The first time I went to the food shelf it was a Friday, and I wouldn’t be paid until Monday. The cupboards were bare but for odds and ends that would make one sodium laden, frightful meal. The kids would be there at three, gunning for snacks. Time to suck it up and go.
The Catholic Charities in St Cloud run a nice operation. It’s spacious as an airplane hanger, with quilts forming a colorful false ceiling. A thin man with sandy gray hair greets you and tells you what to do. Take this number, it’s this color, go when they call your name. He says it with a smile, gracious but not condescending. The women who work the counter are like any midwestern, middle-aged women who run small beurocratic hives of civic authority. Nattering amongst themselves, sighing heavily as they push paperwork at you and fill out a card with your name on it. They do not check income. If you are there, they assume you need to be, which is a small mercy.
They walk you around with your cart and you can take an allotted number of items from each area, depending on your household size. An elderly man checked off items from a clipboard as we walked. I got a lot of food. A lot of strange food. Huge bags of frozen fruit from some restaurant, a wide variety of beans, a bag of frozen french fries probably from Perkins, a jar of grape leaves that sit in my cupboard still. Pastries from the Cold Spring bakery, including a pie. A Pie! And zucchini. They gave away boxes of it at the end, after your cart was weighed. A cardboard sign said “Take all you want”. It would go bad soon, but I have many, many uses for zucchini. I grabbed two boxes.
I lugged my booty up the back stairs of the duplex and into the narrow kitchen and stashed it. My kitchen was brimming, I was wearing a sundress and I felt good. I had food for my family. I wondered if I should feel badly about taking charity, about needing it. I didn’t. I looked at the zucchini. Too much. I grabbed a box and headed over to Tracy and Kramer’s place. They lived in an apartment building next door. I cut through the laundry room of their building, and came out on the other side, at the base of their back steps, and walked up to their back porch on the third floor.
I found Kramer in her lawn chair, doing soduko and listening to the radio. If I had not found Kramer doing this very thing I would have fallen over the balcony with surprise. She glanced up non-chalant and addressed me, “Crazy Neighbor Lady. Whatcha got there?” “Zucchini.” Tracy came out wiping her hands on a towel. I gestured at the box of zucchini. “You can make fritters.” I suggested. Her eyes brightened. “Look what I just got!”. She opened the screen door and I saw a fry-daddy still in the box. Later that night, I met Kramer at the bottom of my stairs and she handed me a tin foil packet of zucchini fritters, with a small bowl of home made ranch dressing. I ate them warm, at my windows, looking out at the stoplights lined up on Hwy 23, thinking about the past year.
People told me it would be hard. I was flip, “I’ve been po’ befo’e!” I said. But when the meager savings ran dry, and I was living on 85% of a junior copywriter’s salary, paying my own rent for the first time in five years, I felt the pinch. More like a squeeze. Playing the cup game where you pay one bill and run late on the next, pick up that one the next month, pay a different one. Keep the creditors at bay. Make your rent, buy generic, budget. It was true, I had been poor before, but never with two children in my care.
They asked for things constantly. From the gum ball at the grocery store to the Florida vacation, the answer was always no. I would be driving, and from the back seat they would ask, “When can we go to [fill in the blank]? When can we get a [insert item here]”. I would burst into tears. I begged them to stop asking for things. I dragged them to pawn shops and I thinned my book collection monthly. Money came in from family, from friends. Once, a paper bag with a cookie decorating kit, mardi gras beads and a grocery store gift card appeared at the bottom of the stairs. A generous gift from a girlfriend who had once walked in my shoes. I cried then too.
I worked an extra job, and I looked for a new job. I tried to get food stamps, but I made too much money. I tried to get legal aid to help with my divorce, but I made too much money. All around me friends lost jobs, and I felt lucky to have mine, though I grew increasingly unhappy there. But a woman who decides to divorce her husband in the middle of a recession doesn’t get too many choices, doesn’t have the luxury of job dissatisfaction. Finally, I suppose I did what every Republican Politician wants you to do. I pulled up the proverbial bootstraps. I got good and pissed off about it. I was too smart to be this poor. This is bullshit. And then I had the benefit of luck, and synchronicity, and incredible opportunity. I seized it. I was offered a new job, which would pay enough to allow me to move to the cities again, to take care of myself, to divorce my husband. I hung up the phone and I wept. Then I screamed. My relief was profound.
I called my friend Doug and told him about the job, and then said, “I know I don’t say this often, but you were right.”
He laughed, “Yeah, about what?”
“It’s hard. It was hard. Harder than I ever thought it would be. Being poor, leaving Dave. You were right. I didn’t know.” He sighed on the other end; my dramatic revelations are tiresome. I know this.
“Well, good for you.” he said. “You’re gonna make it after all, just like Mary Tyler Moore. Though I always thought of you as more of a Rhoda.” I hung up happy.
That was months ago. Now it was summer, and while I still needed a bump from Catholic Charities, I could see a way out. I could exhale without it becoming a sob. I had friends, neighbors, fritters, hope.
The last time I went to the food shelf, it was July. I took Doug, who was a chef, and so the indignity of it was something we could only laugh about. On the way out he snuck me a sly smile. We loaded the groceries into the trunk, sweating.
“Come over to my house tonight? I’ve got the AC running. We’ll get some beer. Bring Otto.” Doug couldn’t refuse, it was too hot – and Otto, a 110 pound German Shepherd, couldn’t be denied. I picked him up and he loaded a bag of groceries and Otto into the car. We stopped at the store and he picked up water crackers, I bought a Belgian beer, which I really couldn’t afford, and a six pack of PBR tall boys, which I could.
We cracked the beer and sat in front of the fan, which blew air from of the window unit. “I got caviar.” Doug said. I clapped my hands like a toddler in delight. “And veal. I snuck them in the cart at the food shelf when you weren’t looking. We can eat the caviar now, while it’s hot, and I’ll cook the veal later, when it cools down.” I had goat cheese in the refrigerator, and we spread that one the water crackers, then finished with a glop of salty brown fish eggs. I had never had caviar before. It reminded me of the ocean, the salt of it. It made me feel lucky, like I had a delicious secret.
When we met, I was married and solidly middle class. Doug was the Executive Chef at the best restaurant in town. He made me lunches that nearly caused me to lose consciousness. Curry shrimp with mango rice, salmon with saffron risotto, bison osso bucco, the best fried chicken. Then, the restaurant folded, my marriage fell apart. It was more or less complicated than that, but bottom line, it was hard times, and we had spent our fare share of it in co-misery. We staved off the darkness; made music, cooked dinners, drank cheap wine, fought and made up. In a few months I would be moving to St Paul, which was scary but exciting. I didn’t know where I would live, how I would find an apartment, if I would be able to afford it. But here we were now, like a couple of swells. I licked some caviar from my thumb and smiled. There are times when you have too much zucchini, or too much sadness. An ocean of need or just a small jar of caviar. The secret is: it is all best shared.