Monica Bielanko
That's What She Said
Just A Junk Drawer Dream
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Food Stamp Flashback

When I was young, my mom used to send me to the grocery store. After a full day of work, a full night of nursing school, she'd often forget to pick up that breakfast staple; milk. Off I'd go, clutching that humiliating food stamp book. I was 16 at the time, navigating awkwardly through the mine field that is high school. All giggles, eye rolls and tosses of hair. "Omigod, that is, like, so embarrassing!" Trying to fit in, desperately seeking approval but pretending not to care. I detested using those food stamps. I was old enough to know the story they told strangers about my family. I can still feel the hot pin pricks of embarrassment blossoming on my face.. And it happened again today.

I worked until midnight last night, plodded home, spent the obligatory half hour sweating on the platform of the L train, waiting waiting waiting for the subway. Finally home, I barely had the wherewithall to give Max a nuzzle before collapsing into sheets that are so dirty they can almost walk themselves to the laundromat. The Surge was at some concert or other, I didn't have the time to pay attention. A benefit for Hurricane Katrina victims or some such event. Didn't sleep well. Bits and pieces of awake mixed with the sleeping. The Surge, me and Max, a tangle of limbs. Fan purring in the corner. What seemed like five minutes later the alarm is shrieking at me and I'm trudging once again to the dreaded L train. Forever staring into the black cave, toes tapping, trying to wish subway headlights into existence.

Hurtling uptown through the yawning black tunnel, I almost become one of those subway sleepers. I always wonder who could be so tired as to fall asleep on a stranger, head lolling, jolting awake as the train stops and starts. I make it to my stop by promising myself an iced coffee at the Starbucks across from the news station where I work. Long line, savvy young New Yorkers clad in the latest fashions, accessorizing with ipods, cell phones, palm pilots. I inch closer to the front of the line, can practically taste the icy treat, feel the caffeine jolt, and then I'm ordering. Complicated, the ordering. Jumbles of italian, confusing coffee lingo. Tall means medium, a large is called Venti. I place my order: "Venti Iced coffee with room for milk please." I smile at myself for ordering properly and dig inside my bag for my wallet. No cash. I cast a hopeful glance around, searching for those three letters recognizable worldwide. A-T-M. Out of luck, I slide my credit card out of my wallet and place it on the counter. I cringe, hating to use it for a measly two dollar purchase, but it's all I've got. The cashier runs the card, and we wait for the beeps that signal I'm a productive citizen. They don't come. She doesn't have to look at me, I see it in the embarassed clench of her jaw, her reaction to the one word on the machine. Declined.
"I'm sorry, it declined."
"Shouldn't have gone on that last shopping spree", I laugh, trying to make light of it, but that familiar tingle is creeping into my cheeks. Bright blooms of embarrassment. Suddenly I'm sixteen, clutching a wad of rainbow colored food stamps. Pretend money for poor people. The scarlet letter, branding me inferior. I know it's not true, but that feeling will be there forever, lodged deep inside, a dark place.
"Do you take checks?" a glance behind me confirms a long line of impatient Manhattanites anxious to get get get and go go go.
"Sure", the cashier brightens, hoping to avoid baring witness to the potentially embarrassing situation. My coffee is already on the counter, awaiting my splenda and cream treatment. I scribble onto the check, and shove it at her.
"I'll need to see some ID."
"No problem." I'm relieved. I'm following the rules, providing the information. I'm legitimate. I'm not that girl, the one with food stamps, that's been taught to take what she can get whenever she can get it. I'm a hard working woman dammit! She looks at my ID, then summons the manager. The woman behind me sighs loudly. Obviously. She wants me to know she's annoyed. As if that will make the wait easier, faster. The manager and the cashier are conferencing in the corner. I stand, ashamed, criminilized, adjusting articles of clothing, fidgeting with my bag.
"Your ID has an out of state address. It's not the same as the address on your checks. We can't accept it." The manager says flatly. No expression. He slides the check back across the counter, and actually pulls the coffee away from me. As if I were planning to grab it and run. Stunned, feeling like a shoplifter I stumble back from the counter and quickly push open the glass door, escaping to the safety of crowded sidewalks and anonymity. As I'm rushing out of the building, Tony Danza strolls by me on the street, whistling a tune to himself. "Who's The Boss?" I think to myself.

Reader Comments (6)

Good post. I remember how it felt to use foodstamps growing up too. Just like you said, people would make fun of you because you were poor. I guess things haven't changed much.

September 20, 2005 | Unregistered CommenterNeo
I hope you do some sort of writing for this news station on the UWS. This was a delight to read - not for the content, but the way your tightly crafted words brought me right next to you in the line at Starbucks.

Well done!
September 21, 2005 | Unregistered CommenterPLD
Really well said. I got declined once for a freakin candy bar on my credit card.
September 21, 2005 | Unregistered CommenterKristin
OMG. As I was reading this, I am feeling exactly how you must have felt standing in that line. I got all nervous waiting for the card to be approved. :)

If I were behind you in line, I would have treated you to your iced latte!
September 22, 2005 | Unregistered CommenterThe Daily Ranter
Happened to me at starbucks YESTERDAY!

I had a Starbucks card and I was in a starbucks INSIDE a Barnes and Noble. SO my coffee is technically a BARNES AND NOBLE purchase - they dont accept Starbucks...

I felt like I was holding a lavendar $5 food stamp.
November 11, 2005 | Unregistered CommenterIrene
Dude.. you know! They ARE lavendar.. A soul sistah...
November 11, 2005 | Registered CommenterMonica

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