I hate the wind.
Windy days make it difficult for me to breathe, give me pressure headaches, kick my allergies into high gear and set me on a direct course for a panic attack.
This morning, the weather report put the wind speed at 17 miles per hour. Not exactly a hurricane, but just enough to drive me crazy. So I went outdoors and stood in the county food distribution line for two hours.
My wife, God bless her, drove me over there and waited in the car even though the poor thing is coming down with the flu. We arrived at Calvary Church at 8:30, right on time. Neither of us knew what to expect, but we figured there’d be a lot of people queued up because this is the one time of the month that the “brown bag” food distribution comes to our little town. You can still get food at other times of the month, but you need a car or a bus pass to get to nearby towns up the freeway.
At the food bank last week, I asked whether “brown bag” meant that you got a brown bag lunch. Uh, no. It means that, instead of getting just a box filled with “emergency” canned goods (every week is a food emergency for many of us), you get a brown grocery bag packed with things like meat and fresh veggies. No wonder this particular food distribution is so popular.
We found about 25 people already in line, with no food truck in sight. We had been sitting in the car for about half an hour when we saw the truck pull around the corner at the other end of the strip mall. Another ten to fifteen people had joined the line, which now ended right where we were parked. About 9:15, the Dial-A-Ride bus pulled up. It was full, so I jumped out of the car and got in line ahead of what I was sure would be a crowd.
The SNAP (Food Stamps) people set up a table about halfway down the line. Their workers wore blue blazers, one of which screamed out the message “We love fruits and veggies!”
We waited. And waited. And waited. The sun rose in the sky and beat down on us while the wind whipped about. One woman complained about it being winter in June.
I stood in line for an hour before it began to move at all. I couldn’t tell what was going on, as the truck was far away and out of sight around a corner.
Someone stank like poop. Now, I knew it couldn’t possibly be me. Um, could it? Nah. I took a hot shower before coming out for this dog and pony show.
The woman in line in front of me was reminiscent of some people I used to know in Boston. She liked to grin a lot, displaying the gaps in her teeth like a jack o’lantern. The guy in line behind me refused to stay in place, instead standing right next to me for two hours as if he were my best buddy. He was probably a few years older than I am, wearing a black T-shirt featuring the image of a gun and the words “Stars and Stripes” on the sleeve. He sported a little salt-and-pepper beard and mustache, with tufts of gray and black hair escaping the back of his cap like a tiny pony tail. Salt ‘N Pepa struck up a conversation with Jack O’, telling stories about his Navy days stationed at Pascagoula and how he eventually transferred out to California.
I was woefully unprepared for this. I had not worn a hat nor had I brought a folding chair with me nor had I carried so much as a bottle of water. I may as well have had the word “newbie” tattooed on my backside.
To make matters worse, I hadn’t eaten anything before coming even though I had taken my pills, a no-no in itself. My stomach was rumbling and revolting and begging for a rest room. This is what I get for eating those damned canned kidney beans that they handed out at the Welfare office on Friday.
An hour in, the line began to creep forward, half an inch at a time. There were so many people ahead of me and such a long way to the truck that I considered quitting. Was this really worth it to get more peanut butter and diarrhea-inducing canned beans? I overheard a snippet of conversation from farther down the line; apparently they have bread, bananas and potatoes today. Then my wife texted me that she saw the first people walking to their cars with their food bags, including sacks of potatoes. Okay, so I’ll try to stick it out. We need potatoes.
Not to whine, but I have bad knees, a bad back, diabetes and hypertension. I can’t stand on my feet for long periods of time. And I take medication that bears the warning to avoid prolonged exposure to the sun. Each time the line moved, I looked forward to reaching the next pole so that I could lean for a few minutes. But then we ran out of poles and out of overhang and I was in the open again.
After about 90 minutes on line, my feet were burning, my back was killing me and I didn’t think my knees could hold up anymore. I bent over, sticking out my rear end so that I could relieve my back a little by leaning my hands on my knees. The people behind me immediately became concerned that I was about to keel over. One woman said she had a camp chair with her and asked if I wanted to sit down. I said yes, that would be wonderful, and she removed the chair from its pouch and unrolled it. As she set it up, it became apparent to me that the chair was appropriate for someone about half my size. “Is this going to hold a big guy like me?” I asked, as visions of flipping the thing over and landing on my butt raced through my mind. She agreed that this might not work and began to roll the chair back up.
At that point, another woman jumped out of her electric wheelchair and asked me to sit. Incredulous, I asked whether she was sure. She told me that she’d be fine as long as she could stand in one place. I gratefully sat down in the wheelchair, feeling stupid and relieved at the same time.
And then the line started to move forward. I, however, did not, creating a bit of a gap in front of me. When the owner of the wheelchair motioned me forward, I sheepishly admitted to having no idea how to work the controls. She turned on the power and showed me where the switch was. Terribly unskilled in navigating the wheelchair, I jerked forward in fits and starts.
A few minutes of blessed relief later, we reached the end of the pavement and the sign-in table. Jumping out of the wheelchair and thanking its owner profusely, I showed my handwritten note from the food bank, telling them that I didn’t have a blue card because they had run out. Fortunately, Barbara from the food bank was there and vouched for me. I stepped off into the gravel parking lot, and turned the corner toward the food truck with the Katrina Relief logo still emblazoned on its side. There were still about five people ahead of me.
I could see that two workers were making up food bags on the truck while other volunteers tended to bins of produce that had been set out on the ground. People were walking away with quite a bit of food, including huge slabs of frozen ribs. When I reached the truck and asked for supplies for three people, they asked to see my blue card. Again I told my story about the food bank having run out. A woman jumped off the truck and ran over to the sign-in table to verify. When she returned and cleared me, I was handed a heavy grocery bag filled to the brim. Then one of the workers opened a plastic bag and inserted a whole frozen chicken and a package of boneless chicken parts. I guess three people doesn’t constitute a large enough family to merit ribs. Although I am a vegan, I was disappointed for my wife, who would have enjoyed the meat.
I lifted both bags off the truck and set them on the ground while I grabbed another plastic bag and began pawing through a bin of bell peppers. I shoved one into my bag and asked a worker how many I was permitted to take. A couple of those or a bag of leaf lettuce, he told me. I grabbed a leaf lettuce, which looked brown. I was not putting back that pepper.
As I was not provided with one of those sacks of potatoes, I asked how many spuds I was entitled to take from the potato bin. Four, I was told. Well, better than nothing, I thought. I took the largest ones I could find, knowing I’d be eating baked potatoes for dinner this week.
Another worker handed me a bag with some bananas and other items and I struggled to carry everything away. My wife saw me coming and began to drive the car over. I was about to lose the heaviest of my bags and a kind man rushed over to help me. As my wife pulled up, he took the bag from me and set it in the rear seat of our car. I dumped everything else in and collapsed into the front seat.
“Oh my God,” I gasped to my wife. “That was horrible!”
We were only about five minutes from home, which was fortunate, as both of us were dying to get into a rest room. As we pulled up, my wife ran into the parsonage as I tore off for the men’s room next door at the church. I barely made it.
So what did we end up with? Aside from the frozen chicken, we received — what else? — peanut butter and canned beans. Also canned fruit, a box of pumpkin bread mix, a couple of tiny cartons of chocolate flavored almond milk and a little bag of coffee-flavored almonds.
The bananas they gave us were rotten and they stank. We put them out with the trash.