A Day in the Life of Poverty

   You roll over and look at your clock. It used to be a cell phone. Now it’s just a clock. 6:30AM. Time to get out of bed. St. Vincent’s starts getting rowdy around 7AM, so you need to rally and get there fast if you hope to be seen by 5PM.

This isn’t waking up. You’re not sleeping. You haven’t for days. Anxiety prevents lids from lowering. Brokeness has also informed a wheat heavy diet. When you had money you were allergic to gluten. Now you know donut boxes drop to $2 after 8PM. The food bank down the street offers early morning day-old giveaways: cakes, pies, donuts, bagels. Your arms, legs, and back reflect on the food and return with a bumpy, itchy rash that actually swells on occasion, making you feel like you’re wearing a bright red saddle. Without health insurance, the ointment to treat it is $40; the doctor won’t fill the prescription again unless you come in to see her.

It’s raining hard and mixing with hail, but you ride your bike to the food bank because it’s faster, and taking the bus would cost you $5.

$5 = a can of tomatoes, garlic, onion, ginger, beans and rice.

When you get off your bike you’re coughing like a smoker with a two-pack a day habit; you’re fighting a cold. The outside of your body is wet from rain, and under that layer you’re wet with sweat. The biggest problem, however, is your shoes. The zippers on both of your boots are broken, and water poured into them during the ride. This cold is going to get worse.

It’s 7:15, and the line is already a grey snake that curves around the outside of the building. The people at the front of the line are drunk. The bottles around them suggest that last night they hit a liquor store just before close and elected to drink their purchases right there. A flash of judgment and scorn hits you hard, and then you notice that you wish you were drunk, too.

You become fast friends with the woman directly in front of you, Marciela, when she notices your cough matches her daughter’s. She has two children with her. The older one is four, and is carrying a copy of It’s Not Easy Being a Bunny. You’re hoping you can read it with her once inside. The other daughter is bundled in a collapsible baby carriage of plastic and wobbly wheels that you’ve seen some children use for their baby dolls. She’s fast asleep and wrapped in a blanket decorated with orange ducks, a bright knit cap covering her ears and tied just under her chin. She has the longest eyelashes you’ve ever seen, and after a few minutes of staring she blinks her eyes awake to look at you, and smiles. For a second, the world feels okay.

The doors open at 8AM and the whole crowd surges forward. A man nearly knocks over Marciela, who shouts at him, “I’ve got children, here!” You stand on the other side of her daughter so she doesn’t get knocked to the ground. She doesn’t thank you, and why should she? This is something you shouldn’t have to do.

Inside, a giant man over six feet three huddles behind protective glass and shouts to take a form and sign in. Everyone knows the drill: if you’re not in the top 20, this is going to be a bad day. If you’re after 20, you might as well go home, and try again tomorrow. You’re number 11. With a little luck, they might see you before lunchtime.

You should have got there earlier.

The seats are all taken and this is okay, because you’re able-bodied and need to dry out anyway. You shift back and forth on your feet, because the four year-old likes the squishing sound of wet sock meeting wet shoe. There are other children in the waiting area, eager to play and aware of the importance of not making their parents angry. A Russian girl looks up at her mother several times, and then pulls a green ball from her pocket. She rolls it across the room to the four year-old. A quiet game is on.

It’s a downtrodden rainbow tribe. An elderly black man with a Vietnam Veteran cap offers his seat to Marciela. A couple trades what sounds like insults in Russian. A white woman with a nice purse and nice rings wears a face that reveals she no longer cares if people think she looks like someone who belongs elsewhere. Some college students. A man who talks to himself in song lyrics. You keep gloves on your hands so no one sees your skin and wonders if you’re contagious. Within thirty minutes, people are talking, and not the shallow conversations of people greeting each other in a grocery line. No one is here because things are good. It’s a volley of unpaid child support payments, being screwed out of unemployment, delayed financial aid checks, money tied up before an estate is settled, an employer who just announced there wasn’t money to meet payroll. Each story is chased by surprising phrases of hope and gratitude. No one bangs on the glass and asks them to hurry up. It’s the patience of a forgotten era, infecting any new comer who arrives to discover no seats, and nothing but time in front of them.

After 9AM everyone who comes in walks away angry. The sad-eyed man behind the glass repeats the same refrain: “You can wait if you want to, but you probably won’t be seen today.” Every time he says it, his face accumulates another shade of age. He reminds the people who walk away angry that they have to come early. They just have to. People try to negotiate, offer long stories about when the power will be shut off and how they have kids at home and they’ll be in the dark today. Some of the people in the top 5 were these people yesterday. Every time one storms out, the woman closest to the door laughs, and the man next to you says: “They should have come early.”

It’s getting close to lunchtime. The panic in the waiting room is rising. Every day they close at noon and reopen at one. They’re on number 9. Marciela is number 10. Her panic is so thick she will no longer talk to you, or anyone. Her son is released from school at 2, and she has to be there to pick him up. She walks up to the window at five to noon, and asks if he thinks she can get in. She says she has to get her son. The baby has begun to fuss, and the four year-old is trying not to look bored by feigning being hypnotized by a carpet stain. The Russian girl can’t find her ball. She whispers, “Can you help me find my ball?” You help her look, and notice a slimy looking man. You think he has her ball, and too many demons.

Marciela is told no, and the announcement for lunch is made. The man behind the glass offers juice for the baby as consolation. She can’t talk. He offers a cell phone so she can call somebody. She takes it, looks at the ground, hurries her children outside.

The man on the wall trades “They should have come early” for “Lord, have mercy.”

You follow Marciella outside. She’s talking on the phone, crying. She’s trying to find someone to pick up her son. The first option doesn’t work, and she shields the side of her face with her hand as she tries to remember the number for the school. The baby is officially wailing. The four year-old is rubbing the baby’s duck-covered belly, trying not to look at her mother. You know in an instant: she will remember this.

She will remember all of this.

You go back inside and pound on the protective glass. A sad-eyed woman has traded places with the sad-eyed man. You say, “There’s a woman outside crying. Number 10. She needs to pick up her son. You have to see her, or she will have to go home.”

She looks at the clock, and back at you. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that they made these rules for a reason. It doesn’t take a genius to see her anxiety that one exception could lead to five or accusations of unfairness. You repeat again, “You have to see her.”

Another person behind you says, “See her now, please.”

Another says, “Please help the mother. Please.”

It’s too much “please” for one food bank. Marciela is brought back in, and led to the back. You’ll see her when you return, the four year-old eating dry cheerios and the baby sleeping all over again, each side of the stroller weighted with plastic food bags.

You will never see her again, and you’re glad.

At 4PM the man with the Veteran’s cap is building a cough that mirrors yours. It is this hour that you’ll discover you’re not qualified for rent assistance. $800 a month in income is too much, even if your rent is $750.  Your mind scrambles for options and before it locks on one you burst into tears. There’s a box of tissues on the desk. There’s a full box of tissues under the opened one. He tells you that you can still get food. You can always get food. Everyone gets a juice box.

There are better foodbanks than this one, ones that sometimes have bread or cheese or meat that isn’t very, very expired, and sometimes even oil or vegetables, but you don’t have time to go to two different places and fill out two different sets of forms. You can’t go home empty handed. You’ve stopped crying, and remember to thank him when he hands you two heavy plastic bags. Your sleeve slides up as you reach for the bag and he spies a sliver of rash and drops them. You pick them up from the floor instead.

Back home the whole house reeks of depression, and the two bags are two more bundles to bloat it. Your partner is at his computer, applying at temp agencies; with only a few years of college and two full years of unemployment, he’s completely given up on Craig’s List. He’s going to make dinner while you work a $10 an hour online job you got only because you have a master’s degree, until your neighbor turns off his internet connection. If that happens before midnight, you’re going to cry for the second time.

However, there’s a problem: you’re out of cooking oil. A house-wide change hunt puts you within 50 cents of your goal, so if you can find ten glass bottles on your walk to the store, you can do it. If you can find 20, you can also get a head of garlic. You cough some more. You really need the garlic. This mission will steal another two hours.

When you get back, the internet connection is turned off. The library is closed. You burst into tears. That’s two.

Your partner reminds you that you stole a coffee mug from the nearest coffee shop, and if you take it you can probably wander in and fake like you bought coffee earlier. Perfect.

While there you check your email, and there’s one message after the other from friends who haven’t seen you out in a long, long time. The whole, “Sure I’ll come…drinks are on you, right?” is only funny if you can actually afford your own drink. A lot of your friends are doing really well. They are having children. They are buying houses. Jobs are turning into careers. Trips are being planned. You decide you will write them back when you can think of something positive to say, or when you relocate the sarcasm many of them find charming. Then you can joke about how you and your partner both spend time inspecting the other’s possessions for stray items to sell. That you understand why money is the number one cause of breakups. That you understand why money was the first thing Virginia Woolf said she needed before she could really start writing.

Instead you don’t respond to any of them, and decide it’s okay if they hate you a little for it. You hate you a lot for many little reasons, anyway.

Late at night the coughing that has chased your day escalates to an asthma attack, and your partner is angry. With a monthly income of $800 the emergency room is not an option, as this is too much to qualify for their medical assistance. You start cycling through the pilgrim-like solutions you cooked up when the $20 over the counter inhaler became illegal: coffee and eucalyptus tea. Your partner wants you to take a shower, but you can’t take hot water on your back or anything touching your skin. You hack into the evening, your partner slapping you on the back to loosen you, furiously knitting so that your hands are too busy to scratch. Crying for the third time. Tomorrow you’ll send an email to a friend with health insurance to see if he’s managed to convince his doctor that he has a respiratory disorder yet. This is the only way you’ll get a rescue inhaler for less than $45.

You think about the papers you should be reviewing the first second the internet comes back on or a coffee shop opens — whatever comes first. You think about whether your partner will be called for an interview, whether he even has anything to wear, and whether it’s appropriate to press him to do even more, even if you don’t know how much he’s doing, exactly. You think about whether you should call your mother, and the shame that would come from such a phone call. It seems unfair to ask someone who has worked 35 years to support someone who hasn’t. You’re reminded of this every time you read an article about boot straps and the iphone you supposedly have and how people like you are trading food stamps for drugs, and a thousand other things that are true for maybe the drunks at the front of the line, but not the 50 people standing behind them. You think someone wealthy somewhere is cackling about how easy it is to convince poor people to hate other poor people, to hate the things and people who try to help them, just so they can feel aligned with unanointed kings, false prophets in political clothes and the black-hearted gods of talk radio. You think about all these things, and remember that you don’t get paid to think.

Outside the window, time passes. Inside it reverses, and a cell phone is still just a clock.

Author’s note: this story is based on actual experiences that occurred in 2012, though some names, locations, and personal identifiers have been changed.

6 thoughts on “A Day in the Life of Poverty

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  2. Hi. I’m not sure if you will see this comment but I hope you do.
    I was really moved by this post. I think it’s so well written. Although I’m growing up in a pretty well-off family, and I’ll probably never truly understand what it’s like to experience poverty, I can begin to get a taste through reading this. I in no way mean to brag or make you feel bad or say something offensive here, sorry if it comes across that way. I just really want to praise you for this excellent piece. Thank you for sharing it. I had no idea that getting foodstamps was that hard. I really appreciate this post.

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