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I Never Thought I’d Become a Welfare Queen

I Never Thought I’d Become a Welfare Queen
Elizabeth Salaam

(Originally published in the San Diego Reader January 6, 2010.)

Poverty does not become me. I’m sure it doesn’t become anyone, but it really doesn’t become me. I was supposed to be somebody by now, and by that I mean somebody other than this woman who holds up grocery store lines with her WIC checks.

I used to suck my teeth and sigh in irritation at WIC-check users. I hated the way they popped their gum and had those slack looks on their faces, as if they didn’t give a damn that they were holding the rest of us up.

And then one day I was one of them.

That first time, before I learned to do my shopping during empty-store hours, the people behind me shook their heads and rolled their eyes in exasperation while the cashier ran my checks through the machine as slowly as she could. The people farther back craned their necks to see what idiot had stalled things. On top of it all, I was eight months pregnant and dressed for nothing more than comfort in sweats, flip-flops, and a bursting-at-the-seams T-shirt. In short, I looked like one of them.

Then, without so much as a look in my direction, the cashier stopped the conveyor belt and paused her slothlike movements to call over the intercom for someone to switch my block of cheese because (stupid me) I didn’t know Swiss was not an option when using a WIC check.

The cashier tapped her pen against the counter in a rhythmless beat, but judging by the relaxed look on her face, she enjoyed the break in monotony of scanning items, pushing buttons, and counting cash.

“Hey, Frank,” she called, as a manager type in a blue polo shirt walked past, jangling a set of keys. “Did Sonya come in today?”

Frank changed course and stopped to chat. Clearly, we were going to be here awhile. I attempted an apologetic smile at the woman behind me. She pursed her lips in a less-than-friendly grimace that read, “You should have come when the store was empty.”

My husband and I used to bitch about how broke we were while stuffing our faces with $50 platters of sushi or driving to Ojai for a weekend at a cozy bed-and-breakfast. Back then, I got my hair done at a fancy-schmancy place, and being broke meant having to settle for new highlights every 16 weeks instead of every 8. I now refer to those days as back when we were rich. These days, being broke means making the choice between putting the rent on credit and asking my mom to pay it. Both options are embarrassing.

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