Several lifetimes ago, I lived on the brink of homelessness for about four years.
Had it not been for rent control, both in Manhattan and Cambridge, I would have ended up on the streets.
After barely escaping Manhattan, and washing up into the then People’s Republic, I found myself without money, without employment, and basically at life’s mercy. Not a bad place to be, if you believe in mercy. But it’s not a state of grace.
Mercy implies a severe power relation between the giver and receiver — to say I was at life’s mercy is not hyperbole, and should conjure the fear and trembling of being absolutely alone in the world, with anxiety pressing within and without at every given moment, as I possessed only the invisible thread called faith to get me through.
For two weeks, I didn’t eat. A neighbor and I were talking, and she casually mentioned something about a food bank. I don’t remember why, but it seemed an offhand reference. I wasn’t sure, but I decided to follow up, on a hunch. I had never been to a food bank. Didn’t know what they were. I wasn’t certain that I would be eligible. I was a nice, educated white girl. Food bank?
Walking in behind the urine and feces soaked schizophrenic who lived on Cambridge’s streets, I got the first food I had eaten in two weeks.
Food. How many of us have gone hungry because of economics?
As a backstory, I suffered late onset eating disorders starting in my twenties — for nearly half of my adult life I never cycled, my body constantly suffering because of my relentless and unforgiving war against its many perceived imperfections.
But that was a self-imposed war. I made the rules, and I could decide when and how to punish myself, with whatever tools I had at my disposal.
This was a different war: this was an economic war. No longer was it beauty or body image or deep and unforgiving self-loathing furiously carried out against myself, with food or lack thereof being one weapon in my arsenal. This was a multilayered economic struggle to stay off the street, keep some semblance of what still remained of my mind — which was tenuous at best — and acquire life’s basics that we usually take for granted: toilet paper, shampoo, soap, toothbrush, toothpaste, and food.
For four years, the divide between myself and that intolerable smelling waste soaked homeless schizophrenic grew thinner and thinner, and food deprivation was no longer simply a handgun my arsenal of self-destructive behaviors. Not eating for two weeks was relatively doable, when I wrote the rules. This new game was part of a larger more consequential fight that I might not survive, and I understood that the house of cards called my life was dangerously close to collapsing.
I might be the next one soaked in urine and feces, a leper of circumstance and mental disenfranchisement.
The food bank had muffins in the front. My eyes immediately fixated on them when I walked in.
“I haven’t eaten,” I asked, “do you mind?” My voice was sheepish, and, I believe, nearly inaudible, the beggar’s bucket being a newly acquired handbag.
“No, of course not. That’s why they are there.”
I must have eaten four, without breathing. I didn’t think about my body, how many calories were in each bite, or whether or not I’d purge on a box of laxatives after the fact. I just ate. The sugar hit my bloodstream giving me a badly needed energy jolt, and a joyful euphoria, making my gratitude as much biological as transcendental. The woman looked at me, and asked, “Have you thought of applying for food stamps? You can get food stamps, you know. Are you working? Have you thought of unemployment?” She asked as if the answer were obvious. No, I wasn’t working. No, I wasn’t getting any assistance.
“How do I do that,” I said. I hadn’t a clue. Weren’t food stamps for people on welfare? Women with kids? Blacks? I was a single white woman, shouldn’t I be working and paying bills?
Unemployment? I’d never done that.
That day, after waiting my turn behind the schizophrenic, I took home two bags of food: dry and canned goods, a bit of produce, drying out bread and muffins, and I ate every bite found in those bags with gratitude.
In a few days, I got the food stamps. Eventually, I got the unemployment.
There were no EBT cards in those days. I had to pull out the the scripts, and pay with the stamps themselves. No mistaking the fact that the government was giving me 123 dollars to buy food. Every so often, I could see the acrimony in the eyes of those who failed to understand why a white girl needed to use food stamps, when obviously I should be able to just go and “get a job.”
Well, no. That was the issue. I couldn’t. I was barely sane, quite literally. People joke about being crazy. I have the papers to prove it.
If I had been black or brown or red, there would have been a whole other series of criticisms and stereotypes in those gazes, because the judgement just would have taken a different form. The presumption being that people on food stamps want a hand out. So we return to one of the oldest arguments in the book, and one that currently falls on a deaf and dumb Congress and too many of its misguided supporters: people don’t want a hand out. Given a choice, they really do enjoy thriving and excelling when given opportunity. They sometimes need help. All of us need hope. The costs incurred when people don’t have food and opportunity outweighs any costs that we incur when a few people take advantage of the system. Mind numbingly so.
The cost of giving food assistance to our fellow citizens is marginal compared to the corporate welfare handouts that we’ve seen doled out over the past decade in the name of economic stimulus. We may have needed that stimulus, but there’s an equally important stimulus: to our fellow citizens, people just like ourselves, and the promise each carries in their lives, to live, to grow, to prosper, to contribute.
Without those government handouts, I never would have survived.
Nor would I have gone onto to graduate school, graduated with a 3.91 G.P.A. earned Dean’s Honors, and be working on a book that will give many the hope they need, because they’ve been unnecessarily stigmatized for no good reason other than a few bad stories that need some editing in the collective consciousness.
Hope. It’s not a political brand for a Presidential campaign.
Sometimes, it’s free muffins and food stamps.