I’m inspired to post this excerpt from chapter 4 of Waiting for Spring after working an afternoon shift at the store yesterday. (I was covering for a girl who was suffering from Morning Afteritis.) This pretty much sums up about 75% of the customers I waited on:
I stood behind a young woman and her son. He was maybe five or six years old. Both of them were dirty. Smelly. Old, ripped clothes. Her groceries: a candy bar, a gallon of milk and a half gallon bottle of Allen’s Coffee Brandy. I clenched my teeth, because I knew. Even though it’s wrong to judge. Even though I’d been judged–unfairly–too many times to count and knew better than to do it to someone else. I judged her anyway.
And I was right.
I’d never had a problem with the concept of State Aid. Food stamps or MaineCare or even welfare. Because sometimes people fall on hard times. Sometimes people work hard and still can’t afford health insurance. Sometimes they roll out of bed one morning and find that their job has been shipped South or East. And that’s when they need a helping hand. A little something to see them through the rough spots. I’d been there myself.
Then there were people like this woman.
She paid cash for the twenty dollar bottle of liquor. Used her food stamp card for the candy bar and the milk. The milk that wasn’t for her son. He wouldn’t drink it with his supper tonight or dip any cookies in it for dessert or pour in onto his breakfast cereal in the morning.
He looked up and gave me a huge smile, and I smiled right back. He had greasy blonde hair and big blue eyes. Probably the kids picked on him at school because his clothes were dirty. Because he smelled. Because his front two teeth were black and rotten. But underneath the dirt he was a beautiful child.
I wondered how much longer it would be before he realized exactly what kind of family he’d been born into. Before he understood that the twenty dollars his mother was using for liquor should have been used instead for soap and shampoo and laundry detergent. Would he grow up resentful? Bitter? Would he rise above it, determined to make a better life for himself? Or would he grow up thinking that it was normal to live that way?
The woman turned back, too, and glared at me. She knew what I was thinking and I didn’t care. I wanted to say something to her. Wanted to tell her to go get some fucking help. Tell her that twenty bucks would buy a bar of soap and a bottle of shampoo and a box of cheap laundry detergent. Or maybe tell her about all the childless couples out there who would gladly take that little boy off her hands and give him a good life. A life that was filled with baths and toothbrushes. With leafy green veggies and cold milk. The kind of milk that was poured over breakfast cereal and not mixed with coffee brandy.
I didn’t, of course, because right now–right now–the boy was at least somewhat content. Living with a mommy who probably loved him at least a little. And he loved her. That much was obvious. Bad days were coming for him. I knew that, too. But right now, to him, today was The Day Mommy Bought Me a Candy Bar. I couldn’t turn it into The Day Mommy Yelled at the Mean Lady in the Grocery Store. So I gave the woman an almost friendly nod, waved goodbye to the boy, and watched them walk away. The little boy was holding his mommy’s hand. Because right now he still loved her.