At the welfare office, you stand with sordid figures, screaming children with mothers that stare blankly at the front of the line as if the needy young ones don't exist, solo street folk who put their signs down outside, lest they appear to have a paying job, fathers who stumble in bedraggled and filthy drunk, desperate families who just need a little help and who barely hold back tears at their situation, and government employees, bored, annoyed and eager to be rid of the whole lot.
I'm standing in line with my mother and watching the other children. Some play, some cry, some hold their mothers in fear of this strange and noisy place. One woman screams at a teller, something about the money not being enough. My mother looks down at me and gives a wry smile, the kind of smile that says, forgive me for this; I'm sorry we are here; we'll get out of this someday. I smile back, the kind of smile that says, I know, mom; I trust you; we are OK.
When we have the welfare check, we are golden. The rent is cheap in our shabby apartment but we have cable TV, heat and a fridge full of food, all packed from the Grocery Outlet, or as we like to call it, the Canned Food Store. Occasionally, we would go there and see a massive pile of cans without labels. 10¢ each. Mystery food. No expiration. We would buy a dozen of them and take them home to discover, yams, cocktail sausages, unidentifiable vegetable masses.
We get Food Stamps in a fat booklet, which, when torn out and stacked, appear to be the loot from a lottery winning or a bank robbery. These are just like cash and look like fancy, large Monopoly bills. You can only buy food, candy, and any other consumable goods with them. My brother and I take a Food Stamp toy $5 dollar bill to the corner grocery and buy two bags of Doritos, Salsa Rio and Cool Ranch, and a few bags of candy bits. The shop keeper gives us disapproving looks but he's forced to take the mock money.
My mother is in school, studying whales and sociology. She's passionate about the environment and social justice. I go with her sometimes, when I don't feel like going to my school. The University is so much better. I sit in her Greek Mythology class and listen to the professor tell tall tales of Zeus becoming a bull so he could carry Europa to Crete, fornicating in the ocean on the way, impregnating her with Minotaur sons. It's awesome. I join in on the discussions and the professor doesn't mind that I'm there. He laughs like none of my teachers ever have, honestly, mercifully, humbly. In my mother's Women's Studies class, I draw on a legal pad, doodling mental mayhem, swirls and swaths of wandering jest.
Outside, we meet up with one of my mother's classmates. They talk for a bit and then he asks if I plan on going to college. Maybe, I say. I don't know. School is a drag, but college is way cooler than what I have to do now. Well, you know, the government pays me to go to school, he says. Really? That's way cool. I'll definitely go to college if I get paid to do it. I'm sold.
Being destitute, we qualified for Medi-Cal, the California Medicare system. Free health care. Shoddy health care, but free. When we ran out of Medi-Cal stamps, which happened every month, we made frequent use of the free clinics who specialized in 3rd world medicine and free prophylactics. As a child with epilepsy, needing frequent blood work, brain scans and experimental mental medications, free health care was as necessary as cable television. Who could live without it?