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.
The County of San Diego Health and Human Services Agency on 73rd Street is easy enough to find if you keep your eye out for a small crowd of people at the bus stop on the corner of El Cajon and 73rd. The block where the squat, yellow-brick building sits is, during business hours, the busiest in the area. The sidewalk between the building and the bus stop bustles with men, women, and families coming and going. My fingers are crossed that my visit today will be relatively painless, since all I have to do is drop off paperwork.
Obtaining Medi-Cal was a process that included so many phone calls, so much paperwork, and such great reserves of patience that I had to hand over the job to my husband. We both agreed that it wouldn’t do any good for me to freak out on our caseworker and/or break down in a heap of tears and hair pulling. He is much more even tempered and tolerant than I am, so he took over. All I remember about the process is that every time someone from the County called, it was a different person claiming to be our caseworker. We have an accordion file with a broken elastic band that snapped because the volume of Medi-Cal paperwork was too much for it to handle. We keep it as evidence of my husband’s strength — he did not snap. I’ve blocked out all other memories of that experience.
We recently received a thick packet of documents ominously titled “Medi-Cal Redetermination.” The packet seems to be a request for the same information we gave the County in 2008, when we first applied. Apparently, the Deficit Reduction Act of 2005 says that Medi-Cal beneficiaries must provide proof of citizenship and identity to renew their benefits. I don’t get that. How would we have gotten coverage in the first place if our paperwork weren’t in order? But here I am, walking into the County office, redetermination packet in hand. Why didn’t I simply mail it? I could have and would have if not for two (unintentionally) hilarious lines in the letter: “We need the original citizenship and identity documents” and “The County will make copies and mail them back to you.”
Hilarious? Why? Because two weeks ago, a County worker called and left a message for us to call her back. We returned the call the next morning. Here’s how the conversation went:
Me: Hi. This is Elizabeth Salaam. I’m returning your call.
Her: Spell your last name, please.
Her: Okay. How can I help you?
Me: Um, I don’t know. I’m returning your call. I got a message yesterday asking me to call you back.
Her: And what was the call regarding?
Me: I don’t know. You didn’t say. You just asked me to call.
Her: I’m sorry, ma’am, but I can’t help you unless I know what this is regarding.
And these are the people I’m supposed to send original passports and birth certificates to? Um, no.
I’ve given myself a generous 20 minutes before I have to be back on the road for an appointment with a treadmill, and when I enter the building, I’m pleased to see that there’s no security line. I remember a crowd at the door when I came to get the application the first time. I smile big at the busty little security officer and tell her I’m just here to copy and turn in some documents.
“Put your bag down on the table and step forward, please.” She gestures toward the metal detector.
“Oh, no,” I say, smiling even bigger now. “I’m not applying. I’m just here to have some documents copied. Renewal papers.” I hold up my manila envelope.
She points toward the waiting room. “The line’s in there.”
Just past the metal detector are three large Plexiglas windows. Applicants stand at two of the windows, but the third is open. A County worker on the other side of the window sits staring at a computer screen.
I ask, “Can’t I just hand these to him?”
“It’s just one line,” she tells me. Her face is blank and her tone is weary. Clearly, she’s tired of saying the same thing over and over.
“No,” I say, more out of fear than defiance. My husband was gone all day when he came to apply. He told me about that line. It was long, long, long, and it never moved.
“Yep,” she says.
I turn around and walk out. There’s no way. That line is the kind of thing you have to be prepared for.
Of the three suggestions my mom made, unemployment was the simplest to obtain. The online application form on the Employment Development Department’s website was easy, the financial calculations were relatively simple, there was a ten-day waiting period, and, voilà!, my husband had a $900 check from the State of California every two weeks. At the end of February, a federal stimulus payment upped that amount by $25 per week. His original claim is for 52 weeks, unless he goes back to work full time. (In 2008, federal legislation extended unemployment insurance benefits twice, for a total of 20 extra weeks for all states, plus an additional 13 weeks for states, like California, saddled with high unemployment rates. So in addition to the 52 weeks, my husband can apply for 33 more.) Maternity leave doesn’t qualify as a reason for unemployment compensation, so $475 a week was the best we could do.
Despite the ease of attainment, problems arise when we have specific questions that are not addressed on the website. Of all the branches on the tree of public assistance, the Employment Development Department is the least accessible. You can spend days or weeks calling repeatedly without ever getting through the labyrinthine automated system to talk to an actual person.
We have questions because our circumstances are complicated. Being on soft layoff means my husband does get called in to work. It’s not nearly as frequent as it was last year — usually one or two days per week, if at all. With the 15 percent pay cut that employees at his company have recently taken and no overtime, two days’ work yields about $316. In that case, he completes the form that comes attached to the unemployment check and claims the amount he made. If his weekly earnings are $101 or more, the first 25 percent is not subtracted from his $450. So, in a week when he makes $316 at work, $237 (75 percent) is subtracted from the $450 unemployment allowance. Then, with the $25 federal stimulus, the total unemployment check is $238. My point is, if he works one or two days, he earns slightly more than he would have by staying home.
Every now and again, when several senior guys are on vacation or when a convention creates extra work, my husband might get called in enough that he makes more than $475 in one week. Which is where the problems begin. The first time, the employment department sent a letter that basically stated, “We’re not giving you any money for last week.”
No big deal. It’s to be expected.
The second time it happened, they sent the same letter but included a window of time and a day (a Sunday afternoon, believe it or not) that he was to be available for a phone interview. The letter also said that if he missed the call, his unemployment insurance payments would be terminated. The call came during the scheduled time, he explained everything, and the employment department was satisfied. Things went back to normal. But every time since then that he’s earned more than $450 in one week, he’s been dropped without notice. At first, we thought his paperwork had gotten delayed and we waited for it. In the meantime, he called the number on the department’s website, hoping to get someone who could inform him as to the problem. Every four out of five calls, the phone was busy. On the fifth, when he’d get through to the automated system, he’d be put on hold for sometimes as long as five minutes only to be told (by an automated voice), “Due to high call volume, we cannot take your call at this time. Please try back later. Good-bye.” And then, the dead click of a hang-up.
This, as far as we knew, was the only way to get in touch with the employment department. There is no address where you can go to wait in line to talk to someone directly.
After two weeks of zero income and no fewer than ten attempts per day to get through by phone, my husband decided to try something new. When asked if he was calling for a scheduled phone appointment, he pressed 1 for “yes.” His big lie paid off. Within minutes, his call was picked up by a female human being. She took his name, pulled his file, answered his questions, and reinstated his case. She was pleasant and friendly, and only once did she get under his skin — when she told him he should have called sooner. (Luckily for everyone involved, it was my husband she spoke to. He was quiet in his irritation. I would not have been.)
My husband says it’s my middle-class upbringing that causes me to expect indulgences like courtesy and respect. I don’t know if that’s true or not. What I do know is that after nearly a year on public assistance, I’m still tempted to dress up before I go to the County or WIC offices in hopes that my fashionable businesswear will help me look the part of the educated woman who’s going through hard times rather than one of the truly poor and uneducated for whom hard times are a way of life.
I sometimes imagine that showing up in a cute-shirt/smart-slacks combo with a pair of downtown-office heels will earn me respect with the County workers or the WIC employees. Usually, however, it serves only to make me stand out as either (a) someone who is poaching resources from those who really need them or (b) someone who thinks she’s someone, which she obviously isn’t.
So on my second trip to the County building to turn in our Medi-Cal redetermination packet, I’ve decided to go with a simple jersey knit skirt, an old T-shirt, and cheap sandals. My hair is a rat’s nest (because why bother?), and by the time I pass through security and take my place as 22nd in line, I realize I’ve made a mistake.
Today’s crowd is — save for a couple of young girls in hoochified jeans and midriff-baring T-shirts — made up of the dignified sort of people who press their shirts and shine their shoes. None of their clothing looks expensive, but at least half of them have chosen to dress from the side of their closets where the special stuff hangs. Beside them, I look sloppy and in need of a pedicure. Hopefully, my babbling nine-month-old daughter will draw everyone’s attention away from me and my hideous toes.
I can hear my husband’s voice in my ear: “Please. Nobody’s thinking about you. They’re starving and trying to figure out how they’re going to pay next month’s rent.”
Oh. Of course.
But if anyone does look my way, they’ll see me reading a book of Chekhov’s short stories, and it will be apparent that I’m smart and educated and just passing through. Right?
The line snakes through the far side of the waiting room in three distinct sections. The first section consists of six to eight people standing between a wall and one of those flat nylon dividers that slip into the slots of two plastic poles. Above the first section’s heads, Stuart Little is playing on an old television that sits inside a grubby cubbyhole behind a dirty slab of acrylic.
While the people in section one would be the most obvious targets of envy (due to their proximity to service), my envy is for those in the second section, which runs along a wall lined with benches. To sit would make the wait less excruciating.
After seven minutes of waiting, with no line movement whatsoever, the first person in line (a tall girl probably just into her 20s, toting a barefoot toddler and wearing shiny silver earrings that dangle to her shoulders) is finally called to a window, and everyone takes a step forward. I watch along with the rest of section three as a large woman in a floral sundress transitions from our section to section two. When she sits, the bench creaks. Her sigh of relief is audible; her smile just a bit smug.
After that, there’s a wave of movement, and in less than half an hour, a young man sporting cornrows, a behooded Muslim woman behind me, and I are all among the envied. We pass smiles back and forth, aware of our shared fortune, as we take our places on the bench. As I sit, I notice that the line behind us now stretches into a fourth section. People are now waiting along the wall on the opposite side of the room where the bathroom doors are located.
By this time, my up-until-now quiet and patient daughter is alternately mashing little bits of sweet-potato snacks into her mouth and shrieking for more. Another 20 minutes pass. I sigh heavily and tell Cornrows to keep his fingers crossed that I don’t run out of snacks for the baby before it’s my turn at the window. He says this is nothing, that mornings are way worse, a hell of a lot more crowded. Then he tells me a story about how the last time he was here, an argument broke out because one lady refused to get up and stand in section one when the line moved.
“Everyone in the back of the line was yelling, like, ‘Get up, b—h!’ ” he says. “I was, like,
This slow-moving line is where you go no matter what. If you have to turn in a form, you stand in this line. If you want to ask a question, you stand in this line. If you’re applying for the first time, you stand in this line. If you have several complicated and time-consuming issues to take care of, yes, you stand in this line. You wait and you wait, and when you’re finally called, if the people behind the glass partitions can’t help you, you’re sent back into the waiting room until you’re called by name. Here, you wait just to be told you’ll have to wait some more.
“What you really want,” Cornrows tells me, indicating a set of doors back through the entrance area and past the glass windows, “is to get through those double doors. That’s when you know you’re almost done.”
Interesting. I hadn’t noticed them. But, apparently, that’s where I want to be.
Finally, after more than an hour and a half of standing, sitting, and then standing again, I’m called to one of the blessed windows. There I find a middle-aged woman in a sparkly turquoise T-shirt and matching sparkly turquoise headband. Her bright-red lipstick calls attention to an already prominent mouth. As I hand her the paperwork, I explain that I’m here to turn in my redetermination documents and the reason I’ve included my marriage certificate is because my passport (which is proof of my citizenship) has my maiden name while all the other documents have my married name. I am using my happiest, friendliest voice, trying to be helpful and maybe establish rapport.
“Everybody back here has at least a high school diploma,” she answers. “I’m sure they’ll figure it out.” She doesn’t so much as look up.
I’m too stunned to be insulted.
She takes the neatly stacked and clipped pile of check stubs, passports, Social Security cards, birth certificates, and other papers and leaves her post to photocopy the documents. While she’s gone, I look to the left, toward those double doors. Every now and again, someone comes out from behind them and heads straight outside. They look exhausted but satisfied, as if they’ve accomplished a mission, maybe. Each time the doors swing open, I try to peek behind them. I never do see anything, but I imagine a clean, spacious hallway leading to sunlit offices populated by friendly, customer-oriented employees who offer coffee or cookies as they inquire, “What can I do to help you today?” Yes, Cornrows was right. That is where I want to be.
Red Lips returns with my documents and slides them under the window. They’re now in such a mess that it takes me a couple of minutes to make sure nothing is missing. While I’m in the process of checking and rearranging my documents and paperwork, she slides another piece of paper under the window and says, “Do you need to fill this out?”
I see that the top of the form refers to children with no proof of identity.
“I don’t know,” I say. “Do I?” I’m starting to hate her.
“I don’t know either,” she says, and waits.
She has to be kidding. I try to look past the thick lipstick and big whitish teeth to see what I can read in her eyes. But there’s nothing there to see. She stares back at me expressionless.
“So you can’t tell me if this is something I need or not?”
“Nope,” she says.
My daughter squirming on my hip, I take a deep breath, dig into my bag for a pen, and fill out the paper as quickly as I can. Just in case. When I’m done, I ask if there’s any way for me to talk to my caseworker today. “I have some complications with my Medi-Cal,” I tell her. “I’d like to clear them up.”
With a look of disinterest, she tells me I no longer have a worker assigned to my case.
I feel my heart rate speeding up and my blood pressure beginning to rise. What does that mean? That I don’t have a case? And if so, what’s the problem and why wasn’t I informed? It’s never-ending, and I’m fed up. I’m about to let her have it when she adds that no one gets individual caseworkers anymore. They’ve switched to “task groups,” which means, it’s safe to assume, that there is now even less of a chance that any one person will assume responsibility in the not-unlikely event that the County loses an important document, makes a mistake, or gives me incorrect information.
“Okay, so who can I talk to? I need to talk to someone about my case.”
She hands me a yellow card. It reads “Access Center.” Below that, there’s a phone number. “Call this number,” she says, “and they’ll answer your questions.”
“No,” I tell her. And I’d like to stop there. No, no, no. No more phone calls, no more paperwork, no more lines. No, no, no!
Before I came, my husband warned me to keep my sense of entitlement in check. “Be easy,” he said. “Even if they’re being mean, you have to act friendly.” This must be the moment he was talking about.
But I’ve had it. I’m tired, and I want to talk to someone about the particulars of my case. I believe I’m entitled to that. I suddenly have an image of myself speaking up, demanding to have my questions answered. I imagine doing so in such a passionate tone that the people in line and in the waiting room will erupt into cheers and applause because I’m speaking not just for myself but for all who suffer the never-endingness of this time-sucking, energy-leeching quagmire.
“I’ve called that number,” I say in a raised but slightly squeaky voice. “Now I want to talk to someone in person.” And then I add, trying to keep the peace, “If that’s at all possible.” Smile.
It’s a weak attempt at demanding justice, and no one — least of all Red Lips — seems to notice. Not a head turns. Except for my daughter’s, but she’s looking up at me for another sweet-potato snack.
Red Lips is predictably unmoved. “Give it a week or so,” she says. “You need to give them a chance to look over your case. This is hot off the press.”
Hot off the press?
“Fine,” I say. “Next week, then. When’s the best time?”
“First thing in the morning,” she says. “Eight-thirty a.m.”
Of course. This, according to Cornrows, is the worst time, the busiest hour. But come, I will. And I promise myself, I won’t leave until I get beyond those double doors. I’ll take my coffee black. Two cookies, please.
“WIC” is a partial acronym and the common name for the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, a federal program that’s been around since 1972. But until this time last year, all I knew was that it was some welfare program that made the long, slow lines at grocery stores even slower. According to the USDA Food and Nutrition Service website, the “target population” for WIC is “low-income, nutritionally at risk” women (pregnant or postpartum; breast-feeding or not), infants, and children under five years old. The program offers supplemental foods, nutrition classes, and health screenings and referrals. The program serves 45 percent of all infants in the United States.
The closest WIC office to our apartment in City Heights is near the corner of Wightman and Highland, right in the middle of what city planners call an “urban village.” It’s a pedestrian-friendly area where public services (library, schools, clinics, post office, police station, etc.) and commonly used commercial services (grocery stores, banks, fast-food locations, and such) are located within close walking distance. Until my first time going inside the WIC office, I only used its mirrored-glass door as a vanity check on my way to Blockbuster or Albertsons. As I passed, I’d slow down to check my hair for frizz or to see if my stomach looked as flat as I hoped it did.
Inside the tiny waiting room of the WIC office, beneath posters extolling the virtues of breast-feeding, five or six hard plastic chairs line one wall. The chairs are occupied by pregnant women, new mothers (sometimes accompanied by their older children), and the occasional father. A few square feet in one corner have been designated as a play area for the more active children.
Both the size of the waiting room and the structure of the WIC program make it a decidedly more intimate experience than filling out Employment Development Department paperwork online or visiting the County Health and Human Services building. Each time I go in, I’m guaranteed a chance to speak with someone who will do his or her best to answer my questions. Granted, it’s not always done with the best attitude, but I do appreciate the human contact.
That first time I went to the WIC office, I walked right in and, without having to wait, sat down in the low chair in front of the Plexiglas window (why is there always Plexiglas?) and presented my paperwork to a real live person. She was about my age, with a gentle face and shiny black hair. She wore a purple-print shirt that looked like something I would wear. I felt a kind of kindred spirit in her. Maybe under different circumstances she was a nicer person, but her cold, businesslike answers to my questions changed my mind about her face. Her jowls made her look mean. And besides her mean-looking face, she told me that my husband’s year-to-date income (as per his check stub, which I’d been instructed to bring) put us significantly above the income eligibility cutoff.
But, I protested, he was laid off! This was November, and he’d worked all year; of course his year-to-date earning would disqualify us. Didn’t it also count for something that the $49,000 was good and gone, and at the moment, until his unemployment kicked in, his income was exactly zero? I thought so. She didn’t. She told me to come back with proof that he was on unemployment. But he wasn’t on unemployment yet! We were waiting for the first check. She said I should come back when I could show her an unemployment check stub.
Eventually, I did. She then calculated my husband’s $475 weekly unemployment check along with the $300 a week I made from my part-time job. Which, not incidentally, I would be losing the following week when I started maternity leave. Of course, $775 per week put us above the limit as well. She didn’t seem to understand that we weren’t trying to cheat on the income requirements; we were trying to plan ahead. Regardless, we had to wait until we were dead broke (and trying to pay $1350 for rent, a $285 car payment, approximately $500 in other monthly bills, and to feed three people — one of whom was massively pregnant — all on $1900 a month) to go back and ask for a recalculation.
When I returned a week later, the WIC worker happened to mention that if I had Medi-Cal, I automatically qualified for WIC benefits. Now, why didn’t she say that before? By then, my husband’s patience and attention to detail had paid off; we were on Medi-Cal.
I was stuck in the dinky WIC office for two hours that day. After a lecture on nutrition, a video about how to use the WIC checks, and a test to make sure I’d been paying attention to the movie, I left with a brand-new folder and a wad of WIC checks for milk, cheese, juice, and more milk and more cheese and more juice.
Stores won’t take WIC checks if you don’t carry the folder. It’s the law. My husband, who grew up in a neighborhood where WIC checks are common currency, says he’s always kept an eye out for the telltale purple-and-green folders when he’s choosing his line at the grocery store. If he sees the folder, he knows to pick a different line.
In order to delay humiliation as long as I can, I make it a point to keep my WIC folder out of sight until the last possible moment. This is a bit of a problem for me because of my obsession with tiny purses. Unless I choose to carry a large purse (which I do not) or to carry the folder out in the open while I wander up and down the aisles (which I most certainly do not), I have to fold the folder into thirds and then jam it into one of the tiny purses. Hiding the folder isn’t fair to those in line behind me, but so be it. This whole thing isn’t fair.
When I came home from my first shopping-with-WIC-checks experience and related it all to my husband, he just nodded and said, “Every little bit helps.”
“But this isn’t the way it was supposed to be,” I complained, gingerly lowering my big fat pregnant butt onto the couch. “I have a master’s degree. Where’s my maid and my masseuse and my flat in Paris?”
I’m sure there are plenty of people reading this who would like to stone me for complaining at all. I’m sure there are others who would like to beat me for usurping precious taxpayer-provided resources while maintaining my biweekly date with my husband, when we treat ourselves to pizza and hot dogs. (That, plus two drinks and a shared sundae cost less than seven bucks! God bless Costco.) To the former, I say, “You’re absolutely right.” To the latter, I have no excuse but my own middle-class upbringing and any number of self-help books I’ve read that claim joy as a right, not a privilege. A life with no dates is a life without joy.
My mom told me that in all her years working in the realm of public assistance, it was the educated middle class who came in with the most expectations and therefore the most complaints. I must say, though, that as much as I complain about the quality of service and the lines and the other crap I’ve had to endure for the sake of public assistance, I am grateful it’s out there. Cheese is expensive, and health insurance is too. And where else can you ask for money just because you don’t have any?
That said, during my bimonthly visits to the WIC office, I still go with the hope that the workers on the other side of the Plexiglas will see me as one of their own kind — an educated woman with hopes and dreams and aspirations who might be fun to have drinks with. And when it becomes clear that the woman who calls me to the window sees me as an other, I make it a point to gesticulate with my left hand so she can see how much bigger my engagement ring is than hers. Petty, I know, but this is what I’ve been reduced to.
On my third visit to the County building, I don’t make it quite by 8:30. It’s more like 8:45, and I’m surprised to see not only is the security line not winding around the building as I’d expected, there isn’t a security line at all. Honestly, I’m a tiny bit disappointed because I wanted Cornrows to be right so I could hate Red Lips even more. At the same time, I’m grateful it’s not as bad as I’d expected.
Inside, the line is about the same as it was last time, but the waiting room is more crowded, and nearly all the benches are full. The end of the line is crowded into the corner just past section two, and then it flubs out into the waiting room. It’s not five minutes, though, before (lo and behold!) I’m sitting on the bench in section two. And not five minutes after that, two women appear from beyond the double doors and start pulling people out of line.
I’ve decided my mantra will be “I need to see a worker about my redetermination status,” and no matter what I’m asked, I’ll keep repeating myself until it happens. I’ve come with snacks for myself and the baby, diapers galore, a book to read, and enough water for days. I’m prepared to wait as long as I must to get my questions answered.
The first of the two women calling people out of line is wearing a long blue rayon dress printed with giant green flowers. She stands at the front of the line and announces that those with new applications should let themselves be known. She also says something about a QR7, and even though I don’t know what that is or even if I’ve heard her correctly, I’m tempted to claim QR7 status so she’ll take me back beyond the double doors. I figure once I’m in her office, she’ll have no choice but to listen to my story. Of course, I chicken out.
The second woman (who’s wearing a tank top and jeans — really? at work?) starts at the beginning of the line and one by one asks people the reason for their visit. By the time she gets to me, she’s pulled so many people out of the line that I’m only three away from the front.
“What do you need, hon?” Her voice is smoky and her expression one of permanent impatience. I’m desperate to get beyond the double doors, but I’m not so sure I want to go there with her. She has a mean vibe.
“I need to see a worker about my redetermin—”
She cuts me off. “Go to the double doors.” And then, “What do you need?” She’s already on to the next person.
Four other people (not counting a toddler in tight red pants and a gurgling baby in an infant carrier) stand outside the double doors waiting to be told to go through. After another minute or two, Smoky arrives (with two more people in tow), looks at the small crowd of us, and says, “Oh, boy. I sure pulled a lot of you, didn’t I?”
Some of us smile. Some of us don’t.
She pushes open the doors and walks through. We shuffle through behind her. It’s reasonably well lit, I suppose, but not the utopia I’d imagined. Just a long hallway, the eight of us (not counting the babies), and four chairs lined up against the wall. I choose to stand. So much for coffee and cookies.
As it turns out, the chairs are lined up directly across from Smoky’s office. She calls in an older Asian woman, tells her to sit, and neglects to close the door. From where I’m standing, I can’t see the woman anymore, but I can see Smoky. She looks like the kind of woman who could drink any man under the table. Her voice is loud enough for all to hear (isn’t that a breach of confidentiality? Do we really need to hear about each other’s cases?), but I try not to pay attention to what she’s saying. Instead, I watch the little red-pants toddler make faces at my baby. I coo and talk to them both in a too-loud voice meant to drown out the conversation in the office.
A couple of minutes later, the Asian lady leaves and Smoky calls in whoever’s next. The two women (mom and grandma?) who brought the toddler scoop her up and head into the office. Within seconds, Smoky’s voice rings out.
“Is that in pencil?” she bellows.
I look up in time to see her slam down a pen on the desk and shove it toward whichever of the two women has just handed her a form filled out, apparently, in pencil.
“Julia,” Smoky admonishes loudly, “legal papers cannot be done in pencil! Use eyeliner if you have to. Even Crayola would work. But you can’t ever use a pencil!”
The lady on the seat next to me smiles. I smile back. The eyeliner bit is funny, and filling out a form in pencil isn’t the smartest idea in the world, but Smoky’s words come off as mean. I start preparing myself for a confrontation. Smoky had better not speak to me that way.
When the little family finishes, Smoky calls for the next person, who doesn’t get up fast enough. “Come on, come on!” she urges, throwing a conspiratorial wink out at the rest of us. She doesn’t seem to understand that as much as the rest of us would like to be done with our business as quickly as possible, we’re not going to wink back. Our sympathies lie with whoever sits on the other side of the desk.
Finally, it’s my turn. I sit down in the one chair across the desk from Smoky and situate my daughter’s stroller beside me. My lonely chair is backed up against a blank wall. No posters, no pictures, no color. The office looks like an interrogation room. I’m guessing you’re not supposed to get comfortable here.
I speak as if I’ve rehearsed, which I have. “There are some complications with my Medi-Cal, and I want to make sure everything is in order with my redetermination documents.”
She asks for my Social Security number and my name. I watch as she types in the information. Strangely enough, though her dress and mannerisms are sloppy and crude, her fake nails are long and tipped with sparkly silver and purple polish. Not at all what you’d expect from such an otherwise mannish woman.
“Okay, well, it looks like your case hasn’t been processed yet, but…let me see here. Yep, the paperwork has been received. By mail it looks like. Did you send it by mail?”
“No, I brought it in last week.”
“Oh, all right, well, it’s been received. You should get something in the mail before too long. They’ll let you know if anything’s missing or if it’s been denied for some reason.”
“Right,” I say, not having gotten this far in my rehearsals. I suppose I’d assumed that getting beyond the double doors would mean I’d talk to someone who’d know something. “Is there any way to talk to someone about that? Because, like I said, there are some complications that might not be clear on paper. I’d like to avoid the automatic denial if I can.”
“Well, if it’s denied—”
Suddenly, the sound of loud but poorly amplified country music fills the office.
“Excuse me,” she says, reaching under her desk and pulling a pocketbook up from the floor. The music is her ringtone. As she digs around inside the purse, she mumbles, “I guess I forgot to turn that off.”
Then she pulls out her cell phone and answers it.
I sit, appalled, while she has a brief conversation with someone and then hangs up. She does not apologize.
“So, I was saying that if it’s denied, the back of the letter will tell you how to go about requesting a fair hearing.”
“Yeah,” I say. “I was kind of hoping to avoid all that and maybe talk to someone who might be able to help—”
She interrupts to tell me that’s not going to happen because so far no one has been assigned to my case. And when I tell her I thought there were no longer workers assigned to cases at all, she says that’s true. The task group currently has my case, but eventually someone specific will have to process it, and if that person has any questions, he or she will contact me.
“Okay, so then once that happens, I’ll have someone to talk to?”
“No. It just means that’s the person who will process your paperwork.”
“And that’s the person who makes the decision about whether I’m denied or approved?”
She nods yes.
“But I can’t talk to them? Now or ever. Is that what you’re saying?”
For a second, Smoky looks at me as if she’s just now seeing a person in the chair across from her, as if until now I was just a blur, a number, not even a reason not to answer the phone. For one tiny moment, she looks as if it has dawned on her how ridiculous this set of circumstances must sound.
But rather than offering an alternative, a suggestion, a moment with her supervisor, or something I can use to get through this bleeping mess, all she says is “It wasn’t our idea.”
And then she laughs. That’s right, she laughs. It’s a throaty smoker’s laugh, and like her voice, it’s too loud. But unlike a normal laugh, it carries with it no joy. I feel defeated. Despite having no desire to join in on the joke (whatever it might be), I smile back.
One day I’ll laugh about all this too. I’ll giggle and guffaw about the WIC cheese and the lines (the lines, the lines!) and the surprise of suddenly finding my expectations of a life of luxury dashed to smithereens on the side of a County welfare building.
Smoky is still chuckling as I gather my belongings, unbrake the stroller, thank her for her time, and walk out. Just before the doors swing shut behind me, I hear her call out, “Come on, people. Who’s next?”
At the time of printing, the writer is still waiting for the County letter stating whether her Medi-Cal has been renewed or denied.