Faraway: Get Out of Your World
Among the Poor
The following is the last in a series of a first-hand account of what it's like to apply for welfare in America. The photo above might not look like it has anything to do with the story, but it will take on meaning at the end.
I arrive one hour early as instructed. This time I get out my notebook. In a few minutes, the door to the back office opens and an older black woman steps out.
“Okay, people, this is not welfare as you might think it is. This is a work program. If you can’t work, you should leave, go see your doctor and get a letter to verify your disability. Otherwise, stick around. Today we have five social workers on duty. There are twenty-six of you here. That’s not bad. Consider yourselves lucky. I’ve been here when only four workers have had to interview thirty applicants. If everything runs smoothly, we should get out of here before 5:00. Here’s how it works. We call your name in no particular order. Things don’t go alphabetical around here and you can’t take a number like at the deli. That means that you just have to wait. If you’re still here at 4:45, though, you’ll have to get a new appointment. We close at 5:00. I’m sorry if you don’t get called today. On your way home, stop to buy a lotto ticket, your luck can only get better.”
I settle back in my chair and continue writing. Other applicants pass the time on their cell phones. I wonder how people who are destitute can afford such luxuries, but then, this is America. We find ways to indulge. After a good twenty minutes or so, a social worker comes out to call the first person in for their interview. I see how this process could take a while. I figure I’ll get a fair amount of work done. In a few minutes the elevator opens and out steps the same couple from the waiting room scene of the other day. You know, the spiky blonde and the unlaced shoe guy. She approaches the intake window and plops down a stack of papers on the counter. Her man turns to look over the crowd in the waiting room and smiles as he finds a buddy of his leaning against the window sill. He ambles to the back wall.
The hum of the waiting room is pierced by the blonde shouting at the clerk, “What do you mean, I have to make a new appointment? I’m only a half hour late!”
The blonde’s main squeeze hears his woman’s protest and bolts to the front counter, “Look, I don’t have time to make another god damn appointment. I got more important shit to do than hang around here,” the boyfriend bellows. Then he looks across the room toward his friend and says, “Shit, I’d still be asleep if it weren’t for havin’ to dick around here. What’s a hundred sixty dollars gonna get me?”
He snatches the papers off the counter and hurls them across the room, then saunters toward the elevator. His velour girl scoops them up as he yells, “Leave that shit there. We don’t need it.”
The drama is interrupted by a cell phone ringing directly behind me.
“Hello beautiful daughter of mine. How was school today? Uh huh... that sounds good. Hey listen, I’ll call you back. I’m uh... I’m uh... in this thing right now. I’ll be home later. Daddy loves you.”
A couple hours pass without any further commotion. A few people come in to pick up their mail. I’m absorbed in my notes when I hear my name called. The same security officer from the food stamp class escorts me to the back offices. I am directed to the last cubicle on the right.
An Asian woman, smartly dressed in a navy pencil skirt and tattersall shirt, stands up from her desk, extends her hand, asks me to please sit down. She looks over my application for a minute, then says, “General assistance isn’t really much. The maximum award is $158 per month which you can draw for nine months during one calendar year. After that, if you still require assistance, you must wait three months to reapply. And, by the way, the money is given out as a loan.”
“Oh, I had no idea that welfare is a loan,” I reply.
“Well, it’s not like anyone is going to come knocking on your door to repay it. However, it will be deducted from your tax returns.” she responds, “In order to receive ongoing benefits, you must show proof of applying for at least three jobs per week. We will issue a bus pass for you.”
“Okay, I understand.”
“Is this your first time applying for government assistance?”
“Well, it’s been awhile,” I answer, “about forty years.”
“I thought so. You seem disoriented. A lot has changed in forty years. Just to let you know how things work now, every county is different. If you lived across the bay, the cash is not given out as a loan, but you are expected to work in exchange for benefits.”
She grins, “Well, you don an orange vest and clean the streets.”
My mind flashes on the image of myself in a day-glo orange vest, faded jeans and clunky work boots, stooped over the gutter, picking up trash, “How many hours per week do you work and is the dollar amount the same per month?”
“I’m not sure about the hour requirements, but the cash benefit is about the same, “ she answers.
“I still have to get my landlord’s signature and a few other documents copied, then I will mail it all in. I appreciate you helping me today.”
“It’s my pleasure, and I wish you the best of luck,” she responds.
I dose in and out of sleep that night. Somewhere in my lucid dreams, Tillie Olsen’s opening line, “I stand here ironing,” from her story, Tell Me A Riddle, circles my mind like a ticker tape. I get up. Turn on my computer. Search for the story. Download a copy. Read it through. Lean back in my chair.
I stood ironing when my son was an infant, back in ‘71. I ironed his cloth diapers. The cotton flannel ones I sewed on that Kenmore machine whose bobbin never let a thread go by without puckering it. I stood there ironing dozens of diapers in my kitchen on the board that dropped from the wall. Daily pressing out the wrinkles of my crumpled life. Bearing down on worries. Will the water get shut off tomorrow? Will the landlord let us go another month? What to fix for dinner? That last one was easy. Never a need to survey my cupboards coming up with recipes. The sparse content dictated what to cook. I remember a time when all I had was a box of raisins, a can of coffee, a sack of flour, a bottle of corn oil, and a cylinder of salt. I combined all that with the red cabbage living lonely in the fridge next to the quart of milk and a half dozen eggs. Dinner that night was a cabbage-raisin pie. I fluted the edge as lovely as my grandmother’s.
I close my computer. Head for my laundry room. It’s 2:00 a.m. I open the cabinet and pull down the ironing board. Plug in my iron. Fill it with water. Get out a stack of pillow cases. I stand here ironing. Without my children banging old pots and spoons on that kitchen floor. Without my husband hunched over his old chemistry books studying for the exam he never took. Without that old Kenmore stitching up five baby layettes. I stand here ironing now. Pressing stories out, smoothing wrinkled seams, folded in among the poor.
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