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.

 

The Employment Paradigm: A Labor Day Story

I used to think that the scariest thing about unemployment was the obvious, the lack of an income.  But I soon came to realize that there is something else:  The fear of the unknown.  Will I find anything before my unemployment checks run out?  Will I have to take a job that pays a lot less than what I have been earning? Will I have to change careers, give up my home, move to a distant state?  The one question I never asked, however, was whether it might be possible to have a good life as an unemployed person.

Just as I wrote the above, Homeless Guy #3 appeared at the door of the parsonage, asking for food.  He said that he’d run out of Food Stamps for the month and that his EBT card wouldn’t be filled up until tomorrow.  I went in the kitchen and made him a couple of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.  He began to chow down the moment I handed him the paper plate with the PB&Js, right there in the doorway.  That guy was hungry.

Although our friend has mental issues, substance abuse problems and has been in trouble with the law, it’s hard to avoid thinking “this is what long-term unemployment can do to you.”  It’s a vicious circle, of course; no one wants to employ people with those types of problems, but it’s hard to surmount those issues without a paycheck to purchase things like food, clothing and shelter.

When I received my layoff notice about a year ago, my coworkers and subordinates all asked me “What will you do now?”  Um, look for another job, maybe?  What do you think I’m going to do, dorkus mallorcus?

Biting my tongue to avoid blurting out a facile answer (“I’m going to Disneyland!”), I would tell them that we were headed up north to live in a church parsonage with my mother-in-law and that I hoped to contribute my efforts to the church ministries.  When they’d press me for details, I’d talk about starting a food bank, collecting coats for kids and helping the homeless.  I had no idea whether I’d actually end up doing any of these things, but I did have a dream about some of these possibilities and, well, I felt as if I needed a more intelligent answer than “I don’t know.”

But I didn’t know.

I got tired of answering the same questions over and over, but I had to remind myself that at least some of it was the product of genuine concern.  A few would sweep aside formalities and ask what was really on their minds:  “What will you do for money?”  I really wanted to answer by whispering confidentially “Well, you know, we have savings.  You don’t have any, now do you?”

As annoyed as I’d be with the question about money, I came to realize that this is part and parcel of the paradigm of employment:  You need money for the necessities of life, and you have to be employed to get that money.

Later, however, sociologist and fellow blogger Alex Barnard of Ox the Punx helped to introduce me to alternate economic paradigms.  There is an interesting school of thought that holds that most of us waste our lives in meaningless employment that is mind-numbing, contributes to the destruction of the earth and makes us sick — all in order to earn money to purchase consumer goods that we don’t need and that don’t make us happy in any event.  Okay… So is it possible to have a happy life of unemployment without sleeping out in the open and starving to death?  Without ending up like Homeless Guy #3?  It turns out that it is.

I have been learning about a movement known as freeganism.  The word freegan is derived from a combination of the words “free” and “vegan” (although many practitioners are not vegans).  The crux of the idea is to reduce waste via the four Rs:  reducing, reusing, recycling and repurposing.  Specifically, make use of perfectly good items that others throw away.  This can take a huge variety of forms, but it essentially assumes that one man’s trash is another man’s treasure.  This week, for example, our elderly neighbor was thrilled to find, discarded on the roadside, a pair of pants that fit her perfectly.  In our relatively rural area, we have county and state food distributions, free bread pickups on Fridays and churches hosting food banks and free lunches and dinners.

But it is the practice of “dumpster diving” that has caused the freegan movement to attain a negative image in the press.  The truth of the matter is that restaurants, bakeries and grocery stores throw out perfectly good unsold baked goods at the end of the day and unopened cans and boxes of food when they approach their expiration dates.  Those who reclaim this discarded food not only use it for themselves but also share with others in need.  Nevertheless, instead of lauding the efforts of freegans to reduce unnecessary waste, the media have characterized freegans as a disgusting class of untouchables.  The economists and sociologists have suggested that the anti-capitalist nature of eschewing money in favor of making use of the castoffs of others is at least one reason for the denouncement of freegans in the media.

When it comes to housing, the joint efforts of government agencies and volunteers in places like New York and Detroit have created safe housing for those who would otherwise be homeless.  We constantly hear about homeless camps under freeway ramps, people sleeping on heating grates (or here in California, on the beach) and beggars panhandling on corners.  Although those are some ways of surviving for free, they are often unsafe and frequently made impossible by law enforcement.  What we rarely hear about, however, are efforts such as the conversion of in rem buildings (apartments seized for nonpayment of taxes) into housing for the homeless in my native New York City, or the use of adverse possession and other laws to allow volunteers (neighbors helping neighbors) to convert abandoned homes into family housing in Detroit.  The latter practice is often denigrated in the media as “squatters’ rights” or “squat-to-own” — which conveniently forgets that this is similar to the way that the American frontier was settled in the nineteenth century.  I am proud to be from New York, where the state constitution has codified that housing is a right, not a privilege.

Whether we are talking about food or clothing or shelter, there are those of us who believe that we can make the world a better place for ourselves and others by minimizing our possessions and maximizing our use of what others have thrown away.

But it is the freegan position on employment that really makes me sit up and notice.  Too many of us work, directly or indirectly, for corporations that rape our natural resources and seek to sell us garbage that we don’t need.  Meanwhile, the stress and unhealthy working conditions of our jobs are killing us.  Wouldn’t it be better to spend our time with our families, helping others and enjoying the one life that God has given us?  And indeed, by reducing our consumption and becoming aware that most of our “needs” are false idols created by Madison Avenue, we can reduce or eliminate our need for work.

This point of view runs contrary to society’s (and, I might add, Congress’s) disdain for the unemployed as “slackers” and “bums,” lazy, worthless people who leech off the generosity of others.  But now that we’ve reached a point in our economy at which technological obsolescence has become a runaway train, and where there aren’t enough jobs to go around for those who want them, perhaps we need to take another look at the viability of remaining permanently unemployed.

The suffering of the unemployed goes beyond the uncertainty of providing for our needs when we have no money.  This is because we have built our entire identities around work.  The very words we use when we talk about employment give us away.  We don’t say that we are employed as a secretary, waitress or computer programmer; a person says that he or she is a secretary, waitress or computer programmer.  Becoming unemployed takes that identity away so that our financial struggles are compounded by feelings of inadequacy and worthlessness, leading to family problems, depression and even suicide.  While the employed waste their lives on the job, the unemployed waste their lives by destroying themselves from the inside out.

But it doesn’t have to be this way.  Instead of allowing ourselves to be occupationally pigeonholed, we can reclaim our identities as individuals.

And so, as we celebrate Labor Day here in the United States, I call upon each of my valued readers to keep an open mind and to rethink what it means to be employed, what employment is taking away from us, and to what extent employment does or does not remain a valid paradigm in the 21st century.  Unlike some, I’m not saying that being employed is a bad way to live; I’m just saying that it’s not the only way to live.

I can tell you from personal experience that unemployment is not for sissies.  But I can also confidently state that we can vastly improve our world and our lives if we make it a point to help each other rather than burying our heads in the sand, to make use of perfectly good items that others throw away, and to value each other for our unique personalities rather than merely for our ability to contribute to the economy.

References

Freegan.info, “Free Your Life from Work”

Goodwin, Jan, “She Lives Off What We Throw Away,” Marie Claire (March 11, 2009).

Halpern, Jake, “The Freegan Establishment,” The New York Times Magazine (June 4, 2010).

Kurutz, Steven, “Not Buying It,” The New York Times (Home and Garden, June 21, 2007).

Spencer, David, “Why Work More?  We Should be Working Less for a Better Quality of Life,” The Guardian (Feb. 4, 2014).

Swanson, D. Joanne, “The Cult of the Job,” http://www.whywork.org (2004).

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.

Billete

Yuba City

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ground beef

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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.