I went to Kroger tonight. My night-based contract job had ended, giving me a weekday evening free for the first time in nearly three months. Thankfully, I had a daytime contract position scheduled to start next week. I say thankfully because I am a single mom with $150,000 in student loans who lives paycheck to paycheck. In short, I am like millions of Americans today.
With a cart of fresh fruits and vegetables, I headed for the front of the store by way of the clearance aisle, which I still check on my way out.
I immediately saw a woman that I recognized. She had on worn but clean clothes: jeans with a plain long-sleeved t-shirt under a nondescript blue zipper hoodie. She didn’t notice me because she was digging into the back of a segmented section filled with a hodgepodge of loose, small non-food items. From personal experience, I know that it’s important to take your time in those sections because you never know what you will find under all the items you don’t want to buy.
I glanced at her cart and saw a large package of pork chops with today’s expiration date and a dozen day-old round rolls, both items marked down for quick sale. I knew that there was nothing extra in her cart because she probably did not have any money for anything extra. There was a clean Spartan-ness about her cart and her appearance that I recognized. I’m sure you could say I am making assumptions, and yes, I am, but something in my very bones told me I knew her. I don’t know how to explain it, but it’s a feeling of like recognizing like.
You see, I knew her because I have been her.
I quickly moved past her and turned the corner where I stopped and stood still, waves of emotions washing over me. I so badly wanted to offer to buy her items but knew that such an offer could be offensive or embarrassing (or both). I remember when a Target employee offered to buy some school clothes I couldn’t purchase because my debit card was declined. I was touched by that woman’s offer, but I rushed out of the store with my sons because I was so embarrassed. I also remember feeling immensely grateful that my sons (6 and 9) were too distracted with each other to pay attention to our adult conversation at the register.
So although I was able to resist the urge to go back to this woman, I was unable to stop the memories of my life when I was her.
Six years ago, after my divorce, I had to apply for food stamps after seven months of not being able to find a job. Despite my law degree, I could not find work. There was too much of a gap on my resume (I had taken seven years off for a marriage that ended when my ex-husband left me for his mistress) and my law license was not active.
Desperate to work, I had applied for jobs at Walmart and a gas station. Neither potential employer could give me a set schedule because it was against company policy. I was told that all new hires had to be available for all shifts and all hours. I could not accept those positions because I did not have any family or friends who could watch my young sons during the evenings and weekends and minimum wage would not cover the cost of childcare for the two after school hours.
I remember when I enrolled my sons at the local elementary school and was required to bring a utility bill to prove residency. At this time, I was alternating the bills I paid; e.g., if I paid the internet bill, I had to skip the electric bill and vice versa. I had no cable and water was included in the apartment’s rent. The internet service was not considered a “utility” bill, so I had to bring the electric bill. I will never forget the feeling of shame when I gave the office lady my electric bill, which happened to also be a red shut off notice for non-payment. She was very kind, but I was mortified nonetheless.
I remember when the elementary school had a food drive and my sons pillaged the cupboards. I could not tell them that we needed the canned peas and tuna, so I let them take those items to school even though I later had to count out coins to repurchase them because I didn’t have cash or credit to use.
I remember crying in the car because I did not have ten dollars to purchase medicine for my son and my ex-husband berating me, telling me I was lazy and just needed to find a job already, before transferring ten dollars (and nothing more) to my account.
Then I look up and see this plush green triceratops (pictured above) looking back at me. My oldest son loved dinosaurs and would have loved this stuffed dinosaur when I was too broke to purchase something like that for him. The dinosaur was $14.99. I put the dinosaur in my cart because I am going to keep it until it is time to give to a toy drive, when I am hoping a child like my son will get it.
I checked out of Kroger and fought back the tears in the parking lot—tears I can’t hold back as I type this now. Our country has elected Trump and put Republicans in both houses of Congress. These are not people who want to preserve the safety net for women and children; instead, they want to dispose of it. After all, feminism destroyed marriages and families. Laziness keeps people from earning a living wage. Hardship is really self-imposed. Head of household? Who needs that as a tax bracket? (Besides single parents with children.)
But I digress…
It’s crazy because even though I recognize that I still lack financial security, I realize that I am miles ahead of where I was then and I am so incredibly grateful for that. And if I have enough money to buy fresh grapes and mixed baby greens, I have enough money to buy this dinosaur.
I share this with you tonight for two reasons. First, to urge you to not make assumptions about people who need assistance. And second, to urge you to consider, when shopping, to buy something for someone in need.
But for the grace of God go I.
But for the grace of God go any of us.