Poverty does not become me. I’m sure it doesn’t become anyone, but it really doesn’t become me. I was supposed to be somebody by now, and by that I mean somebody other than this woman who holds up grocery store lines with her WIC checks.
I used to suck my teeth and sigh in irritation at WIC-check users. I hated the way they popped their gum and had those slack looks on their faces, as if they didn’t give a damn that they were holding the rest of us up.
And then one day I was one of them.
That first time, before I learned to do my shopping during empty-store hours, the people behind me shook their heads and rolled their eyes in exasperation while the cashier ran my checks through the machine as slowly as she could. The people farther back craned their necks to see what idiot had stalled things. On top of it all, I was eight months pregnant and dressed for nothing more than comfort in sweats, flip-flops, and a bursting-at-the-seams T-shirt. In short, I looked like one of them.
Then, without so much as a look in my direction, the cashier stopped the conveyor belt and paused her slothlike movements to call over the intercom for someone to switch my block of cheese because (stupid me) I didn’t know Swiss was not an option when using a WIC check.
The cashier tapped her pen against the counter in a rhythmless beat, but judging by the relaxed look on her face, she enjoyed the break in monotony of scanning items, pushing buttons, and counting cash.
“Hey, Frank,” she called, as a manager type in a blue polo shirt walked past, jangling a set of keys. “Did Sonya come in today?”
Frank changed course and stopped to chat. Clearly, we were going to be here awhile. I attempted an apologetic smile at the woman behind me. She pursed her lips in a less-than-friendly grimace that read, “You should have come when the store was empty.”
My husband and I used to bitch about how broke we were while stuffing our faces with $50 platters of sushi or driving to Ojai for a weekend at a cozy bed-and-breakfast. Back then, I got my hair done at a fancy-schmancy place, and being broke meant having to settle for new highlights every 16 weeks instead of every 8. I now refer to those days as back when we were rich. These days, being broke means making the choice between putting the rent on credit and asking my mom to pay it. Both options are embarrassing.
Our downfall began in November 2008, when my husband was laid off from his job as a Teamster truck driver. This was just over a month before our daughter was born. It’s slightly more complicated than it sounds because he had been on what the Teamsters call “soft layoff” during the previous year. “Soft” because you’re still working on call, which was four or five days a week that year. At $22 per hour plus lots of overtime, it was a decent living, even on layoff. But then, as happens every year, the freight company he works for put him on “hard layoff” (which means no work at all) 15 days before the holidays — not just because business is slow in November and December but also because union rules state that if an employee works within 15 days of a holiday, he receives pay for said holiday. So to save themselves a few bucks, the company lays off a bunch of guys at the bottom of the seniority list. Then, when the holidays are over, the company calls them back, or at least takes them off hard layoff and lets them work on call.
Over the years, we’ve gotten accustomed to it. We stress a little, do what we can to make ends meet, and then breathe a sigh of relief when the holidays are over and he’s back at work. My job doesn’t help during these times because I work for a nonprofit at a public school. Holidays are always unpaid for me.
Our situation was further complicated by my pregnancy. The Teamster contract states that to receive health insurance, an employee must work at least 100 hours for full coverage or 60 hours for catastrophic coverage (hospitalization only). The hours worked count not for the month immediately following but for the one after that. Because my husband was laid off before he worked 60 hours in November, we wouldn’t have insurance in January or February. The baby was due January 10.
Having a baby with no insurance is a bad idea, and we were nervous. Plus, if work was slow in January, we’d be in trouble in March too.
Enter my mother, a 30-year veteran of the State of Idaho’s Health and Welfare Department, whose job as an eligibility examiner was to direct people toward the resources and services they needed to get through hard times. True to her pragmatic personality, she broke it down and laid it out.
“Unemployment. That’s first. It won’t be as much as you’re used to, but it’ll help. And you have to have insurance. Look into Medi-Cal. I’m sure at least the kids will qualify. Then you might as well try WIC too. If you can get it, it’s free food — milk, cheese, cereal, that kind of thing. Don’t worry, we’ll get you through this.”
Unemployment? That didn’t sound so terrible. But Medi-Cal and this WIC thing made me think of standing in long lines for day-old bread and one measly roll of toilet paper for the month.
We hemmed and hawed for a bit, embarrassed at the idea of being on public assistance (us?) and convinced that things couldn’t possibly be that bad. But my mother assured us that these services are there to help people through hard times, and if we’re qualified, we’re qualified. So we figured what the hell. It would be for only a couple of months, and it sounded relatively simple. We were wrong on both counts.