I live across the street from an elementary school.
Over the last 20 years, this has proven interesting for any number of reasons. When I was still deciding whether I wanted children, the building loomed as a daily litmus test. Did I find the student’s neon-and-sparkle outfits, their rising cries and laughter, grating or poignant?
(From my child-free state, you may draw your own conclusions about my conclusion.)
On election days, sign-bearing advocates and impatient voters have flocked the block, adding an extra frisson to the air. And three-quarters of the year, three-quarters of the neighborhood street parking has been claimed by teachers—not that I’m complaining. (I am, but also get that on this point I don’t have a pot to piss in.)
But now that school has been out of session since March, the building across the street has taken on a new role. It has become a food pantry, and at any time of day our neighborhood is colonized by long lines.
I’ve come to know the pantry’s administrators, have even helped out a bit, and what I’ve been learning about the “food-insecure”—which is an absolutely wretched phrase for the hungry, which admittedly is also a wretched phrase—is that most of us have absolutely no idea who among us is really, really struggling. Especially now.
After three decades of living in this city, I recognize many of the pantry’s recipients, if only by face.
There are people whose struggles are visible, whether because they are mumbling the same phrase over and over to themselves or carrying their life’s possessions in garbage bags or flat-out wearing those bags. Then there are the baby-boomers with neatly pressed clothes and averted eyes, the old ladies wearing flowered house dresses and been-there-done-that jutting jaws. The green-haired punks who ride up on souped-up bikes, the hipsters sporting hemp backpacks, the young mothers with bracing smiles and freshly bathed children in strollers.
People of all ages, races, walks of life united only by the fact that they do not have enough food. By the fact that all the other social services that should have been in place for a national disaster—the financial relief, the rent freezes, the affordable health care—are nowhere to be found.
So these people stand in the rain and in the terrible heat, waiting for what by all rights should already be in their larder.
Upon returning from the Catskills last month, I realized that in my hasty departure I’d left behind my groceries. And that, for the first time in my life, I was so broke that I might need to join that line.
I wouldn’t have been ashamed to do it, but I would have felt ridiculously guilty. I would have felt that, with my excellent education and personal resources, I should not have reached that point. Which is to say: I would have felt as every other struggling American is made to feel. That my deficits stemmed from personal failures rather than public ones.
It’s 7:44 am as I write this, and mawing on my oatmeal I can see that across the street people are already lining up around the block. From my heart I send each and every one the hug I can no longer physically bestow.
These are not necessarily end times, but these are very hard times. The bad old days are here again, and the new dystopia is now.
Pray–and protest!–for us all.