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.