The tip of the iceberg

After my first visit to my community food pantry, I was resigned to the fact that this was a resource I should have used long before. Many people had been telling me to go (kind of like the people telling me I should “write a book,”) but my pride had gotten in the way. As a vegetarian, I doubted they would have any food I would be interested in. Not only that: it had also just felt wrong when I still had my home and my car. I didn’t feel “needy enough.”

But go I did, every Wednesday. The second time I went to the food pantry, I went on a regularly scheduled Wednesday in January. I signed in, took a number and sat in a waiting room with other people who were elderly, feeble, or who had little children and didn’t speak English. I realized there was quite a long wait at 1 pm in the afternoon. I sat on a metal folding chair for about an hour and tried to look as invisible as possible. A bus of Chinese elders was in front of me. I didn’t really look up, but I noticed that as their numbers were called, they went in one or two at a time with a volunteer pushing a shopping cart through the aisles of dried goods. I heard people speaking foreign languages who I figured were probably political refugees from foreign countries.

While I sat there willing the time to pass more quickly (these people were obviously needy; I should be volunteering, I thought, not a recipient of this charity), most of the group spent their hour chatting happily with their empty shopping bags in hand, gaily catching up with each other like old friends. I sat there miserably and kept my face buried in the magazine I brought with me. “This was only temporary for me,” I thought. “I won’t be coming here long enough to make friends.”

When it was my turn, the attendants greeted me brightly as they crossed off my name from the list. “Family of two?” they asked. I barely mumbled a reply. Every can or package I took caused a distinct pang of guilt that I was taking from someone more needy, possibly even homeless. The attendants happily walked the shopping cart all the way out to my two-year-old Saturn Vue (which seemed embarrassingly new and shiny). “I’ve been unemployed for over a year now,” I explained, “but I interviewed for a job yesterday so I probably won’t be back.” They nodded encouragingly and smiled pleasantly as they helped me load my bags in the back. “Have a nice day and good luck with the job!”

But I didn’t get the job. So I kept going to the food pantry. One week, I took my 13-year-old son, who was curious about the experience and wanted to pick out  exactly what he wanted from the limited choices. He followed me timidly into the waiting room, but once there, he relaxed comfortably in his folding chair, playing a game on his phone and watching people come and go. I barely looked up from my magazine. I was thinking, they must wonder ‘how needy can you be if your kid has a phone?’ I wanted to explain out loud to anyone within earshot: “He saved up his birthday and holiday money from my family and friends for almost a year to buy that phone. He had to wait a long time for it. His dad’s family takes care of the cheap phone service.” But nobody seemed to care.

While we waited, two ladies spoke Portuguese next to us. They went in one at a time with the attendant and a shopping cart. I suddenly realized I had seen these two ladies at the food pantry before on a previous week. They were much younger than me, I realized, both able-bodied, like me. I thought at the time that they must be in very difficult circumstances to be there.

As we went through the aisles when it was our turn, Richard was enthusiastic to be able to pick out the things he wanted, knowing they were free: cereal and soup and juice! It was always a relief to see our pantry at home with cans of food and bags of rice in it. As we were leaving, I noticed the two (Brazilian?) ladies standing by their cars, doors open, saying goodbye to each other. The big difference between us, I noticed, besides our primary language, is that I felt and must have looked miserable, and they didn’t.

A few weeks later, I made the Wednesday trek to the back annex of the church again. I found myself anticipating explaining to the food pantry workers what brought me to this point: “I’m a science writer and print has just dried up. I’ve had this coat, these shoes, my car, everything I own, for years–from when I had a job. Anything new was a gift. It’s all old, really.” But I didn’t need to. At a table inside the door, an older lady volunteer greeted me warmly. She recognized me. I thought, “I’ll explain to the volunteer pushing my cart how long I’ve been unemployed, how I hadn’t gotten child support in years due to lousy circumstances.” But I didn’t need to. The middle-aged man who called my number had assisted me the week I before. “Hello!” he said, “How are you?” He remembered my name (and I was then immediately chastened I hadn’t remembered his). “Where’s your son this week? Richard, wasn’t it?” he asked.

Very gradually over the next several visits, I began to understand why the staff of the food pantry and all the recipients were so chipper. And over many months, I realized that the harsh glare of judgement that I might be taking food from someone who was more needy, was coming squarely from inside myself. It was coming from the “me” from before–the one with an education, a career, and the opinion that I was better than this. When you are that broke, you see so clearly that there are two categories of people: those who have, and those who have not. The line between the two is much, much thinner and fault-free than you expect. If you have, you are lucky. I still have my house and car despite four years of unemployment: and it’s not because I’m smart and better than others. It’s because I’m lucky too. It’s easy to judge those worse off than you as useless lazy leeches, but that is very rarely the truth. They are simply less lucky than you.

No, the truth is the other patrons most likely looked at me the same way I looked at them: that poor person must be having a very difficult time of it right now. They weren’t second-guessing whether or not I should be there. Nobody begrudged me that food. The patrons felt camaraderie and sympathy. The staff wanted to give us food and more–warmth and understanding and even a little bit of love. For me to be humiliated was beside the point.

Someday soon, I fully expect to pay back the kindness of my community, family, and dear friends–in spades, when I can fill my pantry on my own. Until then, I finally understand: food is just the tip of the iceberg when you’re a patron of the food pantry.

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