Friday, June 4, 2010

Charity Case

The apartment was barren. Gone were our appliances and furniture. The dust that had collected behind them stirred up in the wake of our footsteps. The stereo, of course, remained unmolested.

Two, easy chairs lingered, set up haphazardly in front of the system. Beer bottles lay strewn about the floor. The phone was disconnected – unplugged but still functioning. We never answered it. When it rang, we would stare at it with paranoid suspicion until it stopped. Our attempt to get an outgoing line only was met with incredulity by the operator upon request. “We don’t……have those anymore sir” she said in bewilderment.

Our doorbell was broken, the only contact we had with the outside world was to be had when somebody actually made the effort to come by. They were required to find a small object lying about on the ground, and throw it repeatedly at our second story window. It was a vein hope that we would be lucid enough to notice, or even hear, over the loud music that would play all night. Surprisingly, some people still actually undertook the effort.

The shelves were empty, a bag of rice and a few boullion cubes were all we had for sustenance. We were broke, and it was obviously our last month in the apartment. Like a fool, I had quit the best job I ever had in my life. And this was the disastrous result.

In the early afternoons we would wake, collect the beer bottles, and look for something else to sell. Our desperate need for beer had to be fulfilled. The thought of sitting there, throughout the evenings, with our mental faculties fully intact was unbearable.

We had somehow always managed to be successful, but on this day another crisis arose. We were out of food, the rice bag was empty. Something had to be done. We sat and pondered. Money was left unconsidered, that was for beer. No, we had to find another way.

“The food bank!” Lee suddenly looked up at me, his eyes glinting with delight. It was a fine idea. I was glad to have a man at my back like Lee. He had saved us for another day, maybe several.

Excitedly, we looked up the address in the phone book, and began to prepare. “Well, we’re not really poor”, I said to him with a hint of reluctance in my voice. Lee dismissed my hesitation with a beleaguered wave. “All that’s needed is a bit of careful preparation, dress poor.” he explained. I went upstairs to find something to wear.

We emerged from our rooms, appraised each other and burst out in wild laughter. I had adorned myself in an old pink ladies hat and scarf, tattered jeans, and three old cotton checkered jackets, each one of them fully stripped of buttons. I wore socks on my hands as gloves and had put on one of my old pairs of broken glasses. One of the lenses had been shattered, and one arm, twisted beyond use, jutted out from the side of my head. Lee was dressed in a similar fashion. We looked ridiculous, far worse than any street person I had ever seen. We were ready.

It was a cold winter’s day. We must have been an odd sight, pedaling down the road to the food bank, on bicycles easily worth over a thousand dollars each. It was a good distance, but the socks functioned better than I had hoped, and kept my hands from going completely numb. But the button-less jackets couldn’t be closed, and my torso was taking the brunt of the merciless, frigid air, driven by the harsh unrelenting wind.

Finally we arrived. We looked up at The Food Bank. Here was our salvation. A reconverted old factory warehouse, with crumbling bricks and broken windows, it towered above us, framed by the gray and sunless sky. We carefully locked our bikes up out of sight, worried that if we were spotted, our precious food would be confiscated. We had no idea what to expect, we had never been to the food bank. I was only vaguely aware that places like this existed.

We paused long enough to scrape up some dirt from underneath the snow and smeared it on our faces, completing our disguises.

Seeing a loading dock, we entered the warehouse and were greeted with a welcome sight. The place was enormous, and there was row after row of canned and dried goods, neatly stacked and arranged. The warehouse seemed abandoned, dead silence hung in the air. We looked at each other in delight. “I guess we just take what we want...” I ventured. My voice echoing through the stillness.

Noticing some empty boxes from the loading dock, we began to fill up on supplies, shouting out to each other in excitement when a favoured item was discovered. I began to praise that such a wonderful service existed.  We hauled our bounty up on our shoulders and began to walk back toward the entrance.

As we were just about to exit the building, a door opened and a man walked out. He saw us and stopped dead in his tracks. We froze as well. We studied each other for a long moment.  I could see him recoil slightly from our wretched appearance.

“What are you doing here?” He asked harshly.

Something was wrong, but what?

“We’re visiting the food bank” I responded, thinking that such a conclusion should by blindingly obvious.

The man, still guarded, but slightly relieved, told us that a process had to be followed. We were to go to the waiting area, on the other side of the building at the proper entrance. There we were to register, show identification, have proof of address and receive our ration. Dismayed, but not undaunted, we left our boxes and trudged out. The previously open door slammed behind us, and we heard the distinct sound of the lock engaging.

Steeling ourselves to the fraud we were about to commit, we opened the door and walked in. The other recipients of charity were there, seated in chairs and sipping coffee, all eyes turned to us and silence suddenly cut through the room. We regarded each other in mutual shock.

These were completely normal people! One man sat primly wearing a business suit, reading the financial section of the newspaper. There is no hint of poverty here, I thought, as I scanned the room.  I moved to sit down.

The entire room unconsciously edged away from us. Nervous whispers could be vaguely heard. Our decrepit appearance was regarded with surprise and disdain. I could see the thought in their eyes “What are these poor people doing here?”

We waited, accepting an offer of hot coffee from one of the staff who rushed over, with concern written on her face. “You have to fill this out” She told us softly, and hesitantly added “Do you have an address?”

I filled in the forms and showed my identification. Lee had luckily thought to bring the only piece of ID he had ever owned, a crumpled birth certificate. That is still all he has to this very day.

We were given a box. It contained some laundry soap, a few cans, some Kraft dinner, powdered milk, and a few other paltry items. Hardly the cornucopia we had in our hands at the warehouse.

We were satisfied. It would be enough to soak up the beer in our stomachs tonight.

We left, and I stood outside and watched as the man in the suit gingerly carried his box to a parked BMW, got in, and sped off.
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