I drove 30 minutes to the county’s only social services office in my twenty year old Chevy that got seven miles per gallon. I nicknamed the car my “Mercedes,” feeling so down on myself that that would be the closest I would ever come to having my Benz. The Caprice was a monster vehicle someone had given me for free at the demise of my Hyundai. When I finally arrived, I was told by the receptionist that they were no longer taking food stamp applications for the rest of the day. It was 11:50. I was instructed to come back tomorrow. They were breaking for lunch. When I explained that I would not have enough money to pay for gas to attempt the return trip, she told me I could wait in the sitting area until they finished their sandwiches. I had not eaten anything that day and had only a packet of crackers with me to munch on.
A divorced Jewish woman in my forties, living in New York State’s Hudson Valley, I didn’t want food stamps. I didn’t want the cashier at the town’s only supermarket seeing how low I had sunk. Although I was hungry, I wanted to make it on my own. A teacher, the only jobs I could find were either low paying like a tour guide or off the books work being a nanny or a counter bitch. I imagined I would have had to go to Walmart to purchase food. At that point, no one there knew me. This was during President Bush’s era (Bush 2), about six years ago. To kill time, I sat in my day before laundry, chocolate stained jeans next to a box of free hats and dirty mittens, flipping through old Highlights magazines and watched as African American, Hispanic, and white people came in looking for assistance with housing and Medicaid. Some were disabled using walkers, others brought little children with them. One single mother told me how she was having trouble finding an apartment she could afford. She had two young sons.
After the employees were done with their lunch hour, I was buzzed in and led to a back room. I had to fill out the paperwork again. It was about ten pages long. They didn’t like my original answers, saying the money figures didn’t add up. They requested my landlord’s name and address. They wanted proof I was divorced. I was turned down for food stamps. The car running on empty, I was sent home with a ten dollar Salvation Army gas voucher. No food in the house, I was given coffee, raw spaghetti and two stale bagels. The food pantry wouldn’t be open for three more days. The Rasmussen Report says 40% of the American population thinks it’s too easy to get food stamps. At least one in seven receive food assistance today. I wonder how many more have been turned away or just won’t go for the sustenance.
Five years later, on January 14, 2010, President Obama’s America. Different administration, same old economic troubles. This time I was living closer to New York City. New to the area, I didn’t know where the food pantries were and hadn’t had time yet to start hoarding canned goods. I didn’t want to apply for food stamps. I remembered what happened the last time I tried. Instead of getting the help my former tax dollars were supposed to step in to provide in an emergency, I was a white professional who used to teach and I was looked at suspiciously. Social Services had made me feel bad, as if I were stealing from the system to get t-bone steaks. I’m a vegetarian. A family member convinced me that this time everyone was getting food stamps. Wearing my black coat lined in rips and black boots with worn soles, I made yet another 30 minute trip to a social services office in yet another old car with barely a drop of gas and, now, a lapsed inspection sticker. The Old Tanta wouldn’t pass as the brakes didn’t work and I couldn’t afford to get the car fixed. To evade a ticket, I parked in a lot.
A young tall black man cornered me as I walked to the office. He threw me against a wall. With an adrenaline rush and at 5’1” short, I was able to slide away. I ran into the street. My attacker yelled out, “What are you doing!” No one else was around. I stumbled into the building I thought I was supposed to go to. After I went through the metal detector, the guard said I was at the wrong address, the right location a couple of blocks away. Wheezing because I just realized what had happened and now teary eyed, I told him I had been attacked. I was directed to the police officer, who was sitting on the side reading a newspaper. I told the officer I had been pushed up against a building. He said there was nothing he could do. He wouldn’t take a report. Why didn’t I call 911? Why would I have needed to? I was afraid to leave the building. The officer would only walk me to the corner, the same spot where I ran into trouble earlier. I was alone. I wandered into the street, thinking it was safer than the sidewalk.
I got to the right office for food stamps. Went through security. The insides of my handbag were rummaged through by a guard. He examined the chapstick, the generic benedryl capsules, the hair brush. The room was filled with men talking about time spent in jail. As I filled out the forms, I overheard talk about gangs, time spent and drug busts. I stood on line. A woman tried to jump in front of me. When I got to the clerk’s window, I was told it was too late to apply. Again, it was 11:50. They took a look at my address and said I was at the wrong location. I was met with a blank stare when I mentioned the other office they told me to go to was further away. Fearing the man who pushed me up against a wall was still around, I did a slow jog in the middle of the street back to the municipal lot and jumped into my car. I noticed I got a ticket.