Yesterday was a day of several mini-tantrums about everything from Doug’s spacing on a school paper (“Why are we paying for it if you’re not going to take it seriously?!”) to the fact that I canceled babysitting for Dawn because I wasn’t feeling mentally well enough (“I ruined her night, and then I ruined my own night too, because now Dawn hates me!”). There was one underlying theme, however, the thing that was really getting me into this live-wire state, and that theme came out as I was sitting on the couch looking at the handful of bills we’d just gotten from the mailbox.
“How are we ever going to get married?” I wailed, as Doug pulled up his Toyota account on the computer and discovered that the buy-off amount for his loan and the amount that he still owes on his truck are now roughly the same – meaning that we’ve already paid the interest and are just now starting to pay for the vehicle itself, which in turn means that refinancing would now actually cost us money instead of saving us money. “We’ll never be able to get your teeth fixed or buy a house or afford babies. We just can’t ever get ahead!”
Doug tried to tell me that no one is getting ahead right now, that maybe we’re a little behind the curve for couples our age, but not by much. He held us up against the general pool of our coworkers and tried to reassure me that hardly any of them have kids. And, when I gave examples of a few that do, he kept saying, “Yeah, but her husband makes good money.”
“How come my husband doesn’t make good money?!” I cried – helpful and reassuring as always.
For dinner, after I’d calmed down for the night, Doug made macaroni and cheese (from the box) and green beans (from the can) at my request. He then arranged them on my plate to look like a yellow face with green hair, and smiling pepperoni features. I wish I’d taken a picture to post, but I didn’t realize I was going to be confessing to all this here.
Today at work, though, I had a mom and daughter come through my line with nearly $400 worth of groceries packed neatly and compactly into a single shopping cart. The cart did not include anything that would usually drive the bill up to $400 – high-end meats, wine, vitamins; instead, it mostly contained basics like peanut butter, vegetable oil, bread, honey, onions, and juice. At the last minute, the daughter, in her late teens, added a bottle of sparkling water for herself.
“I have to ask an embarrassing question,” the mom said when she first approached my register. She was nearly whispering. “I have an EBT [food stamps] card. Do you know if I can buy Emergen-C with it?”
I told her that she couldn’t, because it’s a non-food item, but that she could include the Emergen-C in her order and the machine would give her a balance for it after the EBT had debited the things it could cover. She said no, that she’d wait until next time. “I just got this, and I literally have nothing,” she said.
As I checked, and the daughter bagged, the mom watched to make sure that every corner of her fridge and pantry was going to be appropriately filled. I usually bristle against people using EBT, because I’ve seen too many who are obviously taking advantage of and abusing our welfare system – even though I know in my heart that the system is in place to help people who really need it, and that those needful, grateful people do exist, too. But as I saw what this family (of five, I learned) was buying, I realized that the woman’s statement that she “had nothing” was not an exaggeration.
“I want to ask you,” I said as I handed the woman her receipt – fully as long as my arm, “but let me know if I’m crossing a line: what have you been eating until now?”
“It’s not crossing a line at all,” she said. She wasn’t defensive so much as defiant. And proud. “I’m 47 years old, and I’ve worked my whole life. I’ve served my country. And last year, I got sick. I couldn’t work. I waited to ask for help until I hit the very, very bottom. And I just got a new job, the same day that this [the benefits] kicked in. So I don’t intend to use it for long – no more than six weeks. I was so embarrassed to even go in there. But to answer your question, we were literally down to just bread.”
I looked over at her daughter, still silently bagging next to me. I was a little ashamed that I’d asked, but also really glad. For the millionth time this week, I wanted to cry. “Wow,” I said. “Congratulations on the new job. And don’t be embarrassed – I’ve always said if I could get help, I would. Because even now, I work here five days a week, and I still feel like I could use a little help. It’s hard right now, for all of us.”
The woman nodded. “And as soon as I get my first paycheck, I’m coming back to get my Emergen-C. I can’t wait until I can get back to taking one every day.”
There was something about this pair that struck me: their pride, their practicality, the fact that the daughter packs bags better than half my coworkers. And the fact that the mother, once she has her own money to spend, will be treating herself with vitamins. I would have liked to give them something – flowers, maybe, or Emergen-C packets – but I have a feeling they would have refused my charity.
When I got home from work, I relayed this story to Doug, who made the connection that I, at the time, had been blind to. Sitting on the couch, with our pile of bills next to us, he put his arm around me and said gently, “See? I told you: no one is getting ahead right now.”