I used to live in the Republic of Ireland, in Dublin.
Nearly every day that I lived there, I would stop and deliberately commit something to memory, because I knew that at some point, I would have to go back to the US. And I didn’t have a camera.
Even if I had had one, I don’t think I would have been able to capture what it was I was seeing and feeling. Certainly there is no camera that can reproduce the scent of burning peat on a winter’s morning (in Dublin), and contrast that with the scent of burning coal on a winter’s morning (in Belfast).
At any rate, some of the things I loved were the cobblestones in Dublin. And the rain, which, after years and years, made the cobblestones worn with an indescribable patina. Slowly, drip by drip, the rain changed the face of cobblestones without erasing their very nature.
And so it is with people, I think. Experiences that, over time, change our faces – not just our physical ones – but hopefully not our natures.
From Ireland back to Memphis, and then to Hollidaysburg, Pennsylvania…where I live now. Where I came to find a better life (healthcare), and ended up in a nightmare from which I finally escaped. I have been healing, and trying to decide where to go next.
When I have the funds to do so (or win the PA Lottery heh).
This doesn’t feel like home to me.
And I had an experience last week that I would not wish on anyone. It was in the grocery store. It put me in mind of raindrops, but not because of the weather.
I use foodstamps, in the form of an EBT card. That morning, I had checked my EBT balance to make sure I had enough for food – having bought the bulk of my food that previous Saturday – and then paid $6 to go to the grocery store. $6, to someone who is on disability, is a lot of money. In my case, it was my last $6 until the next check.
But I needed meds, and milk, so I went.
I carefully counted up the items in my cart, in order to make sure I didn’t go over and have my card declined. You know, I am that person who tries to stay out of your way while I am parked to the side of an aisle, staring at my cart and counting in my head.
That person to whom you say “excuse me!” in a rather loud voice, to make me move, even if you can get around me anyway. Because I just happen to be standing directly in front of that exact item that you need right now dammit.
Heaven forbid you do what I usually do, which is either wait, or get something else and come back to the item I need.
I am that person in the check-out line who buys organic food, you know the kind of food you claim you cannot afford. To whom you say nothing, but loudly comment to the person you’re with that you wish you could afford organic food but your paycheck won’t cover it (with extra emphasis on the word “paycheck”).
And last week, I was that person whose EBT card was declined. With 5 people in line behind me.
That is one of my big fears – having my EBT declined. It is one of the most embarrassing things a poor person can have happen to him/her at the grocery store.
So, in addition to the ‘normal’ indignities that come with being a foodstamp shopper in the grocery store (in the suburbs), I had the additional horror of a declined EBT card.
My EBT card has not swiped in years. Meaning that cashiers have to key in the numbers. My speech is always the same to them, “I’m sorry but my card won’t swipe and you have to key it in, and they won’t send me a new card, I’m sorry.” (My previous caseworker had told me that, no, I can’t have a new card because mine won’t swipe.)
So the cashier, who I think was new, keyed it in. A screen I had never seen before popped up, and I won’t go into detail but I am sure it’s not the right one, so I mentioned that to the cashier, who just looked at me blankly and said, “Put your PIN number in.”
I did. And it got declined.
“But this can’t be,” I protested to the cashier, “as I just checked my balance and it is $33.56!”
Cashier hands me a receipt that says “0”. It has the last 4 digits of my EBT card number, but not the whole thing, so I have no idea what he keyed in.
I asked him to try it again.
“Your balance is 0,” he said. “You don’t have any left on your card.”
I showed him the store receipt from the last time I was in the store, a few days earlier, that said $33.56.
“You must have spent that between then and now,” he said.
He wouldn’t try it again, he just kept repeating that my balance was 0. And then called a supervisor to void the transaction. By now, my face was bright red. Could it be I was mistaken?
(You may recall that I did check the balance right before I went to the store. This story just shows that, when treated like a less-than-human, you begin to doubt yourself.)
I went to the front of the store, sat down on a chair, and called the EBT hotline.
“Your foodstamp balance is $33.56.”
Now I was angry. Clearly the cashier had not keyed it in correctly, or had pushed the wrong button, or something. So I went to the customer service desk and tried to explain.
I say “tried”, because they just. wouldn’t. listen.
The front end manager took my card, stared at it, then did something with the keypad on her phone. It wasn’t to key in the number, because she wasn’t looking at it while she messed with whatever it was she was doing.
“Your balance is 0,” she stated, looking at the 2 receipts I showed her (one from that day that said 0, and the one from the previous trip that said $33.56).
“But I just now called them, ” I replied, “and the recording said my balance is $33.56. Either your cashier keyed in it wrong, or something’s wrong with your system.”
“There’s nothing wrong with our system,” she shot back, rather disdainfully. She continued, “Our system goes directly to the Dept of Welfare,” she explained.
“No, I’m quite sure it doesn’t,” I replied, getting irate now. “Your store probably has a system that connects to something, but it doesn’t go directly to the EBT place. I just called them. Want me to call them again so you can listen?”
“Your balance is 0,” she said. I guess she thought if she kept repeating it, it would somehow be true. Or she thought I was lying. Or both.
“So you’re telling me that, somehow, between the time I just called them, to just now, you guys lost $33.56 of EBT credit?” I asked, trying to get them to see how stupid they were being.
“We didn’t take your foodstamps,” another woman who works there, who suddenly appeared to butt in, told me.
I knew it was hopeless so I just told them that I was an uppity foodstamp recipient and would be complaining to their corportate headquarters. I left, red-faced and very upset. And out $6 that I couldn’t afford to just throw away like that…or, rather, that I couldn’t afford to pay for the priviledge of being treated like dirt.
Drip, drip, drip….
I got home, called around and found out that, no, their store doesn’t connect directly to the EBT place, they contract that out to some other company. And that, yes, EBT cards do often get declined if the cashier keys it in wrong. And, I was surprised and angry to find out, it’s very easy for a caseworker to order a new EBT card for someone if that card won’t swipe.
Which my (new) caseworker did. So now I can’t buy any food until 10 days from now or so when I get my new card, but at least I won’t have to put up with idiot cashiers who treat EBT customers like they’re the stupid ones.
I sent a long, irate email to the corporate offices of Martin’s Foods, and got a call from the manager of that store the next day. He asked again what happened (sigh), and then apologised.
“We were wrong,” he said. He asked for descriptions of the employees, and I am sure they will get written up or at least get yelled at – I used to work in a grocery store, and I know how the managers are. He asked me to come in again and ask for him personally, so he could apologise in person.
I don’t know if I am going to do that. I have not felt that rotten in a very long time. I felt embarrassed, and ashamed, and I wasn’t even in the wrong. I don’t think I can handle entering that store again.
And, like the rain on cobblestones, the drip drip drip of those little humiliations, those attitudes that treat you as “less than”, they can wear on you. Day after day, year after year, they can change the face you show to the world, or even to yourself. They leave a patina that isn’t attractive – it’s a tarnished patina, worn down to the point where the substance of who you are is barely visible at times.
I am not writing this looking for pity. I write this to remind people that it’s often those little things, those snide remarks, those allusions to “those people on foodstamps”, those sly and dirty looks that you think we can’t see, those assumptions that people on foodstamps will do anything to “get over”, the complete and utter lack of understanding and empathy…these things take a toll.
They take a toll on us, in the form of stress and all its consequences.
They take a toll on you, by hardening your heart, thereby making you the one who is “less than.”
Be kind. Please, please, be kind. And may you never, ever be in the situation I find myself in today. Because even if you have an advanced degree, a good job, and a decent life, something can happen to change all that in the blink of an eye. Like it did to me.
Tragic circumstances happen to everyone, if they live long enough. So treat other people as if they were you, or related to you, and cut them a break. I know this sounds corny but…
Be the sunshine, not the raindrop.