Home(less) for the Holidays

gifts

Christmas Eve seems like a good time for an update on the homeless guys who we’ve been trying to assist here at the parsonage.  I am pleased to say that things are starting to look up.

Homeless Guy #3 surprised us all when he entered a local residential program that focuses on leading a godly life, staying clean of alcohol and drugs, and contributing to support of its mission by performing carpentry, roofing and other types of home improvement work in the community in exchange for donations.  We had been feeding #3 whenever he showed up at our door, despite our awareness of his penchant for fighting off demons with the aid of substances that we’d rather not know about.  We’d see him sleeping on a friend’s porch or out in the open or occasionally sharing a tent with Homeless Guy #1.  Every time we’d give him a couple of sandwiches, a bag of chips and a bottle of water, #3 would tell us stories about how he planned to turn his life around by entering a residential program.  We didn’t believe him for a minute, as his ongoing pattern of behavior led us to believe that he was merely telling us what we wanted to hear.  Praise God for small miracles.  I only hope that he’ll be able to make a decent life for himself once he completes the program.

Homeless Guy #2 is homeless no more, or at least for now.  Befriended by our young nephew, who calls #2 “uncle,” they eventually became housemates.  They share a love for music, both of them being guitar pickers with golden voices.  #2 does odd jobs (painting, carpentry, yard work and the like) and receives Food Stamps (known as CalFresh in our neck of the woods), so is able to contribute to their household.  Other things, I prefer not to think about.  I am all too cognizant of the penchant the two of them share for the toke and the six pack.

As for Homeless Guy #1, he doesn’t come around to the parsonage since we had it out with him and let him know that he is no longer welcome here.  We still see him wandering around the area, walking on the side of the road, going in and out of the dollar store down the street.  He wears a monitoring ankle bracelet that was a condition of his release from jail.  We’ve had some cold nights recently (at least by California standards), and we’ve noticed extra layers covering his tent.  Off in the distance this morning, we heard him yelling and cussing and throwing a fit, as is his wont.  He must have gotten into it with his mom and sister.  It wasn’t long before the sheriffs showed up.  Later, we saw him walking down the road again.  I guess the cops gave him a pass as a Christmas present.

While substance abuse, mental illness and even personal lifestyle choice are frequently cited as the primary causes of homelessness (particularly among Republican congressmen), I challenge you to take the time to actually talk to a homeless person and learn his or her story.  It won’t take long before you realize that the primary cause of homelessness is poverty.  To state it in the bluntest terms possible:  It takes a certain amount of money to pay rent.  Either you have it or you don’t.  And if most of the little money you have goes toward food, medicine, clothes for your kids and maybe bus fare, you’re probably not going to have enough to pay for rent and utilities as well.  Many get by, at least for a time, by robbing Peter to pay Paul.  We have neighbors in our community who survive dark nights and empty refrigerators because they’re behind on the electric bill and it’s preferable to at least have a roof over your kids’ heads.  There are those who endure freezing nights without heat and scorching summers without air conditioning for the same reason.  Here in California, our summers frequently involve weeks on end of temperatures over 100°F.  Cooling centers open up in public buildings in an effort to minimize the heat-related deaths we experience among the elderly and the young every year.

There is a woman in our neighborhood who resides in heavily subsidized housing.  She pays only $11 per month in rent.  And yet, there have been a couple of times when we learned that she had run out of food.  Life on a fixed income is a special kind of hell.

Many of us live a hand-to-mouth existence, struggling along paycheck to paycheck.  One unanticipated expense, one illness or automotive breakdown, can send us straight over the edge, into the abyss of homelessness.  Writhing on the precipice like a mouse caught in a trap, we are susceptible to those who prey on the poor, such as the payday loan places, the rent-a-centers and the convenience stores that profit off of inflated prices and cater to those who lack a car to drive into town.

Despite the abominable rhetoric of Congress during the unemployment debates of the past year, there are relatively few who fall into unemployment and homelessness as a result of sloth and lethargy.  Most of us go down screaming all the way.  And once we’ve fallen down the rabbit hole, it is next to impossible to climb back out.  You can’t find or keep a job if you don’t have a stable address and a place to bathe regularly.  Destroyed credit ratings and lack of first month’s rent, last month’s rent and security deposit may lead to a protracted period of sleeping in a homeless shelter, under a bridge or over a heating grate.  Difficult economic times have always helped to draw families closer together; pooling of resources can make the difference between extended family members having a roof over their heads or becoming homeless.  Too many people, however, have no family who they can rely on when the going gets tough.  Here in America, we live in a culture that celebrates individualism and views the nuclear family as the sitcom ideal.  Anything less reeks of failure.  We all want to do our own thing, unencumbered by aunts or uncles or grandchildren occupying spare bedrooms and sleeping on couches and making messes and not cleaning them up.  If drugs or alcohol or mental illness brought on by a history of abuse is involved, the situation is often rendered impossible, leading to homelessness.

My boss and I have had some really good conversations while standing at the tall picture window situated at the end of our row of cubicles.  (Next week will be his last with our agency and I will miss him.)  Several of those have been about homelessness.  With our office located high above downtown Sacramento, he has been able to point out the spot where his homeless guy usually hangs out.  He tries to stop to talk with his homeless friend for at least a few minutes each day.  This is a man, my boss tells me, who has been sleeping outdoors for 22 years now.  Even so, he recently told my boss that he is hopeful that his time without a home will soon come to an end.  He just has a feeling, he related, that good things are just around the corner and that something will arise that will allow him to finally have a home after nearly a quarter of a century without one.

Indeed, hope is always the last thing to die.  For when even that is gone, when all hope has vanished, we truly have nothing left but the blackness of despair.  I like to think that hope figures somewhere in the lessons of Christmas.  For hope recognizes the possibility of a better tomorrow, whether it be through the fulfillment of ancient prophesy or through taking action in our local communities toward ensuring housing for all.

Hope is sending off a letter to Santa Claus at the North Pole with the conviction that, if I’m very, very good, he might come down the chimney with all the desires of my heart on Christmas Eve.  Hopeless is knowing that, no matter how good you try to be, you will never be deserving of anything but lumps of coal.  And so, on this Christmas Eve, I put it to you that entirely too many of us fall into this latter category.

Yesterday, we had our annual toy giveaway here at the church, courtesy of an area Spanish-speaking congregation.  While carols played through a sound system, hot dogs were cooked and passed out as parents and their children lined up to receive what may be their only Christmas gifts this year.  Each child who showed up received several age-appropriate toys, while food boxes were given out to the parents.  All of the gifts were donated by generous businesses and individuals.

We have the naysayers, sure.  When I point out that families began gathering at 7:30 am for the 11:00 giveaway, leaning against the church façade, bundled up against the cold, someone always points out that most of these families are not impoverished, that they’re just trying to get something for nothing.  That we are suckers whose generosity is being taken advantage of.  As I think about this, I am reminded of a saying that my mother used to throw at us when, as kids, we became unduly cynical:  “Don’t throw out the baby with the bath water.”  I laugh now at how old-fashioned this sounds, but there is a truth to it.  There will always be sharpies out there, fraudsters who care about no one but themselves and who, to paraphrase Billy Joel, will take what they’re given as long as it’s free.  For me at least, this will never be a reason to throw in the towel.  The only control we have is over our own behavior.  We have no control over what anyone else does.  The fact that there is evil in the world is not a valid excuse for refusing to be the good in the world.  And as for those who characterize us as bleeding heart do-gooders, I can only say “why don’t you come join us?”

Of course, we are not the only bastions of generosity in our little town.  Far from it.  There’s the Salvation Army, for example.  The Sally had collected hundreds of toys to give away to local kids right before Christmas.  Unfortunately, they stored those toys in a vacant storefront next to a supermarket.  Some malefactors discovered this fact, broke in and cleaned them out on Sunday night.

But for several hundred kids in our community, Santa arrived a day early.  They provided the hope; generous donors provided its fulfillment.  If we are to banish homelessness for good, we must rely on a similar model:  The hopes of the have-nots fulfilled by the largesse of the generous.

So where do we start?  Whose responsibility is it to ensure that each of us has a home?  I submit to you that it is everyone’s responsibility.  In Yolo County, just down the road from here, the local government implemented a ten-year plan to end homelessness in the county.  They report that they are well on the way to achieving this goal.  Other localities insist that they haven’t the resources to devote to a project of such dimensions and must rely on the federal and state governments and the generosity of private donors.  Meanwhile, Congress cites finite resources and too many hands clambering for a handout.  The churches, they say, will have to take up the slack.

Now that I have lived at a church for a year, I am able to appreciate how this zeitgeist trickles down to the immediate needs of the community.  As a local church, there is seldom a time when we are not virtually broke.  We are a tiny church, and despite generous donations on Sundays and at other times, there is never enough available to do all the work we’d like to do here in the community, much less to make contributions to worthy causes elsewhere.  With the help of other churches, we are able to do things like hold an annual toy giveaway or run a weekly food distribution.

What it comes down to, of course, is that no man is an island.  We are all in this together, popular ideas about individualism notwithstanding.  We are our brother’s keepers, whether we choose to ignore this responsibility or respect it.  We have to do it together, though.  Yes, we need the support of Congress.  Yes, we need the contributions of the state and county governments, the tireless efforts of our elected representatives who create programs that provide the neediest among us with housing and food.  And, yes, we need the churches and the generosity of businesses and individuals who provide us with turkeys and canned goods and gift certificates.

None of us can do this alone, but together, and with the blessings of God, anything is possible.  We can bring hope to the hopeless and the homeless.

Merry Christmas, everyone.  May your days be merry and bright.

The Underground Economy

If you’re interested in the effects of long-term unemployment and the ways that out-of-work people manage to get by, I highly recommend the Longreads selection that was Freshly Pressed this past week:  “Mango, Mango! A Family, a Fruit Stand and Survival on $4.50 a Day.”  Douglas Haynes, whose piece was originally published in Orion magazine, takes us through a day in the life of families who eke out a living by selling snacks in the squalor of Managua, Nicaragua’s sprawling Mercado Oriental.  While some of the tiny businesses that set up folding tables are licensed, most are not.  With so many thousands of stands cropping up and disappearing daily, selling everything imaginable, the government can’t even begin to keep track.  For most of these mom and pop entrepreneurs, the profits are barely enough to feed their families.

In Nicaragua, as in the United States, working “under the table” means that nothing is put into the government’s established economic institutions and nothing is taken out of them.  These are people who work without paying taxes into the public coffers and without the ability to draw social security benefits once they are no longer able to work.  And, as Haynes point out, they suffer all the disadvantages of the self-employed — no paid vacation, no sick leave, no health insurance.  Still, in societies in which there are tens of thousands of people out of work, it is a way to survive.

Several years ago, I read an excellent book about residents of the South Side of Chicago who provide goods and services to the community on street corners, in alleyways, out of parking lots and abandoned buildings.  In Off the Books, author Sudhir Venkatesh refers to this phenomenon as “the underground economy.”  Operating in the shadows, these informal businesses fill a void in that they provide a way to obtain desired goods and services in areas that may be underserved due to a deteriorating economic establishment in the wake of poverty, crime and the participation of “legitimate” business owners in white flight.

In the public eye, the underground economy is often associated with illegal activity.  Indeed, criminal enterprises, such as prostitution or the sale of drugs, necessarily remain outside of the mainstream.  But the fact that they’re not counted by the government doesn’t make them any less a part of our economy.  As long as there are those willing to pay cash or barter for these goods and services, there will be enterprising folks willing to evade the law to sell them.  I think of when I lived on Broad Street in downtown Hartford, where cars would slowly approach each other from opposite directions and stop for just a moment, in broad daylight right in front of the brownstone I called home, to make their exchanges through open windows.

However, a significant part of the underground economy consists of legal activity, such as the sale of sliced watermelon, bottles of Coke and fried platanos in Managua or the automotive repair and oil change businesses that operate out of back alleys in Chicago.  In an economy in which there aren’t enough jobs to go around, the point of such efforts is to earn a dollar or two in profit to allow one to get through another day — to put some kind of food on the table for the family, even if it’s just rice and beans in Nicaragua or peanut butter and jelly in the United States.

Indeed, it’s sad to say that unemployment is starting to make the United States look more and more like Latin America or Africa.  With a large segment of our population descending into third world conditions, it’s no wonder that the Occupy movement railed so mightily against the “one percent” just a few years ago.

In most other parts of the world, the “underground economy” goes by the name “System D.”  The “D” stands for the French term la débrouillardisme, which is most often translated as “resourcefulness,” although that word fails to capture the true nuance of the French.  The original phrase embodies some combination of “schemes to get by,” “living by one’s wits,” “knowing how to get around the system” and one of my favorite terms from back in the 1970s, “gettin’ over on the man.”  In France, to say that someone is très débrouillard is an expression of high admiration.  It means that you are able to figure out a way to get what you need, even when the odds are stacked against you, wink, wink.

I have come to realize that, here in the United States, System D takes on numerous forms, including learning how to work the system and learning how to live outside it.  Some combination of these is what enables the unemployed to keep going without a steady paycheck.  For example, it is perfectly legal for a person to earn a certain amount of money while drawing Food Stamps.  Your EBT card will rarely feed the family until the end of the month; even if you can supplement it with some canned goods from the local food bank or the occasional dumpster dive, that isn’t going to help if your kid needs a pair of shoes.  So the unemployed frequently supplement whatever kind of benefits they are receiving by selling goods or services on the side.  This could mean anything from setting up a table at a swap meet to babysitting to fixing things as a handyman.  Haynes describes bus drivers who pay a man a few cents to shout out the bus route number in the crowded marketplace.  Such informally obtained income is generally taxable, but of course, most people don’t bother declaring it.

Further strengthening the underground economy, those who find themselves in poverty often exchange good will by patronizing each other.  “I know a guy who knows a guy” is what everyone wants to hear.  And when there’s not enough money to pay the guy, there’s always barter.  Change the oil in my car and I’ll bake you some pies.  Venkatesh mentions Chicago shop owners who can’t afford a security guard and instead “hire” a homeless person to sleep in their tiny storefronts at night.

Understanding how the underground economy works in one’s community often makes it possible for the poor to get hold of the things they need.  The main thing, of course, is that you don’t ask too many questions.  Back in New York, I remember that there were always guys who knew how to get stuff that “fell off a truck.”  The retired guy who might be willing to fix your leak or the out-of-work teacher who can tutor your kid probably doesn’t have ads in the Yellow Pages (although, these days, they might have one on Craigslist).  It’s very much a word of mouth thing.  Here in our little relatively rural community, many people have little gardens where they grow various things — could be cucumbers or cantaloupes or cannabis, you never know.

I think of the three homeless guys who we’ve tried to help out here at the church.  Homeless Guy #1 is in jail, awaiting trial.  His needs are being provided for by the judicial system.  Homeless Guy #2 has done a lot of couch surfing and has now found a place to stay for a month or so.  Sometimes he works as a day laborer or fix-it guy or painter.  Other times, he doesn’t, particularly if there’s alcohol to be had.  He figures out ways to trade his services for whatever he needs.  Homeless Guy #3 sleeps on someone’s porch or under a tree, and begs sandwiches at the door of the parsonage when his Food Stamps run out.

His EBT was replenished yesterday, so we weren’t surprised to see him walking along the road with a full plastic bag from the local dollar store this afternoon.  When he passed by the panhandler who stands at the freeway entrance with the “homeless and hungry” sign, we saw him give the guy some money.

It’s funny how those of us who have the least are often the most generous.

 

On Blogging About Homelessness

I’m not a news junkie, I don’t have a Facebook feed and my favorite flavor of ice cream is not Heavenly Hashtag.  In some respects, I feel as if I embody my generation’s version of my parents’ refusal to text message.

Blogging is the medium for which I feel affinity, both in the writing and in the reading.  I find myself exposed to many more viewpoints in the blogosphere than are presented to me by CNN or Fox News.  I try to remain at least minimally conversant with the issues of the day, which seem to change every few seconds, not unlike the electronic billboard at Shaw and Blackstone in Fresno that flips through a half dozen ads before the light turns green.  The Malaysia Airlines twin tragedies —  the plane that vanished in the Indian Ocean and the one that was shot down over Ukraine.  Missiles and murders in Gaza and the West Bank.  The execution of James Foley.  The drought here in California.

Mike Brown.

And yes, even the hullaballoo over the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, as petty as that may seem in comparison to the above.

In reading the comments on a blog post about the tragedy in Ferguson, I sat up and noticed when one commenter accused another of wanting a soapbox rather than a discussion.  After thinking about this, I realized that both are essential elements of good blogging.  At least for myself, I know I want both a soapbox and a discussion.  Yes, I appreciate the opportunity to report on events as seen through my own eyes and the partiality of my own filters.  The best part, however, is the discussion that ensues, the comments that challenge me, encourage me to stretch my thought processes and help me to see contrasting viewpoints and approaches that I could never begin to imagine on my own.

I like to think that my commenters help me to improve my writing in that they encourage me to consider multiple angles rather than merely committing my raw thoughts to pixels.  While inflammatory remarks do have their place in the pantheon of rhetoric, my commenters provide appropriate checks and balances that often cause me to pause and use the backspace key more than I did, say, a year ago.  They give me a reason to take time out to think about how my words will affect those who read them.

Nevertheless, I am sometimes way off base, and I am grateful to my commenters for setting me straight.  At times, my shortcoming is in the realm of making assumptions that may not be apparent to readers.  My understanding of how something works may be very different from your understanding of how it works, particularly if, although brought together by the digital world, we are widely separated by culture and geography.

I think about readers like Belle, who have, in my opinion, provided some of the most insightful comments in this space.  In her comment yesterday, for example, she asks why I haven’t pursued various enumerated avenues in my efforts to rejoin the workforce.  In an “I could have had a V8!” moment, I had to smack my forehead at the realization that there is so much back story that I have never adequately explained.  I have fallen victim to the fallacy of assuming that everyone else knows what I know.

And then there are the blessings bestowed upon me by fellow chroniclers such as The Art Bag Lady, who yesterday went toe to toe with me on her own blog.  She pointed out a number of my prejudices in writing about homelessness, including conflicting opinions that I have expressed and things that I can’t possible appreciate, never having been homeless myself.  Aside from being deeply honored by her lengthy critique, I genuinely appreciate the opportunity to benefit from insights born of working with the homeless regularly and of actually having been homeless, both of which are outside of my personal experience.

I think also of Dennis Cardiff’s blog, Gotta Find a Home, which consists almost exclusively of transcriptions of his conversations with the homeless of his Canadian city.  In at least one respect, Dennis has succeeded where I have failed.  He is an excellent listener; he allows the homeless to tell their stories in their own words.  By contrast, I don’t spend a lot of time just listening to the homeless individuals whom we serve through our ministry in this community.  They come to the door of the parsonage seeking help with a particular need, and I enjoy doing whatever I can to help fill that need.  Biblically, I believe this is called “standing in the gap.”  Ezek. 22:30  I have to laugh, because this is such a “male” thing.  It seems we always want to solve someone’s problems rather than taking time to just listen.  A lot of us men only feel satisfied when we have actually done something, taken some sort of affirmative action.  Unlike many of the women in our lives, we tend to forget that being a listening ear is an action, too.  And that sometimes it is exactly what is needed.

So here in the parsonage, we make some sandwiches, pack canned food and pasta into grocery bags and start thinking about places to stay the night and residential treatment programs and who needs a ride to where.  But dare I suggest that such pat solutions close more doors than they open?

Just as blogging provides us with a forum (a soapbox and a discussion), so does lending an understanding ear and a sympathetic shoulder provide an empowering forum to the homeless.  Listening more and speaking less provides a voice to the voiceless.  It makes the invisible visible. And it allows them to tell the rest of the world about the abuse they suffered as children, the odds that have been stacked against them from the very beginning, and the lack of viable choices that has pervaded their entire lives.

And perhaps I would be less prone, as The Art Bag Lady points out, to alternate between empathy and irritation if I were to stop telling it as I see it and allow the homeless to tell it like it really is.  If for once I would just shut up and listen.

Parasol

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The food line in front of the church on the other side of town extends from one end of the parking lot to the other.  This is the monthly food distribution in our small locality, a combined effort of the regional food bank and a state grant to the county.  You have to be signed up in advance to get food, a process that includes income and residence verification.  Yet every month, some people come join the party even though they’re not signed up.  Not only do these folks hold up the line for everyone else, but they provide a distinct element of drama when they begin yelling, crying or otherwise throwing tantrums.  We all get to hear about their disabilities, their children, their lack of transportation.  The workers try to do the best they can to accommodate their needs.  You don’t have a car to get to the food bank?  Sure, we’ll come to your house with the paperwork for you to fill out.  Be sure to have a copy of your Social Security check, rent receipts and recent utility bills.  No, we can’t give you any food until you complete the paperwork.  They’re coming to audit us this month and we’ll lose our grant.  That’s when the wailing usually begins.  “What am I going to feed my kids tonight?”  A worker hands her some bananas and a loaf of bread.  Everyone else online fidgets and rolls their eyes.  Why can’t they get their act together like the rest of us?

You can plan on waiting in line in the hot sun for an hour and a half to four hours, depending on how early you arrive and how many people show up.  Get there too late and you’ll be summarily told “Sorry, we’re all done for today.”

We try to occupy ourselves while we wait.  One woman repeatedly scolds her three little kids in Spanish.  The young couple in line in front of me take selfies with their phones.  The woman directly behind me sits in her wheelchair and sets up a large blue umbrella as a parasol against the sun that beats down on all of us.  “I can’t be out in the sun with the medication I’m taking,” she explains when I praise her ingenuity.  Neither can I, I think silently.  Note to self:  Buy parasol.

With my water bottle beside me, I sit in my metal folding chair, borrowed from the church fellowship hall.  When the line moves, I stand up and move the chair an inch forward along the sidewalk to avoid the wrath of the impatient lady in the wheelchair behind me.  I think she wants to poke me with her parasol.  When we run out of sidewalk and dump out into the parking lot near the food bank’s truck, I fold up the chair and text my wife to come get it and return it to the car.  There are still five people ahead of me, however, including two who haven’t signed up and are making a scene.  I can barely stand on my feet, so as soon as I get near the truck, I lean against it and then sit on the bumper.  This is a no-no, but it’s either that or fall down.  My poor wife, who has been dying to use the rest room for some time, has walked to a nearby barber shop to borrow their facilities.  As the bags and boxes of food are handed down to me from the truck, I set them on the ground where I can keep an eye on them until my wife gets back and can help me transport them to the car.  I know from past experience that if I take one load to the car, the rest of the food will be gone upon my return.  No one will know what happened to it, and it will be my fault, sorry.

Later, I will tell my little grandniece about my adventures on the food line.  She stares intently into my eyes as if she understands what I am saying.  She will be two years old next month.

We carry the packages in from the car and cover the kitchen table and counters with boxes and cans as we start to break down the government’s largesse.  Some of it will go to my niece to help with the little one — juice boxes, raisins, whatever meat and fruit she thinks her daughter will eat.  The rest of the meat and baked goods go in the freezer.  Cans and boxes are divided into what we will use and what we will give to others.  Our stuff goes on the open shelves in the kitchen, the rest of it into the “give-away box” in one of the cabinets.  This way, when folks come to the door of the parsonage needing more than a sandwich and a drink, we are all ready to make up a bag of food for them.  We always make up a bag for the elderly woman who lives on the other side of the fence.

There are always a few items that we still have to buy at the store.  Fresh bread, milk for my grandniece, tofu and hummus and other vegan stuff for me.  Almond milk.  Ice cream if we’re feeling lavish.  We try to wait for when things are on sale, adjusting our purchases accordingly.  We try to always have extra lunch meat and bread on hand to make sandwiches for the homeless.

The Food Stamp money on our EBT card never lasts until the end of the month, but we do what we can to make up the difference.  I might get a $100 check for some freelance writing assignments.  My wife will get a few bucks for babysitting.  Pastor Mom is on a fixed income but is always kicking in extra money.

With the help of family and God, we’re making it.

 

The Rules

Today was supposed to be box pickup day at the office of our local Headstart preschool program.  This is where families in our community can go on specified days of the month to obtain free boxes of nonperishable “drought relief” food.

To fill in those of you who reside in other parts of the nation or the world, California has been experiencing an unprecedented drought that has caused the water levels in reservoirs, lakes and rivers to drop to record lows.  We have been doing our best to water the rose bushes as well as the pretty flowers planted just outside the parsonage door, but the church lawn is starting to turn brown.  We are permitted to water only on specified days and between particular hours.  Today was a watering day, so we were able to turn on the sprinklers for a couple of hours and even allow our little grandniece to run through the garden hose spray and get soaked.

However, our minor inconveniences are nothing compared to what California’s farmers are experiencing.  Even as the price of gasoline has started to come down a bit, the price of food has been steadily rising due to shortages caused by lack of water and the resulting importing of foodstuffs from distant states.  Hence, drought relief food boxes.  Pasta, tomato sauce, canned veggies and fruit, peanut butter.

Today, however, there were no drought relief food boxes to be had.  Apparently, the regional food bank’s stock has been depleted.  There won’t be more until September.  And Headstart says they will no longer be able to distribute the free food anyway.  I called the food bank and they told me to call back in September.  They don’t yet know where the new food distribution point will be.

Returning home in the car, my wife and I started discussing Homeless Guy #3 and his request for a ride to a residential placement program.  He’s done this before, said my wife, and he has no intention of going anywhere.  My wife, who has the most incredible gift of discernment of anyone I have ever met, turned out to be completely correct.  #3 didn’t show up for a ride today.  So what was all that palaver last night?  Just his regular tactic of telling Pastor Mom what he thinks she wants to hear so that we’ll give him food.  I don’t really understand this, as we’d feed him in any event.  But I guess that’s how his mind works.

I told my wife that I’m actually glad it worked out this way, since the residential program isn’t accepting new intakes right now and I don’t know what we’d have done if #3 had been in earnest.  There’s another area program he could have gone to, my wife said, but he’s not interested in going anywhere.  Why?  Because he doesn’t want to follow rules.  And every residential treatment program has those.

I don’t know whether Homeless Guy #3’s inability to follow rules is a product of his drinking and drugging (and the long-term effects of those practices on his brain) or whether residential program proscriptions against alcohol and drugs themselves constitute the rules he chooses not to follow (whether due to his perceived need to self-medicate or just his fear of leaving behind the comfort zone of his destructive behavior patterns).

But I have come to realize that, whether he is aware of it or not, #3 has made a choice to reject society’s rules just has he has made a choice to be homeless.  As I am famous for wearing my heart on my sleeve, I tend to see the homeless as victims who ended up in their sad predicament through no fault of their own.  However, as a fellow blogger recently pointed out, it’s complicated.  Homelessness was the only option left for some; others had more than one choice, with homelessness being the best option remaining open to them.  Better than being in a physically, sexually or emotionally abusive relationship.  Better than staying at a shelter where one is exposed to assault and rape and one’s few possessions are likely to be stolen.  Or, perhaps, better than getting thrown out due to one’s unwillingness to follow the rules.

Logic would dictate that we should withhold our sympathies from those who have rehabilitative options that could reintegrate them into the mainstream of society, but choose to forego those options due to “the rules.”  Every aspect of life has rules, we say, from the rule that you must raise your hand to ask a question in class (I know, I’ve been watching too much Sesame Street with the little squirt) to the traffic light rule that “red on top means you gotta stop, green down below means you better go.”

After all, we don’t want everyone in class shouting out at once, nor do we want deadly traffic collisions resulting from cars entering an intersection from every direction simultaneously.  Rules are designed to promote the orderly functioning of society. 

Or are they?  I often found myself shaking my head in amazement when middle-aged men and women in my graduate school classes would endure the indignity of raising their hands as if they were in kindergarten.  I think of Congress, where our senators and representatives follow the rules of parliamentary procedure.  They may ask the chair for permission to take the floor for three minutes before yielding to the gentleman from Minnesota, but they don’t have to raise their hands, for heaven’s sake!

As for the traffic light rules, I learned a valuable lesson driving home from a trip up to Yuba City on a recent evening.  Due to some issue with the power lines, the traffic lights were not functioning at every intersection all the way through the center of town.  Pacific Gas and Electric had three or four trucks out working on repairs.  Meanwhile, the lights all blinked red.  The behavior of drivers was rather instructive.  Everyone stopped at each traffic light, looked both ways for cross traffic, then slowly inched into and across the intersections.  Not wanting to be killed by drivers on the cross streets, everyone was very cautious and allowed the cross traffic to go first.  The result?  There were no accidents and everyone got home safely.  Why?  Because people were courteous of other drivers rather than relying on them to follow “the rules.”

Homeless Guy #3 may be unemployable and a substance abuser, but does that mean that his choices should prevent him from having a roof over his head and regular meals?  Oh, you use drugs?  No food for you!  I suppose that, if he violates the rules with sufficient impunity, he will end up in jail where the good taxpayers of California will see to it that he is housed and fed.  But does it really have to come to that?

Surely, we can find a way to allow the homeless to enjoy the perquisites of basic human dignity without requiring them to follow rules that are, at base, arbitrary.

 

 

Eggs Eggs Eggs Eggs

eggs

It must be the mushroom harvest here in California.

We attended food distributions yesterday (the county’s) and today (federal), and each had at least a dozen heaping, overflowing boxes of fresh mushrooms on display. “Cream of mushroom soup tonight!” proclaimed a guy a few places behind me in line.

Pastor Mom sautéed some of the delightful fungi in vegan margarine and garlic for me tonight. Then my wife got out the rice cooker and also baked some tofu in the toaster oven. As you can see, they spoil me rotten. The mushrooms were positively heavenly, and we still have a big pile of them. A large portion of this bounty has been washed, packed into plastic bags and frozen, to be added to spaghetti sauce in the near future. The irony is that I had been craving mushrooms and we had just purchased a small package the day before!

We also visited Mother Hubbard’s Cupboard this week. This is the food pantry at a church located two towns up the freeway. Those in need are eligible to receive food here only once per month. This was our second consecutive monthly visit. The volunteers at this place are so kind that they may have the ability to restore one’s faith in human nature. Last time there was a bit of a line, but this time I was the only customer. There were four volunteers sitting around just waiting for someone to come by for help. The woman at the computer appeared to be about 70 years old; the other woman and the two men had to be in their eighties. While they looked up my information, I related how much I enjoyed the loaf of vegan blue cornmeal seed bread they had included in my bag in June. I explained that I had frozen it, defrosting two slices at a time and making it last all month. They didn’t seem quite sure what I was talking about, so I provided the brand name. They seemed genuinely sorry that there didn’t seem to be anything like that around. How about a loaf of dark rye? Scanning the ingredients for eggs or dairy and finding none, I accepted it. Wait! They had this other loaf of bread in the back of the freezer. Could this be the seed bread that I had enjoyed so much? Yes! Uncle G lucks out again.

During our June visit, I was pleasantly surprised to receive half a dozen eggs. Although I don’t eat them, I know that Pastor Mom enjoys them boiled. At that time, the volunteers warned me not to get too excited, as this was unusual. They don’t typically have any eggs to hand out. So imagine my surprise when they gave us a whole dozen this time around!

Um, there is too much of a good thing, however. I have to ask: What is going on with the eggs this month? At the USDA food distribution today, each person in line was given three dozen eggs! Are the chickens working overtime or something?

If this were a year ago, I’d be happily eating scrambled, fried and boiled eggs morning, noon and night. Now that I’m a vegan, I’m just happy for the mushrooms. And I know a homeless guy who lives in a tent who will be frying eggs on his Coleman stove this week.

Meanwhile, my job search efforts have gone weird on me. Several weeks ago, I applied for a job with a state agency about 40 miles from here after one of our church parishioners who works for that agency informed me about the opportunity. He was even kind enough to agree to put in a good word for me. When he mentioned me, however, the hiring people indicated that they had never received my application. Say what?!

Either my application got lost in the U.S. Mail or, more likely, somewhere in the agency’s mailroom. If not for my friend and his inquiry, I would have known nothing about this. I would have assumed that the application was received and that the agency, like so many employers, simply chose not to respond. One cannot help but wonder how often this situation has occurred with my other applications.

My friend recommended that I drive to Sacramento and physically hand my application to the agency’s HR person. Okie dokie. Gas up the car for an eighty mile round-trip. And now I have to reconstruct the application. Applying for vacancies at a state agency is not a simple process in California. First, you have to take an “exam,” which may refer to a test given to hundreds of people at a time at a hall in Sacramento or may refer to an online assessment or may refer to a series of essays that the applicant must write. Once you qualify for a particular job classification by passing the test, then you can apply for specific vacancies. The application process generally involves writing a Statement of Qualifications (SOQ) and a cover letter and filling out the standard state application form. The notice of vacancy specifies what subjects must be discussed in the SOQ and how long it may be. The SOQ requirements were fairly complex for this particular position; it had taken me three hours to write it. Fortunately, I had it saved on my laptop and was able to print it out. The state application is another matter entirely, however. The web version of the form allows the user to fill in information online but not to save that information. The instructions suggest printing a copy if you need to save it. Therefore, I keep a filled-out form on hand in hard copy. All I had to do was fill out the first page again, since it contains information specific to the position applied for. The rest of the pages I could just photocopy. Collate, staple, fold. Let’s get on the road.

It came as no surprise to me that the agency turned out to be located in a downtown skyscraper without a parking lot of its own. Fortunately, my wife was able to find a parking spot on the street. Still, I had to walk across a long plaza to get from the street to the building. This would not be a problem for most people, but it stretches my limits or, as my wife says, takes me “out of my comfort zone.” When you’ve been fighting agoraphobia for years, and have entirely too many physical issues to boot, walking across an outdoor plaza with the wind blowing in your face requires a combination of will power and luck.

I did it. Somehow. Turned in the application to HR. Walked back to the car.

Don’t ask me how I would ever be able to work in this building. Where would I find a handicapped parking space close enough for me to “do the walk?” Calling the Americans with Disabilities Act… Hello? Hello?

As for the job in Washington State that we drove 1,600 miles to interview for last week, I have heard exactly nothing. At the interview, I was told that the employer needed to hire someone as soon as possible due to an impending retirement. I was assured that a decision would be made within the next week. More than a week has gone by. And I know what that means. They always take their time sending out the rejection letters.

Whoever said that no news is good news was never an unemployed person hunting for jobs for nine months.

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.

 

 

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.

 

The Kindness of Strangers

watermelon

The little wiener dog hopped merrily up the church steps and lay down at my feet.  Its long leash trailing down the stairs, the dachshund looked up at me with pleading eyes and a Mona Lisa half-smile.  I might have bent over to rub its belly had not a volunteer worker from the Catholic Ladies’ Relief stepped out of the church vestibule at that very moment to thrust a clipboard into my hand.

I had to sign for the food boxes I was about to receive, listing my address and the number of people in my family.  My eyes fell upon the line above, and I noticed that the last visitor had indicated his address as “Homeless.”

That’s when he came around the corner to retrieve his dog.  Grabbing the leash, he called his canine partner by name, although I couldn’t understand the disembodied syllables.  He was likely not much older than I, although he hadn’t a tooth in his mouth save a straggler or two.  The story of how the remainder had escaped was burrowed in the deep lines and creases of his grizzled face.  Shirtless as well as homeless, I could tell he had had a hard life.  He looped the leash around one of the handlebars of his bicycle and pedaled off.  As he disappeared back around the corner, I noticed his two food boxes, fifty pounds of aluminum cans, stacked in a wire basket attached to the back of the bike.

That was Monday, four days ago, but I think of the gentleman and his dog as I wait in yet another early morning food distribution line.  I’m just a mile or two from the freeway and the shopping centers, but the wide swath of green athletic field on the other side of the chain link fence makes me feel as if I’m out in the country.  Across the street is a low-income apartment complex, likely infested with vermin, while up the road is a similarly afflicted SRO motel where Pastor Mom visited a parishioner yesterday.  The woman needed a ride to her previous place of residence to retrieve her clothes.  She had lived there prior to her recent stint in the state mental hospital.  Tomorrow we will go see her again, bringing along Kotex, headache pills and a box of clothes culled from the closets and bureaus of my wife and my mother-in-law.  On the way, we will stop at the Burger King drive-through to bring her some food from the dollar menu.

SRO

But for now it’s Friday and all of us waiting in line on this grassy strip between the parking lot and the fence outside the American Legion hall are grateful to be able to obtain some free food, maybe even meat and fruit, before the start of the weekend.  We are the beneficiaries of yet another U.S. Department of Agriculture distribution of foodstuffs to the poorest among us.

Pain and suffering is all around us, if only we would choose to see.  It is there in the faces, just beyond the wan smiles and the mumbled “good morning”s.  There are women and men, twentysomethings and senior citizens, some neatly dressed in sporty attire, others in filthy t-shirts and ratty old cutoffs.  Some have been here dozens of times before; others, like myself, are first-timers.  All of our stories are different, and all of them are the same.  Gravity has dropped us to the bottom of the heap and tamped us down firmly.  Illness, unemployment and family troubles are written in bold somewhere on the pages of our lives.  Some of us are on fixed incomes; some of us receive $23 in Food Stamps each month.  Some of us are mired in bureaucratic red tape, the holy grail of a Social Security disability check forever just out of reach.  Some of us are homeless now or were at one time; some of us hang on to the roofs over our heads by our fingernails.  Some of us live month to month, or week to week, or meal to meal.  We dodge bill collectors and eviction notices and soothe our children, telling them it will all turn out alright.  We may don a mask of stony stoicism that allows us to do what we have to do to feed our families.  Just ask, however, and we will tell you all about what we’re going through.  We have nothing to hide.

After yesterday’s debacle at the county “brown bag” food distribution, I have learned a thing or two.  This time, I come prepared.  I show up early, at 7:30 am.  Already, all the parking spaces are taken.  I pull up onto the grass next to a dirty red pickup that is unlikely to pass a smog test.  About fifteen people are already in line.  One group, apparently friends, converse animatedly.  I greet them, mentioning that the food bank sent me.  “The end of the line is over there,” a man among the group gruffly informs me.  “Then to the end of the line I shall go!” I reply as cheerily as I can at this ungodly hour of the morning.

My supplies consist of a folding chair and a Walmart bag containing a bottle of water and a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.  I have no idea whether I’ll be here for half an hour or until the middle of the afternoon.  As Barbara from the food bank reminded me yesterday, “the truck gets there when it gets there.”  I take her warning to heart.

Retreating to the end of the line, I open my metal chair and sit down.  In front of me, a man and woman chat amiably about the relative merits of Ford trucks.  I wave hello, take out my phone and attempt to mind my own business.  About fifteen minutes pass and my neighbors each produce cigarettes and proceed to smoke.  I am grateful that they have the courtesy to blow the smoke away from me.  Soon, the man leaves the line, excusing himself by saying that he must sit down.

Without her partner in conversation, the woman begins chatting with me in short spurts interspersed with long periods of silence.  I am unable to determine her age; she could be forty-five or sixty-five.  She apologizes for her dirty t-shirt.  No need, I assure her.  I learn that she has two sons in college in Reno and that she cannot seem to convince them to take part-time jobs for minimum wage to help defray their expenses.  She says she can’t afford the petrol to get up there to see them much.  After a while, she mentions that her husband, who used to be a ranch cook, has been disabled and out of work for some time and was just recently diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.  I tell her that I was laid off from work nearly nine months ago and that I have applied for 130 jobs without success.

Nearly an hour after I join the conga line, the food truck arrives.  “There’s usually two,” my new friend informs me.  And sure enough, five minutes later, truck number two shows up.  Tables are set up and the slow process of unloading the trucks commences.  Box after box is handed down from the trucks while workers hurriedly make up food bags.  About ten more people have queued up behind me.

At 9:00, the line begins to slowly creep ahead.  The chatty woman in front of me unfolds a miniature grocery cart on wheels.  I stand up, drag my chair two steps forward and sit down again.  I repeat this process about a dozen times before I approach the steps to the side entrance of the American Legion hall and I fold up my chair and lean it against my leg.  Meanwhile, I have confided to my friend that I anticipate difficulty in carrying whatever food I am given to my car since I already have a heavy chair and a bag with me.  “Stick with me,” she says, assuring me that she can squeeze the food bags for both of us into her little cart.

I climb the two steps into the foyer, noting the rest rooms I pass on my way into the main hall.  I reach a table staffed by three workers, where I engage in the usual routine:  Print your name, sign, list your address and the number in your family.  But I notice an extra question on the form this time:  Is this your first time here this month?  “This is my first time here ever!” I assure the clerk.  “Don’t worry, I’ll take care of that,” she tells me, handing me a food ticket.

The line moves through the building to an exit door on the other side, then down two more steps to the food distribution tables.  To my surprise, I am handed a frozen turkey.  At the next table, I receive a paper bag filled with canned goods, then an 18 pack of eggs.  Noticing a bin of bananas, I reach out to take a few and am rebuffed.  Only the workers are allowed to touch the foodstuffs.  Bags of produce have already been prepared (a few potatoes, a bell pepper, a large beefsteak tomato, some brown bananas); I may have one or choose a watermelon instead.

A watermelon!  Imagine that!  My wife loves watermelon and I am rather a fan thereof myself.  As I ask for the melon, a worker quickly grabs back the produce bag that she had thrust into my friend’s rolling basket.  At the last table, I hand in my ticket.  True to her word, my friend has arranged all of our food into her cart, tucking the two packages of eggs into the sides (only two of the eighteen eggs in my package end up breaking) and balancing the two watermelons on top.  At each table, she tells the worker “I’ll take hers, too.”  Although I have referred to my wife several times, mentioning that she is at home with the flu today, my friend appears to be confused about my gender.

She asks me where I am parked and we begin the trek back across the parking lot.  I notice that about fifty people are now in line for food.  Arriving at my car, my friend helps me unload the bags into the rear hatch.  I thank her over and over again.  I relate that I am overwhelmed by her generosity.  She tries to hug me, which devolves into us giving each other a couple of pats on the back, somewhat embarrassedly.  My gratitude notwithstanding, I have always been horrible at navigating social situations.

When my wife was with me at the brown bag food distribution yesterday, she referred to the woman who allowed me to briefly sit in her wheelchair as my “girlfriend.”  “It’s good to have girlfriends,” was Pastor Mom’s pithy response.

Like Blanche DuBois in Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire, I will always be grateful for the kindness of strangers.