You’re one of the lucky ones. You’ve snagged a seat among the tight rows of chairs welded to the floor. You’re forced to sit intimately close to the people on all sides of you—enough so that you notice whether or not they’re wearing deodorant. But at least you don’t have to stand while you wait under the fluorescent lights, smelling the room’s other combined scents—sugar, dirty diapers, cigarettes. A man with patchy tufts of facial hair sits across from you, his knees inches from yours. He is asleep and drooling a thick stain down the front of his grey sweatshirt and onto the paperwork in his hands. A guy in a knit skullcap and army jacket leans toward his friend seated next to him. He says, “I want some Kibbles-n-Bits.”
This is what you all want. It’s why you lined up in the morning fog, waiting for the doors to be unlocked.
A glance around the room reveals that the racial composition nearly matches the population of many small, northern California towns: mostly white, then Mexican, and a few African-Americans. Here, however, there is only one black man among the Mexican and white people. You make a note of this for later. Actually, most people were white. This is what you will tell friends who think they know what it’s like in the welfare office.
The caseworkers speak at a volume so low that each person strains to hear whenever one of them emerges from the back offices and announces which of you should follow him or her. They use first names only, ostensibly to preserve everyone’s anonymity. But there is always more than one Robert in the room, at all times another Maria. You watch three men named James stand and approach a caseworker who seems surprised that none were able to guess which one of them she meant. Later, you rise along with a man whose name rhymes with yours when you believe your name has been called. The caseworker says, “Uh-uh,” as if you should have known better. She looks away quickly, as if she’s shut a door: You no longer exist. You return to your seat with your nerves askew: The disapproval in her voice doesn’t make sense. Nevertheless, this is happening.
Before it was you who needed to apply for food stamps, you understood that people who work full-time don’t necessarily earn a livable income. You knew because your own wages often fell short. Hell, you conceded, you probably qualified for food stamps multiple times over the years. But you never considered it. Instead, you learned to get by with less. Food stamps were for desperate people, people with no way out.
Now you’re here under conditions much worse than for which you had been prepared.
A dazed-looking man whose belly protrudes from underneath a yellowed undershirt makes you think of possibilities you’re trying to avoid. So do the teenagers with scabs and unclean skin, the moms wearing slippers instead of shoes, and the pregnant smoker. They look how you feel: disordered, exposed. So you look away from them.
This is what you’ve learned about not having a way out: Compassion toward others is no longer among your first priorities.
A couple months earlier, when you began washing your clothing in your kitchen sink to save money, you applauded yourself for lessening the impact of your carbon footprint. I’m part of the solution, you thought. Besides, you hated laundromats. Now you didn’t have to step over hairballs and used dryer sheets or breathe the hot air, dense with synthetic fragrance. You didn’t miss peeling from the insides of washing machines the damp stray socks of strangers or sidestepping the crabby children with Doritos dust on their fingers. Still, as you hung plastic hangers of dripping, low-rise jeans and V-neck t-shirts from grape vines that grew around your deck, you were aware you’d fallen so far you no longer could afford even that.
You were adjusting the height of the heaviest massage table in the spa where you worked as a massage therapist. You heard what sounded like your pants splitting, except you couldn’t locate the tear. You told yourself that what you heard could not have been your muscles ripping because you didn’t feel pain. Later, however, the throbbing in your right shoulder and arm was bad enough that you reported it to a manager. She advised you to take off the next day (unpaid) and rest. You did the massage therapist equivalent of walking it off, which is to take a hot bath, apply ice, apply arnica gel, and assume the best. But the pain got worse. Your skin felt sensitive, as if you had a fever or the flu. Your supervisor Jennifer insisted on filing an incident report for the spa’s insurance company.
“Just in case,” she said.
Brenda the claims adjuster called you at home and asked why you hadn’t immediately seen a doctor.
“I didn’t realize I needed to,” you said.
“But you felt the need to file a claim?”
“My boss said we had to.”
“So the pain wasn’t severe enough for you to seek medical attention?”
It wasn’t a question; it was an accusation.
You had had a choice when the spa hired you: Take the paycheck deductions required to join the company health plan or pay all your monthly bills. You couldn’t do both. You haven’t had health insurance your entire adult life because you’ve never been able to afford it. You didn’t tell Brenda, whose voice had tightened with irritation when you said you don’t have a family doctor. Instead, you assured her that you’d arrive on time for your appointment with the physician to whom she referred you.
The medical professionals who examined you over the next year and a half wrote down words like impingement and strain after watching you raise your arms over your head in increasing increments of height. “Does that hurt?” They jotted down your answers. You raised your arms higher at their command. “How about that? Does that hurt?”
You answered questions on stacks of forms. You knew doctors employed by workers’ compensation were paid partially to view you with skepticism. Maybe you just wanted a few days off work. Maybe you were a whiner, not a team player. If anything, you erred on the side of downplaying your injury. The attention embarrassed you. You didn’t want to make trouble for your boss. You didn’t want to need help at all. Still, you’d switched to paper plates because washing dishes hurt your arm too much. When you pumped gas, even when you used both hands, you felt a sensation like gnawing in your shoulder, as if a rat were tearing through the connective tissue. It burned like a lit match with teeth.
You didn’t say it that way though. You said, “It’s really hard to pump gas. Like really hard.” They pressed their lips together. Jotted more notes. You wondered if they were writing that they didn’t believe you. You wondered if they poked fun at you in their notes. Patient says it’s like really hard to pump gas. LOL.
“You know,” they said, “some people can’t even wipe themselves.” They said this as a marker to which you ought to have compared yourself and felt comparatively healthy and grateful. They said this as if they were revealing the moral of the story intended to encourage you to pretend you were well enough to go back to work. They all said this.
You felt pressure to prove you weren’t a scammer. The attorney you consulted for help with the endless, confusing workers’ compensation paperwork warned you to be careful. He said insurance companies sometimes hire people to film claimants to catch them using their bodies in ways that prove they aren’t legitimately injured. He meant to be reassuring when he said, “They probably won’t tail you though. You’re not that bad, and this case isn’t worth a whole lot.” He paused. Then he said, “Some people can’t even wipe themselves.”
You worried then about appearing injured enough when you exited your car with groceries. Were you violating the terms of workers’ compensation if you were having a good day—on the pain scale that would have been a three instead of a nine—and could lift a bag of groceries with your good arm and carry a twelve-pack of toilet paper with the injured one? Would a private detective/camera man in a stakeout van film a close-up: you with your face curled into the couch after swallowing a pain pill, anticipating not the elimination of the ache, but your ability to care about it?
Soft tissue damage is difficult to verify. It amounted to you reporting “It still hurts” to doctors paid by workers’ compensation to say or not say, “I don’t think she’s lying.” You feared that if you didn’t prove yourself to your potential audience you might see yourself on the evening news included with clips of the work comp scammers collecting paychecks while faking it: the man with a slipped disk water skiing and the woman with carpal tunnel syndrome shoveling snow. Did you wince enough? Did you look camera-ready?
During the four hours you spend in the welfare office, not one child plays in Kid’s Korner, the alcove stocked with multicolored plastic toys. A poster there depicts an illustration of a family whose members emit streams of hearts to one another as they stand with their dog underneath a rainbow. Beneath this poster a sign taped to the wall reads in both English and Spanish: It is your responsibility to keep an eye on the children who are with you.
At exactly ten-thirty a.m. all of the babies cry.
A boy smacks his head on one of the Formica counters and bawls. His gap-toothed mother resembles a teenager and a middle-aged woman simultaneously. She’s wearing an enormous Phantom of the Opera t-shirt, and she points at her son and laughs, saying, “Watch it, Mister…watch it, Mister.” Her frame is wiry, prematurely hunched. You noticed her earlier, how she darted around the room in crablike zigzags—to the counter, to the exit, in and out of the restroom. She’s lost enough teeth so that she gums her words as opposed to speaking them. Her low voice comes out garbled as if her throat were filled with gravel. “Watch it, Mister,” the woman says again.
The skinny guy she’s here with—a young, but aged-looking man with the head of a snarling black panther tattooed onto his scrawny bicep—is apparently the boy’s father.
“That’s you we’re talking to—you.”
“No, you,” the boy says, seamlessly switching from tears to laughter the way children do.
Illness, you know, might explain the couple’s appearance. Still, they bring to mind people whose mug shots you’ve seen on a website that tracks the physical deterioration of meth addicts. Even your formerly compassionate self would admit that. You wonder about their lives, what specifically caused them to need to be here today. You think: Whatever it is, they’re in it together at least.
That’s when your lungs tighten from the weight of what you’ve been trying to will away—the dread that comes with being alone with a problem too big to solve. You flatten your palm to your chest. You consider that your sternum may crack and break through your skin to release your insides down the front of you.
Bills consumed your savings while you didn’t massage anyone for months. The diagnosis permanently partially disabled would have increased the money workers’ compensation was required to pay you. It was also a label that might preclude future employment. Which was worse?
Jennifer was instructed by the spa’s insurance company to provide modified duty—an impossible directive since massage therapy is, by its nature, physical labor. So you took reservations and collected payments from clients. Jennifer didn’t need another front desk person—not one she was mandated to pay at the massage therapist rate. Your front desk co-workers, who had years more experience than you, helped train you so you could get paid twice as much as each of them. For you, however, it was a significant pay cut because you usually made tips, which often doubled your hourly rate.
You apologized for the inconvenience, embarrassed to tell her that even using an eraser in the appointment book reignited the pain in your shoulder.
While sitting in the waiting rooms of doctors, lawyers, and physical therapists, you wondered if you should have done something differently. But what? Like all massage therapists, you lived with soreness in your neck and shoulders. You worked the big money days—Friday, Saturday, and Sunday—and scheduled plans around tourist season. Although the hourly rate for massage may seem high compared to other positions, few therapists work forty hours a week. The work is too physically demanding. Therapists who overdo it usually get hurt or burn out quickly. Most places you’ve worked considered four shifts a week, or twenty-four hours, full-time. At the height of your career, you worked thirty hours, or five shifts a week. It was the one year you could be considered middle class because you made over $20,000. But you were living in the expensive North Bay—a region in which potential tenants edged each other out by offering to pay landlords extra—even if the dwelling was a refurbished chicken coop with a space heater.
You were often scheduled with zero minutes between clients, leaving no time to adjust the height of your table to accommodate the varying sizes of a day’s worth of customers—an aspect critical to therapist self-care. Even the most ergonomically-conscious practitioner struggles to find balance in the factory-like setting of spas. You layered six sets of sheets—a shift’s worth— on your table. This gave you time to sip a protein shake or, more importantly, to wash your hands. Clients raved about your work. You drove home exhausted, but proud of a job well done.
It was the most money you knew how to make legally and without taking off your shirt.
A three-year-old chokes on a lollipop. His mother slaps him on the back, presumably to clear his throat, except she does it too hard—a lot too hard. You look at the floor, hoping it prevents you from feeling anything, but it’s too late. You want to scream—at everyone and no one in particular. You want the mother smacking her son to feel less comfortable doing it so openly, as if she knows none of you will do anything—not even the caseworkers who likely maintain on speed dial the number for the office that could take away her child.
When you were twelve and growing up in Pennsylvania, your mother and stepfather separated for good, eventually divorced, and sold the three-story home they’d owned. Your mother moved you and your younger sister into a rental with warped hardwood floors. You learned about the food stamps when she asked you to buy a gallon of milk from the convenience store half a block away. She handed you what looked like a checkbook of foreign currency. Printed on the front was the Liberty Bell under a three-quarter circle of stars. You had heard of food stamps, but hadn’t seen them before.
You refused to run the errand.
Your mother pointed to the large number five on a bill. “It’s just like money.”
“No,” you said, “it’s for poor people.”
She pushed the billfold at you and used the voice you knew not to mess with. “Get the goddamned milk. Now.”
You made your sister go with you and tried to get her to hold the food stamps. “She said you were the one who had to,” she said.
“Don’t be a baby.”
“You don’t be a baby. Baby.”
You walked in with purpose—like you had somewhere else to be. You narrowed your focus, concentrating on the handle to the dairy cooler, the plastic penny dish at the counter with the sign: Take one. Give one. You tried to look as if you were absorbed in thought and, therefore, could hardly pay attention to the transaction with the cashier. She was preoccupied, watching the soap opera Days of Our Lives on a small black and white television above the counter, pushed between cartons of cigarettes. She glanced at you as you tore the five-dollar voucher from the binding, not noticing you were paying with something other than money. You were waiting for a look of scorn that never came. You were just another kid buying milk for her mother. You walked home, burning on the inside. You couldn’t return to that store. Not when that cashier was working at least.
Back at the house you pushed the milk into the refrigerator so it knocked over the two-liter bottle of orange soda. Your mother lifted her eyebrow at you. “Give me real money next time,” you said, stomping upstairs to your bedroom. Your mother didn’t make you use food stamps after that. When she used them at the supermarket while you were with her, you took a few steps back and studied the rack of candy bars, acting as if you weren’t with her—as if doing so might excuse you from being poor.
Though you pretended otherwise, your mother probably received some form of assistance until you graduated from high school.
Your caseworker, Gwen leads you down a hallway. She has dull, pale skin and small, closely-set eyes. Her blouse and skirt, which don’t suit her coloring or her body type, hang on her boney frame so that she looks as if she’s playing dress-up in adult clothing. It’s possible you wouldn’t have noticed this had you not spent three and a half hours waiting for her. Or if she hadn’t turned from you when you reached to shake her hand.
Gwen’s office is nondescript and without any personal items marking the room hers because the room isn’t hers. The offices were designed to be used interchangeably so staff can occupy any of the rooms and be switched to another one at any given moment—just like the spas. Each desk has a computer, pens and pencils, stacks of blank forms to be signed, authorized and mailed, faxed or filed someplace else. A forgettable print hangs on the wall. She wears an I’m-over-it expression you imagine she spreads across her face each morning as she wipes the desk of the cookie crumbs of whoever worked there the day before.
It’s Gwen’s job to scrutinize people for worthiness, weeding out the deadbeats and the con artists, like the doctors and the claims adjusters and the clerks at Disability. She’s been drained of whatever empathy she may have possessed when she graduated with a degree in social work. You can tell by the way her voice stays flat when she scans your intake form and says, “I’m going to check and make sure you answered all the questions.” As if she already knows you didn’t.
“Your need is not considered urgent, technically.”
This, you think, cannot possibly be true.
“I still have to pay rent.”
Imagine dropping a pebble into a pond and seeing no evidence of its impact, no concentric circles rippling out from the spot where the stone hit the water, no sign that you’d disturbed the surface. This is an accurate description of Gwen’s reaction.
You tell Gwen about your injury and about your return to college sponsored by the Department of Rehabilitation. “I’m living on student loans.”
This gets Gwen’s attention. “You’re a full-time student?”
“Only one more semester,” you say, anticipating a change in Gwen’s demeanor now that she understands how proactive you’ve been. In fact, you smile because despite everything, you feel proud at least of this.
Gwen does not share these feelings.
“Full-time students must work a minimum of twenty hours a week to qualify.”
You tell her you are about to start a required, but unpaid internship. Gwen shakes her head. “No,” she says, “that’s not considered a job.”
“But it is a job. I’m just not getting paid.”
Gwen looks at you as if you are trying to pull a fast one.
You will not cry in front of Gwen telling you an activity that includes a boss isn’t a job. Instead, you explain your case in greater detail because surely, she will see the phrase leech on the system doesn’t apply. You say, “My pay was cut in half once the spa was no longer required to pay the modified duty rate.”
“So you are working?”
You tell Gwen about the thirty-minute commute. How the lower rate of pay meant you barely paid for the gas it took to get there and back.
“So, you just quit?”
The coffee you downed at breakfast snips in your gut like scissors, and you don’t like the way Gwen looks at you. It’s the way you’ve looked at men you’ve caught trying to peek up your skirt on the subway: I don’t think so. Still, your story makes sense. Your need is temporary. You can bring her any piece of paper she needs—doctors’ notes, the name of your physical therapist, how many times you can do the press-your-hand-on-the-ball exercise without whimpering (none). So you proceed because you have to and because you’re not convinced that Gwen hasn’t made a mistake.
“Doesn’t it count that I’m in a state-sponsored retraining program?” I’m part of the solution.
“You need to work twenty hours a week. Period.”
You stumble over your words as a lump settles into your throat. Where is the space on the forms for you to write that you were the one looking for a job with your arm in a sling? What about the weeks you spent in a Disability Services classroom learning a speech recognition software program so you could do coursework without typing?
But there is no box to check for your circumstance. Therefore, there is no solution.
“It doesn’t count.”
The look of contempt on Gwen’s face is unfathomable. The scorn in her voice makes you feel actually crazy. Because how is it possible that you’ve brought this onto yourself? How can it be that the system—the one you paid into for twenty-plus years— doesn’t have remedies for people like you—normally highly employable, but momentarily in need of assistance?
Gwen, you know, isn’t paid to answer those questions. She’s looking at you like she’s sucking on a slice of dill pickle.
It’s time to go.
You walk home squinting and rubbing your eyes, pretending for passing drivers that you’re not crying because you feel like a brush burn—even glances from strangers sting. You’re hollow, and it’s hard to keep moving your legs toward home—your no-bedroom apartment—because your instinct is to freeze and disappear. Instead, you push yourself up the hill past the bakery where you sometimes buy croissants for half price at the end of the day. You consider this: Being a hard worker isn’t necessarily enough, and being smart doesn’t mean you can figure out a problem that’s bigger than you. The system designed to help can say no, not you—even when you’ve pulled yourself halfway out of the hole.
You start a list of inexpensive foods: tofu, kale, oatmeal, beans.
Ten days later, you receive in the mail the official rejection of your food stamps application. Even though you are expecting it, your breath catches, as if hooked by something jagged in your windpipe. You read the word typed in all-caps: DENIED.
Then you notice Gwen checked the wrong box. According to Social Services, you are a man.
Rumpus original art by Justin Limoges.