Faraway: Get Out of Your World
Back at Welfare
Story continued from last issue of PONDER (see previous post below)
Once again, I’m fifteen minutes early. Sure, I could have taken a later train, but I didn’t want to chance it. The packet for public assistance states in big bold letters, “IF YOU ARE LATE FOR AN APPOINTMENT, EVEN BY ONE MINUTE, YOU WILL FORFEIT YOUR APPLICATION AND HAVE TO START ALL OVER.”
It’s a cold gray foggy morning, my least favorite weather of any climate: forty-five degrees with a light rain that can’t make up its mind. Nevertheless, I take my time walking the two and a half blocks from the transit station to the county offices. I want to check out the neighborhood. I notice a small barber shop wedged between a couple of vacant storefronts. A sandwich board sits on the sidewalk advertising the establishment: “Old School Barbershop - Walk-ins Welcome.” The front door is propped open. A few old men sit in folding chairs along the wall. How I would love to be invisible for a few minutes to step inside and hear their conversation. I imagine that they are swapping great stories of times when their city was an engine of industrial might, where a man could earn a decent wage. Or maybe they’re debating whose wife bakes the best peach cobbler. Or whose grandchild has the cutest dimples. I’ll have to get those stories some other time.
I cross the street to the county office. I find a bench nearby. The drizzle continues but not enough to drive me to the shelter of the doorway. A petite black woman in an oversized trench coat sits down next to me. I say hello. She returns the greeting while taking out a pack of cigarettes from her purse.
Almost immediately, a nice-looking Latino man with a neatly-trimmed mustache approaches her. I recognize him as one of the men from my food stamps class the other day. He sat right across from me. He was one of the homeless who needed help filling out the form.
“Can I pay you for a cigarette?”
“How much?” she responds.
“Twenty-five cents?” he replies with a winning grin.
She takes a long drag while he anxiously awaits her answer, “No, I don’t think so,” she replies.
“Fifty cents?” he persists.
“No, I really don’t have many left,” she says.
He smiles and wishes her a good day as he goes back to the growing crowd waiting at the door.
“I can’t afford to share my stuff,” she says to me, “I could use the cash. I only have a taxi voucher to get back, but fifty cents for a cigarette isn’t gonna help me much.”
“You live around here?” I ask.
“Umm... yeah,” she replies hesitatingly.
Just then a frail white woman whose weathered face alone tells of her worn-down life, approaches my bench-mate.
“Can I please have a cigarette?” she implores.
“Uhh .. no, I can’t. I don’t have many left.”
“Please? I can give you a bus pass,” she barters.
The black woman looks over my shoulder to the waiting crowd.
“Guess he won’t see this,” she says to me, then taps a cigarette out and lights it for the lady.
“Thank you, God will bless you, I know he will,” the woman says, “You’ve got a good heart.”
The crowd begins to shuffle toward the door. I get in line. A man with a bronzed face stuck under a cowboy hat steps in the elevator. His denim jacket and jeans look authentically faded and frayed, not like the fake ones bought by teenagers at the mall. I glance at his shoes. His boots tell a story deep as the wrinkles on his face. I suspect he’s not from around here, then he says, “Shit. This fog chills my bones colder than a well-digger’s ass in Montana.” I shoot him a knowing grin, not that I’ve dug any wells in Montana, but I have spent many a sub-zero day in that Big Sky Country.
The routine is the same as the other day. We are told to wait until the class for general assistance is called. I find a seat and pull out a book. I’m reading the former NEA chairman’s book, “Arts, Inc., How Greed and Neglect Have Destroyed Our Cultural Rights.” I have an earnest interest in promoting art as a way to alleviate societal ills. Call me idealistic.
I glance up to notice a woman with spiky blonde hair, maybe mid-twenties, in line at the intake window. She’s dressed in snug-fitting royal blue velour pants and a pink sweater. A toweringly handsome black man in a shiny-new Nike jacket, baggy jeans and unlaced athletic shoes, sidles up to her back, puts his arms around her waist and says, “Good morning, sweetheart.”
She elbows him hard and turns to give him a dirty look. He laughs and heads to the back of the line.
When she is finished at the window, she sits along the wall. After the Nike-jacketed guy gets through the line, he saunters to a chair, walking right by her without a glance. Two minutes later, she looks down the wall to see where he is, gets up and moves to the empty chair beside him, puts her hand on his leg and her head on his shoulder. I am surprised. What prompted all that? Has she decided to make a stab at a relationship with this guy? Does she already know him and they were just playing around the whole time? These and many other questions will be answered in the next episode of “The Waiting Room at Social Services.”
In the meantime, a woman announces the class for general assistance. As before, a security guard escorts us to the classroom. We check our names off on a sign-in sheet at the door and take a seat. The instructor, a lady with a close-cropped Afro and dressed in light gray sweats, gives the same speech on following directions and paying attention that we heard in the food stamp class.
Then she says, “Listen. I know this is a lot, you all being here, applying for welfare. I know it’s difficult. Life can get tough and that can be depressing. That’s right. We’re all depressed. You’ve got to be if you’re so down and out that you’re here today. I’m depressed, too. My mama died eight years ago and I still miss her, so it’s nothin’ to be ashamed about, being depressed, it’s just part of life sometimes. I’m not sayin’ you’re crazy, I’m just sayin’ that you’re depressed. No offense. Okay, now that we’ve got that out of the way, I’m going to show you a video on the application process, then you’re gonna take a mental health test.”
An Asian girl sitting next to me raises her hand, “If we don’t pass the test, will we be disqualified?”
“No, the test is just to determine if you need to see the county psychiatrist or not. Don’t worry about it. Just answer the questions best you can,” she explains.
The video lasts ten minutes. Then the instructor passes out the test. It’s one of those where you have to fill in the little circle with a #2 pencil. Fifty-three questions. She tells us that we can jump ahead, rather than wait for the recorded monotone voice that slowly reads every question and repeats the same multiple choice responses after each one: never, hardly ever, sometimes, frequently or all of the time.
The questions cover a variety of issues. Here are some random examples: Are you afraid to ride public transit? Do you ever feel like punching someone? Do you think that God is punishing you for your sins? I get through them quickly, then sit there for a good twenty minutes trying to tune out the guy on the recording.
Finally we are dismissed and told to sit in the waiting room until our names are called to receive our next appointment where we will meet with our intake worker to determine eligibility. We are informed to arrive an hour early for the interview. My appointment is set for next Wednesday afternoon at 2:00 p.m.
To be continued in the next issue of PONDER