I was standing in line at the grocery store. It was the middle of the afternoon on a sunny day...one of those lovely days when you can smell the trees, the lushness of newly mowed grass, even the clouds seemed whiter. 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. 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. However, it was very shortly apparent that things were amiss.
The cashier was in his early twenties. A bit scruffy, rugged around the edges; well mannered but needed a good meal. He was polite, nice, tired. 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 (our "women, infants, and children" food supplement program) checks in one hand and a cell phone in the other. She mocked him. It was so obvious he was new, nervous. She was that "pretty" that had paled, faded as if over-used too early to settle within her. Highlights a little too white, black eyeliner a little too thick, cherry lips that pulled back over viciously sharp teeth. 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, and 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 dollar bills 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 several 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 the hell was I doing?! Just move over...
But there was a day. One day. A 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 four 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 seventeen 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. I never fathomed scorning the person who's very taxes were paying for my meals. I stood quietly, deeply 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, fifty 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 this 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 believe appreciation is the child of "without."
The months going without the jeans that everyone else had in 7th grade--isn't this what makes them magic on Christmas morning? Hamburgers and chips and cheap pop--isn't this what makes lobster taste like heaven? Lonely nights render the arms of a loved one priceless.
Every day you sell plasma and give your kids mac and cheese for breakfast.....
Are there classes? A summer camp? How do you take a significant portion of our society and make them understand what it's like 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 cashier said to me, "If you're wic, get out of my line." I smiled gently. I wanted so badly to undo some of the carnage they had left behind. I told him he was doing an excellent job, that I was glad he was there to help me. 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 spring afternoon.... wondering what the world was coming to.