had happened. One woman said she’d long wanted to start a jobs-training program in Rogers Park. French, who’d set up a culinary-training program in Seattle and run it for four years, agreed to help her start something similar here–hoping it would benefit kids like the ones who mugged him, particularly the kid who seemed to be the leader.

“Somebody asked me if I was being Pollyanna about this,” says French, who admits he now gets a little shaky when he sees a group of young people gathered on the street. “But here’s what I would love to see happen. I would really like to talk to this kid. I would like to talk to his parents. And I would like to talk to the judge. My ultimate goal is that I could work with him. I would like for him to be the first one to enroll in the program I will be setting up in Rogers Park.”

The Heart of America Bus Tour is organizing another dinner at 7 PM on Friday, December 7, in the church dining room at Saint Jerome’s, 1709 W. Lunt (773-262-3170). It’s potluck, but French and other chefs are cooking too. The main topic of discussion will again be terrorism, but this time it will include terrorism in America’s neighborhoods.