Monday, October 12, 2009

Summer 09: No shame

You would not expect food stamps in Brooklyn Heights. You would expect million dollar co-ops, doormen, nannies, private schools --- and you would be right. All these things exist including fey little boutiques that sell Marc Jacob's T-shirts for $200 (on sale for $140!) as well as two high end real estate offices. But co-existing in this land of splendor are people like myself; artist/writers, actor/realtor's, teacher/dancers, literary agents. And, in the midst of the recession, in the belly of the economic bell curve, trapped in the the cyclone of adjustable rate mortgages and the positively Rabelaisian greed of CEO's, I found myself living on food stamps this July and August. And what's more I enjoyed it.

But first a bit of back story:

It's not 2009, it's 1962. It's not Brooklyn, its the Midwest. And, trust me, there had been no revolution, sexual or otherwise. There were no dope smoking hippies preaching love and happiness, no Mr. Natural, Age of Aquarius. No. It's a factory town, an old Indian village, a small sea of immigrants. My father was in Viet Nam, it wasn't a war yet. My mother was at home with three small children. The checks stopped coming. Mice ruled the basement. A ham bone turned to pea soup and fed us for five days. I had bacon for breakfast, lunch and dinner. But my mother resolutely turned down food stamps.

It didn't matter that the milk had exploded in the metal container on the porch. It didn't matter that her mother told her take the bus and come for dinner, to which my mother replied, I don't have the money to take the bus. And then hang up the phone in frustration. She would not apply for food stamps. That was charity. That was the tough immigrant pride of my mother. That was the pride of her daughter, too. In the past, whenever I'd see someone pay with food stamps, which in those days looked like Monopoly money, I'd think: LOSER-- as in--- you got a incontinent beer swilling husband at home and four snotty nosed kids.

Cut to the summer of 09 and I am struggling. Serious issues of morale. But happiness as well--- my niece stays with me three or four nights a week. We drink iced coffee. She talks about her day. I talk about mine. Soon we have turned Wednesday night or Thursday night into a ritual; Trader's Joes with food stamps. They look nothing like their predecessor, now--- its a sleek little credit card. Now it doesn't scream loser, now its just another form of credit. My niece and I are delirious as we wander from aisle to aisle; tomatoes, avocados, toasted almonds, arugula, pre-cooked turkey meatballs, couscous and chicken, then a stop at the free sample station for a cup of really good hot coffee, and a bite of a macaroon with ginger ice cream, or a chicken burrito, with salsa verde. Muy bien!

I'd get the cherry soy ice cream with dark chocolate, my niece would get goat cheese. I'd always pick up beef carpaccio and she'd get raisin bran cereal and milk. We always scooped up the teriyaki frozen chicken and jasmine rice, the vegetarian pizza. Our shopping cart is now full and half the time girlfriend is on her cell to her boyfriend, but I don't care. Trader Joes in August 09 is a wonderland, better than Disney world, better than Las Vegas. The employees are always friendly--- I even asked a cashier once, Is this a good job? Are you treated well? He replied, sincerely, Yes. I am.

Paying for all this with food stamps didn't feel shameful. Nobody seemed to care. My niece and I would walk out into the twilight, onto Atlantic Avenue, the streets still thick with strollers and traffic, carrying five bags of food, happy and content. Happy about filling up the fridge and cupboards when we got home. Perhaps it was a different time for my mother--- a new immigrant, still vivid memories of the war, a young wife. But I'm 1.5. I was born here. I have a Master's Degree. There are no children at home. If food stamps are a benefit I can receive while the economy is in the toilet, I'll take it. After all this is the government that allowed rapacious banks to triple my APR.

So. No shame. None at all. Instead--- a happy memory of hot summer nights, 2009. My mom would've had fun, too, with me, with her granddaughter, getting a cup of coffee then hitting the frozen food section at Trader Joes.


  1. For me the time when I needed food stamps and other forms of assistance brought me down offa my high horse! I avoided it as long as I could, but when the tank was running out of fuel oil and the fridge was bare, I needed help. Now I have a much nicer attitude - now I know that the shit can hit the fan and things can get out of control like that (snaps finger) and it can happen to pretty much anybody.
    It was much more of a humiliating experience for me, but in hindsight it was good for me in a lot of ways.

  2. Snap, I didn't even get a chance to get on my high horse, had been white knuckling it for so long--- it was just a relief.