Only once have I come even a wee bit close to feeling really, truly “impoverished.”
I was a young newly single mom with too many bills left over from her ex’s excesses, a bankruptcy pending to fix that, no bank account, a teaching job which barely covered rent and food and--because of all this--only $60 to live on for two weeks.
I remember that almost half of that needed to go to my daughter, whose teachers had waited as long as they could for her to pay for a field trip that I wanted her to be part of with all my heart. I also needed gas so that I could go to work for those two weeks. That would leave us…nothing.
I also remember standing in the aisles of a grocery store fighting back tears. We needed milk. Eggs. Basics—nothing much. I could scrape together some meals from what we had, and my daughter’s lunch was taken care of—I’d filled her “account” earlier in the month. But we could not afford luxuries. We could not afford emergencies--if we got sick, even with insurance, I couldn’t afford the co-pays.
So there, with my back against walls of brand names my daughter sang jingles about…I couldn’t give her anything she sang about, either. And that may not seem like a big deal, but if you’ve ever stood in line watching kids beam as their parents slide The Cool Cereal of the Month down that conveyor thing while yours watches you sliding a big white…no name cereal box down right behind it…be glad. Shouldn’t matter. But it does, it does, it does.
That day, I wiped the tears away angrily and did what destitute mothers do all over the world—mothers who then have to hear about how obese they and their children are. I made a really bad decision for a very good reason.
Mac’n’cheese—an off brand--was four boxes for a dollar. Hot dogs…also off brand…a dollar a package. We could have plain mac for a day or two, then cut up hot dogs into the mac for another day or two…and then we had a little ground beef already, so I could change up and mix in some of that for a few more days. And we had a few forgotten bags of veggies somewhere in the back of the freezer. I could mix them in, too--kids love mac’n’cheese, I told myself as I planned all this in my aching head. My kid was no exception. She’d think these were her best weeks, ever, dinner wise.
So I shook my head, bit my lip…and bought the awful stuff. I think I miraculously managed to spend only about $12 in all. But there was nothing left. Not a penny. And I vowed, rather like Scarlett O’Hara, that I would never, ever eat four for a dollar mac and cheese again!
I was wrong about that. But I got better at making it palatable, over time.
Now mind you, I had a job, a roof over my head and family who could’ve helped out if I’d been able to swallow my pride and ask.
This week, I began volunteering in a women’s shelter where I met people who had none of that to fall back on. And when I got into my car after that first day, I remembered my little crying jag in the grocery store…and smiled. A very wry, self-mocking smile. I’d been worried about my baby not being able to have brand name cereal. These women had worried about losing babies—had lost babies. Some of their babies had died. Others had been taken away. Others had disappeared or turned their backs on their mothers. Their stories were something to be sad about.
But not one of them was sad.
They were regulars, I was told, as the case worker opened the door for that day's "walk in" morning meal. She’s a plump, pleasant Navajo woman who knows some of those regulars from the rez. And who grew up pretty hard herself.
She quickly showed me where the towels and face cloths were—every single guest wanted that first. They lined up for that even more than the food, I discovered. No stereotypical bag ladies here—if you saw them on the street, in most cases, you’d think they were college kids or moms out shopping or headed for Pilates class. Some had old bikes and grocery store baskets stashed somewhere, but sitting out in front of the little house there waiting for the doors to open, they’d looked like a group of neighbor ladies shootin’ the breeze under the trees.
I quickly learned how to take their “orders,” little slips of paper in a coffee can on the counter made of old bookshelves just inside the front door. The menu is pretty scant: eggs topped with cheese, assorted breads and bagels, milk, coffee or juice and whatever extra donations we get during the meal. No seconds, but they can eat their fill of those extras while they’re there. That day there was a pie, big pans full of pigs in a blanket, cookies and a killer pound cake. It was all gone before 12:30 when the non-residents pick up sack lunches, frozen bottles of water and head off into the hot Tucson streets.
For fast service, we make the eggs in the microwave—a trick I’d never tried before. Two beaten eggs, a tablespoon of water, a minute thirty seconds per Pam sprayed bowl. If they want the cheese on top, another ten seconds. Most wanted the cheese and to have their eggs put on a toasted bagel, too. A sort of makeshift McMuffin that would fill them up 'til lunch time.
And we serve them like waitresses at the big dining room table—it’s kinda like a Sunday breakfast with family for these ladies. But they thanked us a lot more than people thank waitresses. One of them told me she hoped I’d be back because I smiled and said, “What else can I getcha?” and, when someone asked if she’d come too late to eat, I’d also said, “You just tell me what you want and I’ll get it for ya’!” She remembered that, especially.
“They don’t smile at us usually,” she said, her own smile missing lots of front teeth. I smiled more. Not because of the missing teeth, but because she had beautiful eyes. I wondered if she knew that. I let my smile tell her. Later, she cleaned the bathroom where they all shower—that’s our job as volunteers, actually. But it was way of thanking me again, I think.
While I was busy nuking eggs and handing out lunches, I noticed one really “handsome” older woman sitting on a couch watching the godawful and shockingly violent TNT series they all seemed to love while deftly curling her hair with the communal curling iron. When she was done, I swear, I wanted to ask her to do my hair once my shift was over.
She joined us at the big table, which had pretty much cleared out by then. And told me the story that made me want to write about them all today. First, she bragged about her son, who is graduating from NYU next year—how he got to college and why his mother couldn’t count on him for help is a story she’ll tell me when she feels like it. I don’t know her son or what his side of the story might be. I wish he could see her grin about him, though. Whatever the story is. He’d have to feel good about it. Maybe.
Nibbling cake with clean, perfectly manicured fingers—she works on her nails sometimes, too, when she’s there--she told us she’d been rousted out of bed by the police at 5 a.m. and thrown into the streets at the request of the owner of the motel at which she’d been staying not…entirely legally. In exchange for occasional odd jobs and housekeeping duties, the manager had let her stay in what sounded like some sort of storage area or…something like that. But the owner had been tipped off about the arrangement, and the law arrived to end it and toss her and her few belongings to the curb.
She’d made that ill-fated motel arrangement just after having her sole belongings from better days—and her SSI card, driver’s license, baby pictures and more—burned by a psycho in an apartment she’d been assigned to by a social service organization not long after she found herself unable to pay rent due to a serious back injury which didn’t heal quite fast enough to suit her insurance company or former employers. She still can't work too long or too hard. But she tries anyway.
The psycho had warned her that she could not live there without having sex with him, and he had burned her things when she repeatedly refused. Those were, he said, the rules. When she reported those rules…the social worker did not believe her because no one else had ever complained. They had not complained, she said, because they were scared “sh-tless” of the man who’d made that rule. And because another rule—an old street rule--was that you didn’t rat people out. No matter what.
But this psycho was nothing compared to the one they were most terrified of—the predator who had, on her first homeless night, grabbed her and carried her off to beat and rape her repeatedly for the next few days. He dumped her in a park somewhere—she couldn’t even remember which one—when he was done with the “initiation.”
She, now, avoided a lot of the places she could’ve gone for food, shelter and work because he preyed upon women there. He had told her, when he dumped her, that he’d see her again. And that the next time, he wouldn’t let her get away. He bragged that he had killed before. She didn’t doubt that. But he only seemed to get arrested for assault, and then put back on the streets shortly after each arrest.
The case worker, seeing my wide eyed gape, told me everyone knew about this guy. I hoped he’d meet the “wrong” initiate someday. A woman who might be tough enough to take him out one night after he’d grabbed her and dragged her off, thinking she was just another night’s “fun.”
That’s an awful thing to think. I thought it anyway. Mostly because guys like him never seem to get what they deserve. So I told myself it was a safe thought, given that “rule.”
His “victim” simply asked the case manager about job leads--that was partly why she’d done her hair so carefully. She wasn't concerned with revenge or reliving past indignities. She needed to get herself a new job and a new place to stay, and would need to do it herself until the various agencies that hadn't been able to find her permanent lodging yet despite her disability and her determination finally came through.
She'd been waiting for a full year--her case worker told her that the agency responsible for this could be reported for negligence. They had obviuously not done their job.
She said she'd look into that, but for now, she wanted to be master of her own fate.
“Maybe I’ll get lucky,” she said. And then she smiled with a little smirk in it and said, “But this hasn’t been a lucky week so far, huh?”
I said something like, “Don’t jinx yourself, now.” A stock answer I give when people take back the luck they ask for.
She rose and asked, very politely, if she could have her lunch. I got it for her, and she headed for the door at once, in a hurry to get out there and pound the pavement. But then she turned, smiled at me, and said, “Be blessed…”
I knew I had been.
I’d met her.