I was standing in line at the grocery store. It was the middle of the afternoon on a sunny day...one of those crisp days, like apple pie and golden leaves. I had filled my cart with roots to roast--turnips and parsnips and sweet potatoes. Fresh rosemary, a loaf of garlic bread, brie to wrap in pastry and bake...and I arrived at check-out. Three lines open, two carts in each--throw the dice, right? I park. Now, I might add to this mental picture that the attached liquor store was having a "tasting" which meant I had three choices of merlot to sample as I waited...yum. (chuckle) However, it was very shortly apparent that things were amiss.
The cashier was in his early 20's. Kinda scruffy, rugged around the edges, well mannered, but needed a good meal. (smile) He was polite, nice...tired. And the two carts in front of me....wow. Soon after my first sip of a dark californian blend I noticed--she was swearing at him. She was the same age as he. There was a baby in the cart...and she had a pack of WIC checks in one hand and a cell phone in the other. She ridiculed him. It was so obvious he was new, nervous...she was that "pretty" that had faded...paled. Highlights a little too white, black eyeliner a little too thick, cherry lips that pulled back over viciously sharp teeth--ready to bite. She asked if he was stupid. She joked about his blush with the girl behind her who also had a stack of checks and an "access" card.
His pain was palpable. It radiated from his reddened cheeks as he struggled to put the numbers in the system, calculate the credit...scan the specific food. He cringed as he told her the juice she had chosen wasn't covered, and physically cowered as she raged at him. When it was all done and he had fed her checks into the register....she asked for four packs of cigarettes and pulled out a wad of 20's to pay for them.
I gripped the bar of my cart so hard I knew I would have bruises later.
She sneered. She laughed with the girl behind her--this one also in her twenties, with two kids hanging on the sides of her cart and her belly stretched tight with a third....she swore. Language that made me gasp--actually out loud--so that they both looked at me. She tossed her cheese and milk carelessly on the belt, "What, you got a problem with that??"
As the previous director and executive director of numerous early childhood centers and preschools-- I was speechless. Dumbfounded. Outraged. I fumbled....me, with what I've done--the places I've been, I fumbled. I stepped back. At this point it had been 40 minutes. I'd watched four other people get in line behind me...observe....check out the other lines....then smile almost apologetically, and move over. I watched them leave. There was some part of my mind that was screaming for me to just SWITCH LINES! What on earth was the big deal?? Just "move along".....
But there was a day. One day. Warm, indian summer that year...when a single mom....with worn out sneakers, a cranky toddler and a hungry two yr old...she stumbled into the welfare waiting office 4 minutes before her appointment. She wiped the tears from her cheeks. She was horrified. Three months ago she was a stay-at-home mom. A wife.That caseworker told me I was what she lived for....that I was someone who had worked since I was 17 and had paid into this system and that is was a pleasure to help me when I really needed it. She was amazing. She took one of the most humbling....awful moments in my life....and filled it with kindness. I have never been so grateful. So thankful. With that green plastic card came the ability to feed my boys meat. Doctor appointments and immunizations. I gave up selling plasma.
I have stood in many lines wic checks in hand, cheese and milk and juice....and never fathomed ridiculing the person who's very taxes was paying for my meals. I stood humbled...appreciating every mouthful of food, every gulp of milk.
Four months and my life was different. I signed a lease, a contract....I sold a painting, opened a center. I smiled as I hugged my caseworker and told her goodbye. I was done. Years have gone by.....for every frightened mother that I have held, connected, and cheered on as they landed on their feet.... For every proud and hungry parent I have urged in the direction of help...even when it hurt. For every moment that I have understood people who are struggling....I have been grateful for that time. There is no replacement for walking in a pair of shoes.
But what have we become?
How is it that there is a wave of people....that ridicule those of us that work forty, fifity hours a week--god awful black cold early mornings....late nights comforting your son because you missed his Christmas play to handle an employee emergency? How did that happen? I have LIVED the life of a "family supported." I have been there. Not for a moment....a single instant did I not know that the food on my child's plate came from the table, the paycheck, the taxes of someone who got up and went to work.
I raise my boys now. I watch them....watching me. How do I teach them this? How do we teach appreciation?
I've been told that appreciation is the child of "without."
Doing without....is this the seed? For every day you go without the jeans that everyone else had in 7th grade--is this what makes them magical? Every day you eat hamburger helper....isn't that what makes lobster heavenly? Every lonely night...makes the arms of a loved one priceless.
Every day you sell plasma and give your kids mac and cheese for breakfast.....
Is there a waiting period? How do you take a significant portion of our society and make them understand what it is to do without....when they never do.
I'm truly lost here. I stood in that line. For an hour. When I started unloading the lukewarm milk and brie from my cart, the chashier said to me, "If you're wic, get out of my line." I smiled. I told him he was doing an excellent job. His shoulders unknotted....he turned, watching their carts as they left. I wanted to tell him they weren't normal. They weren't...what we were working for. He and I...standing together on a warm fall afternoon....wondering what the world was coming to.