Crazy as an Unemployed Person

On his blog, sociologist Alex V. Barnard recently described how, in nineteenth century France, a socially legitimate way to “go crazy” was to embark on a very long vacation and then forget about it.  I love this, if for no other reason than because it blurs the line between travel and emigration, between tourism and homelessness, between wanderlust and walkabout.  In the days before modern technology and the internet, it was still possible to disappear, either for a while or forever.  Whether or not you believe it is possible to consciously choose to “go crazy,” disappearing in another country provided people with a means of reinventing themselves, of living entirely in the present and putting painful parts of their pasts behind them.  You could be anything you wanted to be (a doctor, a priest, the illegitimate great-grandchild of a king or president), or you could be nothing, a blank slate, leaving others to guess at the mystery of your history, or, if you acted crazy enough, you could, like King David when he feigned madness (as described in 1 Samuel 21:12-14), become sufficiently marginalized that no one would care who you were and everyone would therefore leave you alone.  Of course, you couldn’t really do this unless you were wealthy enough to go abroad in the first place.  Today, we have ecotourism and voluntourism, so I guess we could call this 1800s phenomenon “psychotourism.”

In some respects, being among the ranks of the long-term unemployed can be viewed as a form of going crazy.  It is true that, in the United States at least, one tends to be defined by one’s career.  “What do you do?” is the first question a stranger is likely to ask you at a cocktail party, a convenient way for our brains to neatly categorize and pigeonhole a new acquaintance.  Continuing the nineteenth century analogy, one could say that being divorced from one’s identity is a bit of a Dickinsonian experience (“I’m nobody!  Who are you?  Are you nobody too?”).

There is always the option of answering the cocktail party question by stating that you are a mother, a golfer, a bridge player, a singer in the church choir, a vegetarian, a Republican, a homeowner or even a blogger.  But that, of course, is not what the interrogator wishes to know.  Your reply is likely to be greeted by a blank stare or an eye roll, followed by a mumbled excuse for making a beeline for the other side of the room.  The question is about money, how one earns one’s keep, the capitalist measure of self-worth.  Regardless of how much of one’s lifeblood is poured into a particular endeavor, if you don’t get paid for it then it doesn’t count.  You’re supposed to know that.  Failure to observe social expectations in one’s answer to this question is treated as an indicator that one may be a bit loco en la cabeza.

The ancillary circumstances that come along for the ride with long-term unemployment really do remind me of Barnard’s psychotourism.  Instead of voluntarily traveling abroad, the unemployed person’s lack of income is likely to force him or her to move to another location, to embrace a living situation different from the familiar.  You may find yourself in another city or state, doubled up with relatives, living in a homeless shelter or on the street.  And just as the nineteenth century psychotourist “forgot” that she was on an extended vacation, the modern long-term unemployed person gradually forgets that she is on “vacation” as the weeks turn into months and the months turn into years and not working becomes the new normal.  Over time, the long-term unemployed forget who they are, who they once were and who they may someday be.  In both cases, this loss of identity allows you to tell any story, or multiple stories, or no story at all about your life.  As in Emily Dickinson’s poem, you enter a strange twilight of nobodiness.

When mental health professionals speak of psychosis, they typically refer to a person experiencing a break from reality.  In some respects, this is comparable to what one experiences as an unemployed person.  If we consider reality as making a contribution to the economy, supporting one’s self and one’s family, and avoiding becoming a drain on society’s resources, we must recognize unemployment as a break from that reality.  Cleverly, the word “break” is a double entendre in this case.  It refers to “taking a break” from employment, implying that unemployment is a temporary state of affairs and that the unemployed will work again at some unspecified time in the future (a tenuous proposition these days, particularly when one is out of work for more than a year).  But it also refers to a break with the social compact (or the Puritan work ethic, depending on your view), a kind of contractual violation that occurs when one is forced to take from our pool of public resources without providing one’s labor in return.  Sloth, after all, is one of the seven deadly sins.  The unemployed are not playing by the rules and we can’t have that, now can we?  How would society function if everyone decided not to work?  The unemployed must be punished, which we do by marginalizing them, by insisting that there must be something wrong with them.  If you’ve been out of work for such a long time, then the problem must be alcohol or drugs or maybe you’re just not right in the head.

A separate but related issue is that one may experience mental illness as a result of long-term unemployment.  Even if there was nothing wrong with you upstairs before you lost your job, a lengthy period of unemployment can begin to have deleterious effects on one’s mental health.  Feelings of disgust at the state of the American economy fade into feelings of inadequacy over our inabilities to support ourselves and our kids.  Without the professional and support network that most of us gain at our places of employment, our skills become outdated (particularly in this age of rapidly changing technology) and our contacts attenuate.  Friends from work stop calling, perhaps out of guilt, or because you no longer have the latest workplace goings-on in common, or maybe because they don’t want to ask you to go anywhere because they know you can’t afford it anymore.  So you watch your social network die while you experience one loss after another — your savings, your vehicle, your home.  And you wonder what you’re doing wrong as you fill out application after application, make phone calls, go on interviews.  You lower your standards, talking yourself into taking bigger and bigger pay cuts and applying for jobs farther and farther from home.  As you get nowhere, you begin to lose faith in yourself.  You feel as if you just can’t cut it anymore.  Depression and anxiety creep up on you stealthily.

But none of this seems to register with our elected representatives in Washington.  Conservative Republicans in the U.S. Congress continue to deny extended benefits to the long-term unemployed largely because we are considered to be undeserving.  Who cares that we were laid off due to the bad economy?  If it has taken us more than six months to find another job, then we must not be trying very hard.  We must not really want to work.  If we choose to sit home in front of the TV and eat Twinkies, well, we can stew in our own juices.  They’re not going to violate their public trust and waste taxpayer dollars on supporting a bunch of slackers.

I respectfully submit to you, however, that Congress is wrong.  We’re not lazy — just crazy.

Billete

Yuba City

We didn’t get one of those luscious looking watermelons this time.  There weren’t enough to go around and I was too far back on the line to hope for such luck.

I have no cause to complain, however, as I did manage to bring home both blueberries and strawberries.  In the supermarket, those berries would have cost close to $15 and we would have passed them up, as we always do, as being far too expensive.  So thank you, U.S. Department of Agriculture, for making fresh fruit possible for many of us who would otherwise go without.

The truck arrived early and honked its horn to request that we move our folding chairs and rolling carts so that it could back up close to the curb.  Shirley at the food bank had clued me in about this particular food distribution, twenty minutes and two towns up the freeway from the church parsonage.  “It’s where I send my older clients,” she informed me, as only about 25 people typically show up in the line, as opposed to the hundreds who snake around the parking lot at the food distribution in our own town.  It’s nice to know that getting old still has a few perks.  Indeed, this whole embarrassing business of collecting free food took us only an hour, instead of half the day.

This event, which occurs monthly, was held in a rundown apartment complex on the back side of an industrial area in the south end of town.  Most of my fellow queuers, who strolled over with their bags and little wheeled carts, appeared to reside in one or another of the identical single-story white buildings with green trim.  The woman in line behind me asked me whether I lived in “the camp.”

Most of the conversations going on around me were in Spanish, and I soon learned the word billete.  Apparently, you must have one in order to obtain your bag of canned goods off the truck.  It didn’t take long for the line to move forward, across the brown, withered grass and down the concrete path to the vacant apartment where a woman was singlehandedly staffing the sign-in table.  As I stepped over the threshold, I was glad to be indoors, out of the intense rays of the sun, already blazing hot at 8:30 in the morning.  When I reached the table, the staffer and a client appeared to be engaged in a detailed discussion in Spanish, complete with much pointing at each of the four fields on the sign-in sheet.  I simply grabbed the other clipboard, signed in and went out to the truck.

That’s not the way it works.  You have to hand the truck driver a billete or no food for you.  So back inside I went to obtain my little ticket.  Fortunately, there were only a few stragglers waiting on line by this point.  Billete in hand, I went back out to the truck and obtained my very heavy bag of cans.

As for the produce and bread, it was a free-for-all.  You just grabbed what you wanted out of the boxes and whoever was fastest got the best of the offerings.  This was very different than the other food distributions I have attended; at one of them, I thought a worker was going to slap my hand when I foolishly dared to reach for a banana.

blueberries
My wife helped me load up an empty bag with those items that we thought we would use.  By that time, the place had already been pretty well picked out, though.  We were thrilled to get the berries, and we did end up with a nice little pile of redskin potatoes, which for some reason no one else seemed to want.  I’ve been eating them for days now, and they’re wonderful.

We were able to get a half-loaf of garlic bread, a bag of rolls, a package of bagels and a loaf of some type of French bread with a crunchy topping.  We ended up throwing all of it out when it went moldy within a day or two.

There was also cake.  I saw several fairly large chocolate cakes that had been dumped by a local supermarket after reaching expiry without being sold.  The frosting on some of them had been melting in the sun, separating from the cakes and coating the underside of the plastic clamshell lids in which they were encased.

One old lady with a sweet tooth piled three of those mushy looking cakes into her bag and was sternly reprimanded by the truck guy.  Warned that they were only one to a customer, she was forced to put back the extras.  But then she surreptitiously (or so she thought) retrieved her extra cakes.  “Go home!” the truck guy yelled at her.  “I’m warning you, get out of here or I’m taking you off the list!”

The list again.  The importance of being “on the list” cannot be underestimated if you hope to supplement this month’s meals with some free food from the government.  Being removed from the list is nothing short of a disaster, as it means no billete and you go home empty-handed.

But as we pulled out of the parking lot, we saw that the woman was not to be deterred.  We noticed that she still had not left, hanging around in the hope for more.  And here comes the truck guy getting up in her face again.

When we unloaded our stash of canned fruit, veggies and tomato sauce onto our kitchen table, we were surprised to find two one-pound packages of frozen ground beef hidden in the bottom of the bag.  We used one of them right away in spaghetti sauce with a box of pasta that we had received in a drought relief package last week (Pastor Mom kindly prepared a vegetarian batch for me).

ground beef

Two days later, we brought my teenaged niece and her little one over to the bi-county food bank warehouse to sign up for a California program known as First Five.  Additional food is provided to poor parents of young children in the hope of giving them a better start in life.  The box she received contained some useful items such as apple juice and pasta, along with a number of inexplicable ones such as hot sauce and butterscotch chips.  It makes you wonder what they think little kids eat these days.

The food we receive when I stand on these lines, sometimes for hours, not only stretches our budget, but also allows us to share with the needy who constantly show up at the door of the church parsonage.  We are now at the end of the month, a time when many run out of food and out of luck.  Even if you know about the county, state and federal food distributions in this area, many of the poorest in our community have no means to get to them.  And even if you are eligible for Food Stamps (and too many don’t know that they are), it doesn’t help very much if there’s only a dollar and a half left on your EBT card and still a whole week left in the month.

So the elderly woman who is our next door neighbor came over and asked if we could help her with some food.  We packed pasta, sauce, soup, beans and canned fruit into a grocery bag for her.  Then it was Homeless Guy #3, and we made up some sandwiches for him.  A few days later, it was Homeless Guy #2, claiming that neither he nor his wife (with whom he no longer resides) had anything to eat.  We gave them ham, turkey and most of a loaf of bread.

Poor Homeless Guy #2.  The next day, he apparently fell off the wagon, yelled some choice words at the wrong people and was picked up by the cops for public intoxication.  He got out the next morning, which was fortuitous since he continues to be such a huge help with the labor necessary to repair the church.

Now he wants me to help him figure out some legal papers that he received in the mail.  It seems he has a lawsuit against the state over injuries he received during his last stint in prison. I told him he can come over with his documents and we can look them over together.

It hasn’t happened yet, however.  In the meantime, he was arrested on a probation violation and is currently serving ten days in the pokey.

 

 

Three Interviews

In each of the past three months, I have had to travel out of town for job interviews.  There was Orange County in April, Eureka in May, and Oregon this month.

The Oregon interview ended at three in the afternoon, at which time we immediately headed home to California.  At 11:00 the next morning, the employer called to inform me that another candidate had been selected to fill the position.  Wow, that was fast, I thought.  Although the vacancy was advertised to the public and drew applications from all over the western United States, who would have believed that the perfect person for the position was right there all along?  Amazingly, it’s true.  And so it was that the employer happily promoted one of its long-term employees into the managerial position.  Still, the employer felt the need to speak to me personally to let me know that I provided such excellent responses to the questions posed to me by the interview panel.

At the end of the Eureka interview, which was held on a Friday, the panel assured me that they expected to make a decision by the following Friday.  A week passed and I heard nothing.  Then two weeks passed, then three weeks.  Finally, just this Thursday, nearly a month later, I received a rejection letter via snail mail.  The purpose of the letter was to inform me that I have not been selected to move on to the oral interview, which would have been the next step in the hiring process.  Huh?  If I have not been selected for an oral interview, someone please tell me what all that talking was I did with the panel last month and why I spent all that money to travel to Eureka?  Clearly, one of us is losing our minds, and in this case, for a change, I don’t think it’s me.

As for the Orange County job, it would be correct to say that I have yet to be treated to the unmitigated pleasure of an oral interview.  We made the 16-hour round-trip in April so that I could take written examinations for two different vacancies advertised by this employer.  I did this with full awareness that, if I performed well enough on these tests, I might eventually be asked to lay out the funds for another trip to sit for an interview.  I took one test on Friday and the other on Monday, meaning that we had to pay for a hotel room over the weekend.  That little trip cost us more than five hundred dollars.  Now that two months have elapsed, I am pleased to report that I received an email from this employer two days ago:

Thank you for your recent participation in our Operations Manager I/II (Deputy Manager) recruitment.

Congratulations!  We are pleased to inform you that your name has been placed on the eligible list of qualified candidates.

The eligible list established from this recruitment will be used for current and future vacancies and will remain active until the list is exhausted or a new eligible list is established due to a new recruitment.  Please note that placement on the eligible list does not guarantee an interview.  Candidates will be referred based on the hiring department’s specific needs and requested criteria.  Should your name be referred, you will be contacted by the hiring department.

Again, congratulations!

So what do you think, folks?  Should I just pack it in and retire now?  I’ve been getting my ducks in a row, you know.  After all, I have my application in for Food Stamps, I’m obtaining some excellent experience standing in line for drought relief canned food and I am pleased to report that I recently earned five dollars by writing a 400-word article about packing moving boxes.

I think I’ll book my reservation for that beach villa in Aruba now.

The Welfare Office (Olive Garden Dreams)

Cal Fresh

The couple standing in line in front of me on the parking lot asphalt had their two children with them.  All of us were wilting in the summer heat as we waited for the truck carrying the food boxes to arrive.

Out of embarrassment, or possibly just boredom, the husband/father stared straight ahead, acknowledging no one.  He was totally checked out.  I could see that he’d rather have been just about anywhere else.  The girls, who looked to be about ten and seven years old, began fidgeting, not knowing what to do with themselves.  The older girl began poking and annoying the younger one, as the latter made a valiant effort to ignore her big sister.

The mother noticed that, about ten people ahead of her, snacks were being handed out to kids by blue-uniformed women staffing a table.  She stepped over there and quickly returned with a little plastic cup containing what looked like a tiny slice off the edge of a quesadilla.  “Here, eat it!” she commanded as she thrust it at her eldest daughter.  “No, I don’t want it!” whined the girl.  “Will you eat it?” she asked the younger girl, who immediately shook her head no.  “Well, then I’m eating it,” she announced, popping the bite-sized snack into her mouth.

“First time here?” I asked the mother in an effort to start a conversation.  She nodded and I took the opportunity to tell her about the USDA food distribution next week and which churches are giving out food baskets and where to get more drought relief boxes over in the next town.  “I’ll have to write this all down when I get home,” she said.  Having been passed this information by other people in other food lines, I was glad to be able to pay it forward.

But she really got excited when I told her about the expired bread giveaway to be held this afternoon.  “You hear that, girls?” she said, “The church right by our house is giving away bread today!”

“And bagels and yogurt and bananas and cake,” I added.  “Cake!” blurted out the older girl, the single syllable exploding from her mouth as if in disbelief at her good luck.  “Yogurt!” exclaimed her younger sister, no less thrilled at the prospect.  I’m guessing it had been quite a while since they had been able to indulge in their favorite foods.

“It’s really hard to feed everyone when you have two girls,” offered the mother, almost as an apology for her daughters’ reaction to my news.  “Oh, I bet,” I responded.  But the food truck had arrived and the line of hungry families began moving forward and the delivery guys began climbing up ladders and handing down twenty-five pound boxes of canned vegetables, rice, beans, spaghetti and peanut butter.

As I passed the snack table, I noticed that the SNAP ladies were working an open jar of peanut butter and had set three fresh peaches on display next to a sign announcing that the snack being handed out to the kids in line was peachy peanut butter pita pockets.  Say that three times fast.

A family with four kids in tow had gotten on line behind me, and one of the blue ladies stepped out from behind the table to offer PPBPPs to their little ones.  Meanwhile, my wife had pulled the car around closer to where the food truck was parked.  As I passed our car, I was most grateful for the bottle of water she handed me through the window.

As I approached the sign-in table, I was accosted by an employee who carried a clipboard and asked me whether I knew about the CalFresh benefits that are available.  “It’s what we call Food Stamps now,” she explained.  I told her my story about how I had applied online, only to be mailed a thick packet of forms that would make an attorney’s head swim.  “I can’t find half the documentation they’re asking for,” I admitted.  “And anyway, isn’t it true that you can’t qualify if you have a car?”

Having a car has nothing to do with qualifying for Food Stamps, she assured me.  With no income, my wife and I would likely qualify, she added.  She then encouraged me to call the county Health and Human Services Department (commonly known around here as “the welfare office”) and get set up with an advocate to help me.

When I returned home with my box of canned food, I took the worker’s advice and called the county.  The paperwork they had sent me had been sitting on the little table next to my laptop for a week, mocking me.  I had been ready to toss it in the trash.  True, we are living off our meager savings, but at least we still have some.  Aren’t Food Stamps for people who are totally broke?

Not necessarily, a case worker told me over the phone.  If that’s our only source of income, and we’re using our savings to pay our living expenses, then we should still qualify. My wife agreed with my sentiment that even twenty dollars a month would be a huge help.

The case worker then went on to explain that she would need copies of our driver’s licenses, Social Security cards, auto registrations, savings account statements, life insurance policies, unemployment exhaustion paperwork and proof of our residence in the county.  (“What, no stool sample?” quipped my wife.) I am grateful that my wife is extremely organized and was able to rustle up copies of all the documents we needed in just a few minutes.  A couple of hours later, she dropped me off at the welfare office to turn in our documentation in support of our application for Food Stamps.  Uh, I mean CalFresh.  Navigating bureaucracy requires the right terminology.  I’m learning (slowly).

I was pleasantly surprised to find that I only had to wait about five minutes to speak to a clerk.  Showing her our paperwork, I tried to explain that its appearances are deceiving.  Although it indicates that we have money, in reality we have no access to it.  I went on to elaborate that when I was laid off, my employer (probably illegally) took half my accrued vacation pay and stuck it in a health expenses savings account.  Even claiming hardship won’t allow us to get our hands on those funds.  A holding company will pay out dribs and drabs to doctors to take care of our office visit copays and lab work, but that’s it.  That’s when the clerk asked whether I am able to provide proof of my assertions.  “Call them,” I suggested, incredulous.  Do they think I am making this stuff up?

The clerk scanned each of the documents I provided, adding them to our file on her computer system.  I explained that we had to move in with my mother-in-law when I was laid off nine months ago and that I am getting exactly nowhere with my constant applying and interviewing.  “I’m sorry,” she replied.  Well, what else can she say?  I’m sure the poor beleaguered clerk has heard it all and then some.

She explained to me that it would take at least a month for a decision to be made on our application.  If further paperwork is needed, we will receive a denial letter, after which we can cure the deficiency by filing the missing documents, thereby reopening the case.  I thanked her and sat down near the entrance to await my wife’s return.

To kill time, I pulled out my phone and checked my email.  What I found was a coupon for $5 off dinner for two at Olive Garden.  If only.  I entered a wistful mood and, as I watched the people come and go at the welfare office, I began text-bombing my wife about my Olive Garden dreams.

Got an Olive Garden coupon for $5 off dinner.

I think I hear eggplant calling my name.

I thought I heard lasagna calling my name too, but I was wrong.  It was actually calling your name.

Ohhhh, oh, minestrone… how I love thee, minestrone…

And the breadsticks stand up and do a little dance around the salad bowl…

And the heavenly odor of grated parmesan reggiano wafts over the table…

And the spaghetti noodles swim in garlicky pools of tomato sauce…

About this time, my wife pulled up to the curb.  “We can’t go to Olive Garden!” was the first thing she said when I opened the car door.

Yeah, I know.  But I can dream, right?

Oh, and I think I know a couple with two little girls who would very much like to join us.

 

 

Oregon

Mount Shasta

I always have a hard time sleeping the night before a job interview.  This is particularly true when I am in a motel room rather than in my own bed, and even more so when the motel bed is hard as a rock.  I ended up watching a Weather Channel documentary on the solar system and another about rain until the wee hours.

In the morning, I made the mistake of bending over to put on my socks.  My back was having none of it.  Not after a night stretched out on a concrete rack.

I began my day on a positive note by checking my email and finding three rejection notices from employers awaiting my perusal.  One job was in the Midwest, one in the Northwest, and one here in California.

Today’s interview was conducted by a panel of four supervisors and managers.  Each candidate interviewed was asked the same eight questions so that the panel could compare and rate each person’s responses.  Pretty standard stuff for management positions.

At the end of the interview, someone on the panel always allows the candidate to ask any questions that he or she may have.  As usual, I had a few questions about the business.  As my questions were answered, it quickly became apparent that the position for which I was being interviewed was nothing like the job description advertised online.  I was convinced that going to the expense of this trip was worthwhile for a solid management position.  But it turns out that the employer is just looking for a first-line supervisor.  This is at least the third time that I have run into this problem.  Either employers are not being truthful in their advertising or I need to go back to school and bone up on my reading comprehension skills.

I doubt that I will be offered this position, but I will face a real dilemma if I am.  Is it worthwhile to relocate 250 miles away to take a demotion and a $20,000 pay cut from my previous position?  My initial reaction is that anything is better than churning out more and more job applications and standing on food lines.  But moving away from family to take a difficult job that I won’t enjoy for not nearly enough money doesn’t exactly bring a smile to my face.  At this point, however, I have no right to be picky.  I know I’ll have to suck it up and do whatever is necessary to support myself and my wife.

On the bright side, we enjoyed the cooler weather in Oregon.  As this particular location was up in the mountains, the temperature was about thirty degrees lower than it has been here in northern California.  It’s been many years since I lived in a place that has snowy winters, but I believe that change is a good thing.

And although the long drive up into the mountains was terribly boring, at least we enjoyed a lovely view of Mount Shasta on the way home.

This evening, I received an email from yet another employer regarding a managerial position that I had applied for online several months ago.  I’d like to share the majority of this email with my faithful readers:

Congratulations!  You have passed the test/competitive evaluation of your qualifications for DISTRICT MANAGER.

You have been placed in Group 3.  Your name will remain on the eligible list for one (1) year unless it is removed in accordance with our personnel rules.

Group 1 (95-100%)
Group 2 (90-94%)
Group 3 (85-89%)
Group 4 (80-84%)
Group 5 (75-79%)
Group 6 (70-74%)

We thank you again for your time and interest in our employment opportunities.

I may need your help in deciphering this memo, particularly since it appears from information gleaned at my interviews that my understanding of employer notices bears no resemblance to the facts of the situation.

It seems to me that I scored a grade of B on the online exam, meaning that two other groups of candidates get first dibs on this job.  Should all the candidates in the A+ group and the A group turn down job offers, I would then have the privilege of competing for the job with my fellow B-listers.  Should a year go by without the employer reaching us down on the B list, my name would fall off said list and I would have to start the process all over again.

Am I close?  Or do I have it all wrong?  It’s okay, you can show me the error of my ways.  I can take it.

Moving to Oregon for a demotion and a pay cut is starting to look better and better.

 

The Sally

I had called ahead and was told to come in at 9 a.m. but we arrived early.  Here, there were no queues.  We sat in the car and awaited signs of life.

About a quarter of nine, the side door was flung open and three women proceeded to lounge in the doorway.  Cigarettes came out and smoke rose as they chatted.  Initially, I thought that perhaps they had come out to set up tables for the incoming hordes.  Apparently, however, they were just sharing a few butts before clocking in.

I noticed one man waiting near the front entrance, and at two minutes to nine, I joined him.  “Good morning,” I greeted him and was pleased to find him a friendly chap.  He perched on the edge of a planter and I leaned against the building’s stucco façade as he told me his story.

He’s had a bad month, he confessed as he lit up a cigarette.  He explained that he has cancer, is homeless and has been mired in the mess of red tape that is the benefits system.  I’m sorry to hear that, I responded.  I never know what to say when people tell me how things really are.  Expressing regret or offering sympathy somehow seems so lame in the face of troubles on such a huge scale that I cannot begin to imagine the feel of the experience.  Placed in such perspective, my own problems seem minuscule indeed by comparison.

Despite everything he is going through, this gentleman maintained a positive attitude.  (You’re trying to teach me a lesson today, Lord, now aren’t you?)  Things will improve on the first of July, my companion assured me, which is when he expects to receive his very first Social Security check.  Disability and widower’s benefits, he explained.

When checking up on one of our relatives the other day, she texted us back to say that she feels frustrated, confused, exhausted and alone, and that tomorrow promises only more of the same.  I think she needs to meet this man who I encountered at the door of the Salvation Army first thing on a Monday morning.

I asked the guy what kind of food he’s been able to get here.  Oh, peanut butter and jelly, he told me — bread, cans of beans and stuff.  Rice, although he has no means of cooking it.  I told him that I was glad about the bread.  “We need bread,” I told him, but before I could describe the debacle of picking up pounds of expired bread products and then having to give it all way when our freezer broke down, he stood up, tried the door and found that it had been unlocked.  He held the door open for me.

“Let me follow you,” I protested.  “I don’t know where I’m going.”

“Neither do I,” he called over his shoulder, barreling straight down the main corridor as if he had been here a hundred times.  I watched an employee take him into an office.  A second employee popped out of an office on the opposite side of the hall and asked how she could help me.  I explained that I had called in advance about the food distribution; she pointed to where I should wait.  I entered an empty conference room with a brochure rack containing a few leaflets about SNAP benefits, the Affordable Care Act.  Notices on the walls:  “We may refuse service to anyone!”  I sat down at a dirty table that appeared to have been marked up by countless crayons over the years.  Streaks of red, green, purple.  Ghosts of an endless stream of desperate mothers trying to keep their children occupied for a few minutes as they await the intake worker’s embarrassing questions and, eventually, their bag of peanut butter, jelly and bread.

An employee appeared in the doorway to retrieve me and I stepped into her office a few doors down.  It was a small office, neatly kept, with a blue carpet that must have been cleaned recently.  Faux wood grain desk, nearly empty but for a PC with a 17-inch monitor.  Not unlike the offices I occupied myself until not too long ago.

The worker was friendly, if a bit annoyed that I didn’t have my Social Security card with me.  I presented by driver’s license and my wife’s, recited our Social Security numbers.  She couldn’t verify them without Social Security cards, she informed me.  It’s okay for today, but if I ever come back, I needed to have our cards with me.  She handed me a Post-It note marked with the number 2 (food for two people) and sent me outside to the food pantry that opened onto the parking lot.  We probably could have obtained more food had I admitted that we are living with my mother-in-law, but I didn’t think it worth the effort.  After all, I didn’t have her Social Security card with me.

“Rice?” the employee asked me as he filled a paper bag with items from shelves in a closet-sized room while I stood in the doorway.

“Sure!” I said cheerily.  “We’ll be happy to eat whatever we get.”

“Oh, well, some people don’t like rice,” he said by way of explanation.  Yeah, I thought, and some are homeless and have no way of cooking it.

He thrust the full bag at me, loaf of Wonder Bread balanced on top, along with a list of area churches to which we could go for more food as we need it.  I thanked him and walked off to the car.  I really appreciated the list, particularly since the intake worker warned me that I am not to return to the Sally for at least four months.  My wife astutely quipped that four months is an awfully long time to go on one paper bag of groceries.

Running through the list, I noticed a church that I had not heard of and that appeared to be nearby.  We Googled directions and headed over there.

The place was a huge Catholic church and school that was comprised of multiple buildings.  We drove around through a couple of parking lots until we found someone to direct us.  The proper entrance turned out to require walking up a series of rickety metal ramps that appeared to have been installed for the benefit of wheelchair users.  As they clanged loudly with each step I took, I held the handrail and prayed that the ramp wouldn’t collapse beneath my feet.

There were forms to fill out.  There always are.  How much monthly income do you earn?  Zero.  How much monthly income does your wife earn?  Zero.  Who’s this other person you live with?  My mother-in-law.  And she has no income either?  She has Social Security.  Oh, well, that requires filling out another paper.  I had to text Pastor Mom for the specific information they wanted.

Two workers tag teamed me at the Catholic church food pantry.  Both of them had a bit of an attitude, but the woman was the worst of the two.  She spoke loudly and repeatedly interrupted me.  I wondered if she hailed from my native New York City.  “Hey, I’m from da Bronx, ya hee-yuh?” I wanted to say so badly.  But when you’re asking for charity, you keep your mouth shut.

Through an open door, I could see another worker unloading boxes of food onto already groaning shelves.  On the other side of the front counter were clothing bins marked for various sizes, stuffed with pants, shirts, blouses.  A long sign stretched across the wall behind the counter — a paraphrase of Matthew 25:35.  “For I was hungry and you gave me food; I was thirsty and you gave me drink; I was naked and you clothed me.”  The part about clothing was beginning to come loose from the wall, with one edge hanging off.

The Book of Matthew notwithstanding, we received no food from this church today.  Apparently, all the Catholic churches in the area are connected.  A quick phone call revealed that we had already received food from Mother Hubbard’s Cupboard earlier in the month.  We aren’t eligible again until July.

Ms. Loudmouth handed me a list of other food distribution points, boldly circling some items and underlining others three and four times by way of emphasis.  I explained that she is misinformed, that there is no food to be had at the food bank, that they are opening their warehouse to charitable organizations only, not to individuals.  Ms. L took offense that I contradicted her and had a staff member call the food bank immediately.  She returned triumphantly, indicating that her information had been confirmed.  “You’re saying the wrong thing!” she yelled.  “Don’t say ‘food.’  Say ‘brown bag!’  You have to say ‘brown bag!’”

My, my, apparently you have to know the secret password to obtain a bag of charity food these days.

Loudmouth suggested that I go to the Salvation Army.  I think she really wanted to tell me to go someplace else, but hey, there are some things you can’t say at a church.

I nearly told her that we had already been to the Sally today, but I stopped myself just in time.  I could see this was going nowhere.  Ms. L’s paper was now marked up to within an inch of its sorry life.  It looked like it had fallen into the hands of a maniacal toddler.  Her final sendoff was a recommendation that I go right back to the food bank and then head back to my own town where a church was offering a free lunch today.

We took the first part of Loudmouth’s advice and drove back over to the bi-county food bank.  I had called them on Friday for information after I heard rumors from my fellow queuers that there were churches where we can get food almost anytime.  This one does Mondays and Wednesdays!  That one does Tuesdays and Thursdays!

On the phone last week, the food bank volunteer confirmed that I could get no food there and suggested that I call the Salvation Army.  The Sally rebuffed me, suggesting that I call back the food bank.  “They’re the ones distributing the drought relief!”  I was informed.  “Anyone who’s affected by the drought can get food from them.  That’s all of us!  Look how the drought is raising the prices of food!”  I asked for a list of local churches distributing food.

We’re a church!” she informed me.  “Oh, I didn’t know,” I admitted.  “A lot of people don’t know,” she told me.

Considering that the Salvation Army is a church, I fully expected to have to sit through a church service this morning before I would be provided with any food.  Not at all.  I was in and out of there with a bag of food in just a few minutes.  The Catholic church is what took me forever and from whence I left empty-handed.

Back at the food bank, I was hoping that Barbara, the worker who helped me last time, would be around.  She wasn’t, and I ended up chatting with Shirley.  I told her that I needed a blue card so that I could attend the county and USDA food distributions.  They were still out of cards, she told me.  I then explained that I had been given a handwritten temporary card last time and that it had been confiscated at the “brown bag” food distribution.  Oh, don’t worry, she assured me, I’m on the list now.

The importance of being on “the list.”  The things you learn when you’re poor.

I ended up having a lengthy chat with Shirley, during which we discussed our respective families and she very kindly clued me in on the food programs for which my niece and her baby would be eligible.  Wednesday turns out to be the day to do this.  I promised to do my best to appear with my niece next Wednesday.  This Wednesday I have a job interview out of town, I explained.

Among the reasons that we need to do everything we can to stretch our remaining savings is the cost of traveling to job interviews.  Even if we take our own food, there is the cost of the hotel and goodness knows how many tanks of gas to get there and back.

Today, I received an email regarding a job I had applied for some time ago.  I had passed the initial screening, I was informed, and have been invited to come to Denver to sit for a two-hour written examination.  Those who score highest on the test will be invited back for interviews.  Well, we cannot afford to make the 2,200 mile round-trip to Denver even once, much less twice.  So I had to cross that job off my list, my hope for a phone interview dashed.

So tomorrow we head for a job interview in Oregon.  Although only 250 miles away, it’s still going to be an expensive trip.  But it’s a necessary expense.  After all, I’d much rather be working than standing in endless food lines.

Giveaway Bread

food box

On Friday, the man ahead of me in the food line began regaling a fellow queuer with stories of the local food bank’s largesse the day before.  “They were giving out huge packages of ribs and even hamburger!” he reported.  Having been there, I felt sufficiently knowledgeable to jump into the conversation.  I saw those frozen pork ribs, I said, but none were offered to me.  I guess I don’t have a big enough family.  I didn’t see any hamburger, though, I added.  Oh, you must have gotten one of those little packages of sausages then, he replied.  Actually, no, I responded.  We got a frozen chicken instead.

I haven’t seen much sharing of food at the government and charitable food distributions I’ve been attending.  Considering the warnings printed on the food boxes, I can only imagine that the powers that be wouldn’t look too kindly on recipients trading their cans of carrots for frijoles or their chicken for beef like third graders swapping an egg salad sandwich for a PB&J.  But what does get shared is even more valuable than the food itself:  Information.

It’s not always the easiest thing to learn where and when to go stand on line and what you’re likely to get if you do.  I received my initial information from the bi-county food bank, but there are things they don’t tell you.  And probably a few things they don’t even know.  Keeping your ears open for snippets of conversation while you’re standing in line for hours is where you get the real skinny, the underground intel.

And so it was that, while waiting for the trucks to arrive at the USDA food distribution, I overheard a conversation about yet another handout that was to occur that very day, at 5 p.m. at a local church.  When I got home, I mentioned the name of the church and asked Pastor Mom whether she had ever heard of it.  She had, but I really wasn’t sure that I had gotten the name right.  Frankly, I didn’t trust myself very much on this one.  Who gives away food on a Friday evening?

I looked up the church online and tried calling them several times.  No answer.  Leave a message for the pastor.  Beep!

As the location is only about two miles from home, my wife suggested that it might be worthwhile to go over there and see whether anything was going on.  When we arrived, we could see that some type of line was forming.  I got on the end of it and soon learned that this was the bread line.  Not in the traditional sense, as in a bread line where the poor can receive a hot meal, but the bread line for real — the place where they hand out, well, bread.

My mother always taught me that bread was filler, the way to extend a home-cooked meal cheaply and the way that restaurants fill you up so that they can serve smaller entrée portions.  Well, bread may be cheap, but it’s not free.  You may line up for free peanut butter, free rice and free cans of beans, but you don’t often see bread on that menu.  Unless you come here, that is.

This place was bread heaven!  And fast, too.  Walking down a path from the parking lot to the side entrance of the church, I found the line moving right along.  Within five minutes, I had reached the worker standing in the doorway.  He handed me a tied-up plastic bag containing I knew not what (it turned out to be cartons of yogurt), then reached back and loaded up my arms with a package of bite-size strudel and another of glazed donuts.  I knew my wife would be happy.  She has been craving donuts lately.

I noticed that some of the people ahead of me had walked away with small sheet cakes covered in white frosting.  I suppose the blank tops of those cakes had been destined for the Bakery Department to pipe “Happy Birthday Irma” onto in pink and green script, but never made it that far.

I thanked the church volunteer and began walking back to the car when another helpful worker called out to me.  Hey, he said, go over to the tables and get some bread!  What I thought was a staging area for the workers turned out to be tables loaded down with items that were free for the taking.  With my arms already full, I had to call for backup.

I texted my wife, who walked over from the car and relieved me of my packages.  I then began to peruse the contents of the many long tables set out on the grass toward the rear of the church.  A few of them were staffed, but most were not.

At one end were boxes of bananas.  Just like the bananas at all the other food distributions, these were brownish.  Pass.  I’m in no position to be picky, but neither my wife nor I can tolerate mushy bananas.

At the bread tables, I picked up a package of 24 dinner rolls, another of 24 sandwich rolls, some pita bread, a bag containing two long loaves of soft French bread, a package of six bagels and a loaf of wheat bread.  Other than at a supermarket, I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many bread products in one place.  I was able to pick and choose, checking the ingredients for items that contained neither eggs nor dairy.  I found plenty that fit the bill.

So what’s the catch?  This was not day-old bread.  This was days old bread.  Most of it appeared to be castoffs from Save Mart and FoodMaxx.  The freshest items were four days past their expiration dates.  The majority of the bread, however, was eleven days past expiration.  And there were even a few items that were three to four weeks past expiration.  I checked everything for mold and found none, testament to the quantity of deadly poisons, er, “preservatives” that the manufacturers use.

Still, I knew that at this stage, my bread haul would likely turn green faster than I could say “calcium propionate” if I didn’t get it into the freezer post haste.  The small freezer attached to the refrigerator in the parsonage doesn’t hold much and was already pretty full, thanks to the turkey and chicken we had received earlier in the week.  There is another combination refrigerator-freezer out in the church fellowship hall, and that’s where we deposited most of the bread that we brought home.

By unfortunate happenstance, the fellowship hall refrigerator-freezer broke down the very next day.  Everything started to thaw.  The meat that was out there we brought back to the parsonage and stuffed into our kitchen freezer.  We began the process of giving most of the bread away.  What remained went in the trash.

I held onto the two loaves of French bread, some of which I ate with margarine and some of which I turned into sandwiches over the weekend.  My wife and Pastor Mom tried small slices, but didn’t like it at all.  Well, what can I say?  Giveaway bread is not going to be fresh.  It is what it is and I plan to continue eating it until it is gone or the mold spots begin to appear, whichever comes first.

Oh, and we ended up throwing away the glazed donuts.  My wife reports that they were totally stale.