The etiquette of poverty

The food bank opens at 9:30. If you arrive close to that time, it’s likely that you’ll be 14th or 15th in line, which means that you won’t finish until noon. If you arrive at least a half hour early, you’ll probably be 5th or 6th and you’ll be finished by about 10:45. You’re an early arriver at nearly everything anyway. Being on time feels like being late.

It’s 9:00 when you arrive, park your twenty five year old car and get in line. You stand behind an older man whose weathered face tells a thing or two about a rugged life. He sits on top of a hard plastic box which does not look comfortable. A younger man stands next to him talking about his cell phone bill. Directly in front of them are five women. One has dark hair and stands to the side, alone. Four of them speak in animated, singsong Spanish and their gossip and laughter fill the parking lot. Several shopping bags are lined up in front of the door. There’s less than a half hour to wait. It’s cold.

There’s someone in the bushes near the edge of the building. At first you think it must be a homeless person, but it turns out to be a plumber. Looks like he’s fixing something for the church.

A young man arrives and takes his place in line behind you. He’s wearing a thick winter coat and gloves and heaves a heavy backpack from his shoulders onto the ground next to him. You wonder if he slept outside last night and think about how cold it is.

One of the women standing in front of the door moves and you see there’s a note posted. It says the food bank’s hours have changed, effective a week ago today and they won’t open until 10. It’s 9:15. There’s not enough gas in the car to drive home and back and if you did that you’d lose your place in line and have to wait longer throughout the morning. Better to stay put and wait it out since you’ve already invested some time in this task.

A woman with a big, brown, fluffy dog approaches the line. The dog is on a leash, but he gravitates towards the man behind you and the man reaches his hand out to offer a pat. The dog moves back nervously, but the lady says something and the dog moves his snout towards the young man’s hand. “He’s a little nervous,” he says to the woman. “He’s not feeling well,” she says and goes on to explain that she’s taking him to the vet today. The young man doesn’t say anything, but he seems comforted by the dog. The woman is dressed neatly and she carries an expensive looking handbag. A few minutes pass. The woman walks away.

“Guess she’s getting her fill of “po folk,” the man in front of you says, rich laughter chasing his words.
“Must be,” you say.

Someone behind you is coughing.

Other conversations begin and end at will. If you had to identify a regular theme it would be that here, folks look out for one another. Outside of the food bank line it seems that everyone is competing with each other, but here there is a rare sense of fellowship. Conversations revolve around survival and information is shared openly. Out here in the cold, advice is given.

The old man in front of you stands up and stretches. He pulls a cigarette from his pocket and steps out of line to smoke.

It’s getting harder to ignore the cold. You switch your weight to the other leg and stuff your hands further inside your pockets. You try to think of warm things. There are a few trees near you and staring at them makes you remember how it felt to stand here during the summer when nearby fires made the air thick with smoke.

You’re thinking about a day when a tiny woman in her sixties disclosed that she needed to find housing. “Go talk to Sue over at the HUD apartments on Clay,” another woman told her. “Tell her Ginger sent you. She can help you fill out the paperwork and get on the list.”

When you’re poor, you stand in a lot of lines and your name gets put on a lot of lists. Neither of those activities seem to bring you any closer to the border that edges a person out of poverty. You wonder what happened to that woman? Where is she living right now?

Two more people cough. You think about vitamin C.

It’s 9:30 now. Shiny cars are parked in the church parking lot and you know they were driven by volunteers who are inside the building. The food bank relies on church members who come in and distribute food every Wednesday. You think about the line of folded metal chairs that are on the other side of the door and the heat that’s filling that room. The doors will not open until 10.

The woman with the dog is back. She stands near the edge of the building, watching people in line. The dog sits on the ground and scratches. Towards the end of the line, a boy is wailing. The woman watches the little boy, silently. A few more minutes pass.

The boy spots the dog and waddles towards them. “Ddddd-ruff,” he says joyfully.

The woman leads the dog away from the boy. “Guess it’s time to put you in the truck,” she tells the dog firmly. She walks past the boy and he is dizzy with excitement over the sighting of a big, brown, fluffy dog in his midst. Several people in line smile at his contagious joy. A young woman takes the boy’s hand and they stand together, waiting.

9:45. Getting close now.

The old man has finished his cigarette and sits back down on the crate. The younger man continues to fiddle with his phone. The woman in front of them is reading a book. The four women continue to talk, gossip and laugh. Every few minutes one of them moves and peers into the window at the clock that hangs inside.
You stare at the azalea bushes in front of the church and leaves that are covered with ice. Still 10 minutes to go.

The dog woman returns, only without a dog this time. She walks to the front of the line and picks up a shopping bag as to announce that she is in her rightful place at the head of the line.

The little boy laughs.

The woman in front of the old man closes her book. “Wish they would open up already,” she tells the old man. “Yup,” he replies.
More people arrive and the line is filling out. You watch the clock.

The door opens and a middle aged man stands there holding out a pile of numbered cards. “Whose number one?”
The line files in until it’s just the old man and what turns out to be his son. And then, “Number six.”

You take the card and thank him, but he’s already moved on to the man behind you. You step through the door into the warm sanctuary.

About Vanessa Houk

Passionate about social and economic justice, Vanessa Houk is dedicated to chronicling the struggles of labor and civil rights. Based in Ashland, she is the editor-in-chief of the Rogue Valley Community Press.

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