3. Poor Man’s Pasta
It’s hard to refer to elbow macaroni as pasta, at least with a straight face. Still, I’m a big fan. Of elbows and bow ties, spaghetti and noodles. Easy to fill up a bowl, a plate, a belly.
For a buck a box, you get to be full. For two bucks, the kids can be full too. That’s a really big deal.
Throw some elbows together with left-over bacon grease and canned peas, it’s a treat. Or some spaghetti with diced canned tomatoes, onion, and if you have it, green pepper. Then sop it up with day old bread slices, slathered in margarine and garlic salt, crisped up in a toaster oven.
Beats the hell out of box macaroni and cheese. Especially if you don’t have any milk left or money get more.
White flour is the bane of nutritionists everywhere, but they don’t understand its true appeal. It isn’t just cheap food. It’s about being full.
Most people only think about being full when they eat too much. That bloated, nappy, after Thanksgiving dinner groan.
That’s not what it’s about here. It’s the notion of having enough. Of feeling satiated, of being just like everybody else. For once. To be the same.
It’s very hard to try your best and never be good enough to just be the same.
I never used to think about being full. Back when I bought fresh vegetables and shrimp and ate in restaurants where servers named Ashley or Jessie brought food to the table. Where the bill for two could feed my neighbor Shelby and her two kids for a couple of weeks.
Being hungry was a temporary irritation. Until I could find a drive-thru or get home and order a pizza. When you have a choice about being hungry, it’s hard to comprehend that a lot of people don’t.
Till Dope Do Us Part
Shelby works at a locally owned restaurant and is good at her job. She’s smart but wasn’t much for school, never cared to go on to college. She wanted to get married and have kids – like her momma and daddy did.
But the world has changed.
Her husband – her on-again, off-again husband – hurt his back working construction 18 months ago and still hasn’t gotten a nickel from Workman’s Comp. He did get a whole shitload of pain pills from a doctor at Urgent Care. He’s been screwed up ever since.
Once the prescriptions stopped, the heroin started. Her food stamps got cancelled when he got caught trying to sell the EBT card he swiped from her wallet.
They have two girls, both under ten. Shelby works every shift she can and folks around the neighborhood help out with the kids.
Bring Your Doggie Bag from Work Day
Her boss at the restaurant lets her take her shift meal home, even though he shouldn’t. The cooks load up her plate and the other waitresses snag leftover cake, baskets of rolls or biscuits. Untouched sides of baked beans or coleslaw are carefully transferred to Styrofoam cups when they clear the tables.
Between the gas and the sitter and the school clothes and backpacks and asthma inhaler for her youngest, Shelby wouldn’t get by without it.
But the kids eat first. That’s the rule. The kids always eat first.
She gets what’s left.
What is Left?
Shelby worries a lot. She’s embarrassed mostly, and afraid, but there are bright spots. A great deal on almost expired meat or half priced bread. Bananas on sale.
Her husband’s sister sometimes brings over big boxes of powdered milk. The kids hate it but with cheap cereal from Aldi’s they almost don’t notice.
It’s the shame she can’t handle. The things people say. Not to her face, but on the TV or the radio. Even her customers sometimes, talking at the table – no clue. Ladies at her church.
No idea how hard she works, how heavy those trays are. How she stays up at night to get the laundry done, to stitch up rips and try to duct the soles on her sneakers. She can’t afford to lose her job over flappy sneakers.
All I ever wanted to be was a good mom, she says one night on Erlene’s front deck. Voice cracking, eyes filling, a tear slipping free.
We’re both quick to assure her that she’s a great mom. She nods, but there are too many voices telling her different. She can’t meet our eyes. Doesn’t believe us for a second.
Shame on us. On every person who thinks being hungry is a choice. That putting your kids to bed without dinner is so you can have cable.
Shame on everyone. Except her. There’s no shame in being Shelby.
2. Information Underground
On Wednesday nights between 7 and 9 at the Tractor Supply store, you can get your dog a rabies shot for $19.00. Folks here in the Park know all about places like Tractor Supply.
When a new Sheetz gas station opened up on 401, the grand opening price for regular was $1.95. Three people told me in less than an hour.
In turn I told them I’d just gotten a huge deal on good bread – $3.99 bread – for a buck twenty-nine at Ollie’s. And, I added, lowering my voice to enthrall my co-conspirators, the girl working the register told me it comes in regular on Thursdays and Saturday mornings.
It’s the currency of the neighborhood. That tidbit will put me in good standing for a couple of weeks.
There is an underground economy here. Nothing’s formalized, it passes word to mouth. Sometimes a call or text if folks still have minutes left on their phones.
Cheap Stuff Hub
But we do have a hub in our cheap-stuff information network. It’s my friend Erlene’s trailer. I say my friend, but really Erlene is everyone’s friend. Sooner or later, we all end up on her tiny front deck, stepping carefully over the rotten board she hasn’t found the time or money to replace.
Erlene’s a likable woman, Southern to the core, probably in her middle 50’s, a long braid running down her back. There’s a perennial scab in the middle of her forehead – skin cancer she can’t afford to treat – so she puts hydrogen peroxide on the lesion.
I don’t know if it helps, she’ll tell you, but I feel better doing something instead of nothing.
Back when I lived in my big house, with my employee health plan and my PTO, I’d have laughed at such foolishness. I had no clue you could have a full-time job with no health insurance or paid sick days. When I had breast cancer, I used up a month of PTO and worked from home more days than not. My employer never questioned it.
I had no idea that taking time off because you were sick could get you fired. That a trip to a long wait so you might get in to a free clinic meant the loss of a day’s pay.
That hydrogen peroxide is a cure-all, super-glue works in lieu of stitches and you never finish your antibiotics – once you feel better, you hoard the rest for next time.
I am Erlene’s token Yankee, she takes great amusement in my otherness. That there is such a thing as unsweet tea always gets her laughing. She is mystified by my inability to produce edible fried chicken – “Didn’t your momma ever teach ya?”
Where some of my neighbors view me with mild suspicion, she delights in my education on all things Southern. The value of a well-seasoned cast iron pan, the magical properties of apple cider vinegar, the best cricks to fish and best spots to camp.
That a Southerner’s “Bless your heart” is the equivalent of a New Yorker’s “What the fuck?”
I am a damn Yankee, I remind her, referring to the age-old joke. An illegal alien, she jokes back. Both of us pause, involuntarily glance toward a cluster of trailers at the end of the road where most of our Latinos neighbors live.
I don’t know the status of anyone who lives here. I mostly see the moms who walk their kids up the street to the bus stop. We wave and smile but have never really talked.
“Is everyone okay down there,” I ask quietly. She knows what I mean. “I haven’t seen the kids out on their bikes much lately.” She nods, but doesn’t reply. I don’t know who she voted for or even if she voted at all.
But while it might be okay to round up bad hombres, it’s another thing to watch the neighbors be put in handcuffs. To drag off a mom walking her children to the bus stop. Someone’s whose biggest crime is a tiny but fierce dog running without a leash.
We sit in silence for a minute, then she nods at a trailer up the road where a Trump campaign sign is still stuck in the grass.
“I wish she’d take that down.”
“Makes me sick it was ever put up.”
“Your New York is showing,” she teases. I look away. Her smile fades, she touches my arm. “I thought you knew. Folks really don’t like her. Hillary.”
There’s nothing I can say. I did know that but it’s apparent now no one really understood how deep that enmity ran. The consequences for our country leave me speechless.
We move on to the mysteries of boiled peanuts and whether or not Vick’s Vapor Rub will kill toenail fungus. We never mention Trump’s name. Or Angel’s. Or Ricardo’s. Or Oscar’s. Or Emma’s. Or Gabriela’s.
But a couple of days later, after the Sheetz alert, the sign is gone.
1. The Sad Story
I used to think that life was just a chance to have a story to tell. That was back when I liked the story I was telling. Back before the not-so-Great Recession, when my story changed forever.
In the old story, I own a house and a successful small business. I am smart, decisive, a bit driven and sometimes too direct for a woman in the South. I have a husband, five dogs, two cats, a big yard and a flower garden. I am spiritually centered, even after they found the first lump in my breast.
In the after story, I play both the villain and the damsel in distress. The husband has left, the business, the house, the credit, the health insurance, all gone. The breast is tattooed with tiny dots that helped to point the radiation beam. The surrounding skin is rough and tight, two scars to get the margins right.
It’s not a story I’m fond of and yet I couldn’t seem to stop telling it. To friends, acquaintances, head hunters, shrinks, the cashier at the grocery store. I had to explain, they had to understand.
When there was no one left to listen, I told it to myself. Worthless. Loser. Failure. Over and over and over.
This is the real climax of the story – the suspenseful spiral into madness as the damsel’s mind cracked under its own weight. Shattered – emotionally, cognitively, spiritually, financially. Forget the king’s horses and all the king’s men – it would take years to put herself back together again.
But at last there was no reason to tell the story to all the people who never it understood anyway. Who had no clue. Because opinion is how you think would handle it. Experience is how you actually did. Two steps from being homeless, I decided to stop telling it to myself.
There’s another story now, with a view from the trailer park.
Most of the characters are poor, always living on the edge. No one has a 401(k) – if they ever did. We can’t afford vacations, but we’ve been known to have bonfires on cool autumn nights. If the washing machine breaks or air conditioner dies, we just have to hope for the best until some money comes in.
Still this saga is full of heroes.
The guy across the street who put an alternator in my 2003 Ford Taurus for $20 because that was all I had. The woman who brings everyone cabbages from her momma’s garden – whether we eat them or not. The bug-eyed guy up the street who captures feral cats to get them neutered and spayed. The mob of little Latino kids who jump on my neighbor’s beat-up trampoline. The sheer joy of their play is paused only by the relentless mechanical tunes of the ice cream truck.
None of us have much money. Sometimes we have rough days.
But this is a wonderful story. A dark comedy, with tons of drama and lots of original characters. There’s cheap beer and generic cigarettes, junker cars, piles of scrap metal waiting to be hauled away for pennies on the pound. Dogs napping in the sun.
A cliché, perhaps, but when you look closely, it’s the people that astound. These poor people, with no hope for financial tomorrows – nothing to invest or save or hoard. They just share what they have right now with whoever needs it right then. And trust that the rest of us will do the same.
A view doesn’t get better than that.
(I originally allowed a magazine in LA to print columns 1 & 2 but decided to end my association with their site.)