Tuesday, March 13, 2012

CalFresh Prince of Los Angeles

I took a year off from school late 2005/early 2006 and worked full-time in a deli.  The pay wasn’t great, but I was usually able to eat something for free as soon as I got there and again before I left.  Although this accounted for a good amount of meals, there was still the mandatory grocery store trip every once in a while.  And since a fairly large portion of my income went towards booze, I decided to seek help to make up the extra money.  How did I do this?  Food stamps.

But as I came to learn, food stamps aren’t actually stamps anymore.  They’re not even called “food stamps.”  In Wisconsin, I received what looked to be a credit card with a shitty picturesque drawing of an eagle soaring over a lake with the sun shining in the background.  Written in bold, red letters across the top was “Quest Card.”  The new name for food stamps.  Gone are the simple days of referring to something as exactly what it is.  Now you’re on a quest.  For what?  Probably some spaghetti noodles and a bag of chips.  Not the most noble cause, but still necessary.

Six years later, I am a college graduate and am living on the other side of the country.  How far have I come since the sabbatical from college?  Turns out, not too far at all.  I spent a portion of my afternoon at the Los Angeles Country Public Social Services office.  Applying for food stamps.  Or as they’re called here, CalFresh Benefits.

A lot of people think everybody that makes use of welfare benefits is lazy, simply mooching off of the affluent.  But getting your hands on these benefits is no easy task.  Paperwork followed by waiting followed by metal detectors followed by lines followed by more paperwork.  Appointments, as I came to learn, are merely a vague concept along the lines of the big bang theory.  Most people have a general idea of what it is, but the specifics are known only by a small percentage.

I locked my bike up outside of the office at 12:55 for my appointment at 1:00.  Cutting it a little closer that I would have liked, but still in time.  I gave the security guard everything from my pockets, took off my belt, and walked through the metal detector.  I put my belt back on and went to check in.  I was told to sit and wait for my name to be called.

I pulled out a book and started reading until my slight hangover caught up with me and I couldn’t keep my eyes open.  But I couldn’t sleep because I didn’t want to miss being called.  This meant I couldn’t read or listen to music.  So, of course, I stared at the wall and paid extremely close attention to the names being called with thick accents through the distortion of the overhead speakers.  Luckily, the crowd around me started providing entertainment.  I pulled out my notebook and began documenting the events. 

I knew I’d be writing this on here later on, so I tried to write it how it would later appear (does that make sense?).  This resulted in me writing in a garbled mix of present and past tense about things that were happening in real time.  It was a little weird.  Here’s what I wrote:

The security is quite active.  First time I saw them, three guards briskly walked out of their office while clutching night sticks.  They walked single-file out of the front door.  A little while later, I saw a guard speaking to someone not in my line of sight, blocked by the crowd sitting in the blue, plastic chairs.  No response.  The guard walked away and came back with a bullhorn.

“Sir?  Hello, sir?” he asked politely through the bullhorn a few inches from the man’s face.

But this was interrupted by a woman ten feet behind me yelling, “Security!” 

I glanced back and saw a young woman seemingly taking a nap on the ground.  “We got another one!” yelled one of the guards.  I knew sitting at the Social Services office was going to test my patience, but I didn’t think it would cause multiple people to pass out.

Then the ambulance showed up, awaiting the girl that was now sitting in a rolling office chair directly behind me.  They asked her if she was in any pain (no) and strapped her into an industrial grade wheelchair that looked as if it could withstand hurricane-force winds.  Immediately following that, the guards were back at pass out guy #1 telling him to wake up and asking him why they smelled alcohol.  He was then led away to a room in the back, past cashier windows A-C.

I had now been waiting for fifty minutes past my appointment and was constantly fighting the urge to flee.  Abandon the mission.  Is it worth the increasing boredom and intolerable smell?  Perhaps the lobby is just a remodeled high school locker room.  The park that sits directly across the street beckoned to me like a cooling pie.  But no, I had made it this far and deserved to see it to the end.  I just had to hope that the next name called wasn’t Mexican, Russian, or Asian.

I heard a man tell the woman at the window behind me that he had an appointment at 10.  It was 2.  My appointment was at 1.  My resolve wavered.  “Either people need to keep passing out or the boredom will send me screaming towards the nearest taco stand,” I told myself.

I put the notebook down when my name finally came through the speakers.  I found the correct window and showed the appropriate documents.  I wrote a statement explaining the electric bill situation.  I signed sheet after sheet without reading a single one of them.  After my case worker made copies of all of my legal documents, she smiled and said I should receive something in the mail in two weeks or so.  And that was it.

I gathered my things and headed outside to unlock my bike which sat near the ambulance that had yet to depart.  Perhaps the overweight Mexican lady in the belly shirt that collapsed was afraid of getting car sick as well.  Who knows.  I headed into the park that had been taunting me ever since I locked my bike to the pole outside the Los Angeles Country Public Social Services office an hour and a half earlier.

Update:  DENIED.  I guess my part-time job makes me a little too rich for welfare.  If only I had some illegitimate kids that I could claim...

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