WESTMINSTER WEST — The issue of poverty and hunger hits home - literally, in my guts.
Throughout most of my 20s, I was poverty stricken, and hunger was my unwanted companion way too often.
The worst stretch was my junior year of college during a bone-achingly frigid winter with seemingly endless blizzards. I had worked my usual two jobs during the previous summer and had carefully planned out a budget. My downfall was not anticipating the high heating costs of that long winter and having to buy new textbooks rather than the used ones that were usually available.
I learned a lot from those books, but I learned even more from my experiences during that merciless winter. I joke that it was the winter of my discontent, but it wasn't funny; it was a nightmare.
I lived in a total dump of an apartment with another student and an older woman who graduated a few years earlier but stuck around. “Grace” was a character straight out of a Tennessee Williams play, albeit a northern version. She was eccentric, sensitive yet fierce, and often drunk. Little was I to know how large a role she would play in my life.
I offered to take the smallest, most decrepit room in exchange for cheaper rent. I also agreed to keep the door shut in the winter so our heating bill wouldn't go through the roof.
My dark cave of a room, at the back of the apartment, bordered a narrow alley with a bar across the way. There was a huge caved-in window at one end of the room. Asking the slumlord to fix it was out of the question.
I didn't think the window would be a big deal; I would just stuff newspapers in the holes and staple plastic over the window.
I was wrong, big time. The relentless winds off Lake Ontario mocked my meager attempts, and those winds became my enemy.
* * *
During that miserable winter I was often hungry, sick, and so very cold. My old, blue suede boots leaked, so my feet were wet and cold many a long day. They turned blue from the dye, and I had painful sores from my chapped and peeling heels.
I would come home from classes and work exhausted and chilled to the bone. I would drink a big mug of hot water to quell my hunger, then take a blessedly hot shower, the highlight of my day.
Then there was the nightly ritual that I came to dread - going to bed. I would dress in all the warm dry clothes that I had, crawl into bed, then throw my coat over the covers. I shivered uncontrollably for what seemed like hours before I became warm enough to sleep.
Yet, long periods of sleep were rare. Hunger was a powerful insomnia pill, plus the bar across the alley blared the song “Piano Man” every night at closing, often waking me up. I would curse that damn song and the people who sang it at the top of their drunken lungs, and I never felt more alone.
As the winter progressed, my usually chubby figure became stick thin. Friends and colleagues would compliment my newfound look, but even with those openings, I didn't tell anyone the real reason for my thinness.
I was so ashamed. Ashamed that I didn't have a loving family to turn to, ashamed that I wasn't smart enough to make my own way, and ashamed to be so poor.
Finally, as spring approached, I laid out a plan. That summer, I would try to pick up a few housecleaning gigs in addition to two jobs and, as much as I liked my roommates, I would look for even cheaper housing.
The issue was: could I keep going until the heating bills decreased and I had more money for food? I was weak and sometimes faint, and my grades were starting to suffer.
I was scared.
* * *
One Saturday night, I came home late and was surprised to find Grace reading on the couch. Grace, who was usually out partying on Saturday nights, greeted me and asked me to take a seat. She wanted to have a little chat.
I felt anxious that I'd done something to upset her and she was going to ask me to leave. The lease was in her name.
Instead, she said two words: “food stamps.”
She knew my secret. Even though we rarely saw each other, she knew.
I'd read about food stamps but assumed that I wasn't eligible because I was a student. Grace told me how she'd been on food stamps a few times and there was no shame in seeking help - I worked hard and paid taxes.
She said it wasn't my fault - the system sucked, and the minimum wage was a joke. She handed me a piece of paper with the address of the agency that handled food stamps and an appointment time.
Grace said I would survive a missed class, but I wouldn't survive starvation, and she made me promise to keep the appointment.
Then she gave me one of the warmest hugs I'd ever received, and it seemed like the mantle of shame was lifted from my shoulders. She took me by the hand and told me that she was going to make us some scrambled eggs and toast, and she wouldn't take no for an answer.
Needless to say, it was a wonderful meal.
* * *
That night, I went to sleep with a full tummy and even fuller heart, and the “Piano Man” didn't wake me up. The next day, I thought long and hard about my conversation with Grace.
I vowed that I would never let myself be consumed with bitterness, no matter how hard my road, and I would always try to do something, however small, to help other people the way Grace had helped me. I made a silent promise to hold the kind and giving part of Grace in my heart.
I kept the appointment, although I was nervous about being judged and pegged as a loser. My experience was quite the opposite. The caseworker was both efficient and friendly. I filled out the application, and the caseworker said that I definitely qualified for food stamps. I felt like I'd won the lottery.
Then she asked me a number of questions, including if I lost a lot of weight in the last few months and if I was often hungry. She said that she would put my application on a fast track.
Next, she pulled a bottle of multivitamins from her desk drawer and told me to take them. I got the sense that she bought those vitamins with her own money. I'll never know.
Then she asked me to grab my coat and come with her. She led me to a utility closet. Food-laden shelves lined the two long walls, and there was a small fridge at the back of the closet.
She explained that the agency provided the employees with free coffee and tea, but they always made a donation for the beverages. They used the pooled funds to buy food for clients who were in really rough shape.
As she filled a bag with food, I swallowed my pride and thanked her again and again. I was touched that the caseworkers had so much compassion. She walked me to the door and sent me on my way. That bag was filled to the brim with food and hope.
The first thing I did once I got my food stamps was make brunch for my roommates in celebration of spring. It felt so good to make a meal for them, especially Grace, and that simple gesture felt like a rebirth to me on so many levels.
* * *
Fast-forward a number of decades to today. I am not an accomplished person, nor can I claim to be a member of the middle class, and I admit that it's challenging to keep a pragmatic eye toward the future without letting it taint the present with worry.
Even so, I consider myself to be very, very lucky. I enjoy plenty of good food, I share a cozy little house with my sweet husband, my boots don't leak, and I have thousands of joyful moments under my belt with more to come.
Perhaps you are in that overcrowded boat of poverty and hunger, or you're at the end of the dock with one foot in that awful boat trying desperately not to tumble in - yet, you long to help others despite your own back-against-the-wall situation.
Perhaps you've concluded that any penny-sized drop that you could contribute to that ocean of need would be useless, so why bother?
I can tell you that no gift is too small, be it a simple meal, a 10-minute conversation, or a hug.
Is that enough? Of course not. Poverty and hunger in America are deep-rooted and far-reaching. It will take a radical transformation of both our government and society to eradicate it.
However, as one who has lived both sides of the giving/receiving coin, I assure you that those pennies are precious and add up.
They matter. You matter.
As for me, come spring, I will head out to my beloved garden. I will bury my hands in the earth, then I will plant some extra rows for my neighbors in need and share a moment of grace.