Rick did the footwork. Neither of us was sure we should go ahead with this but we couldn’t continue without any insurance for Emmy. I was convinced we wouldn’t qualify but apparently we did. In Wisconsin, insurance and food assistance come as a package deal. The food plan is called Quest. I’m not sure what it means but it feels so much better than poverty assistance or community bloodsucking. The enrollment process was totally painless, a series of forms mailed in and a follow-up phone call with a case worker ending in “you’re approved”. The case worker even issued an emergency card so we could use our stipend immediately. The best part is the vehicle for making transactions is a pseudo credit card that is refilled electronically every month. No more embarrassing moments of having to count out food vouchers that look like monopoly money, the kind of incidents that made those using them feel like irresponsible children feeding off the rest of society. All I have to do is swipe a card and I can do this at an automated checkout counter so I don’t even have to endure the glare of a superior minded gum smacking cashier. The situation of being reduced to public assistance is humiliation enough.
The only person-to-person interaction I had happened when I picked up the emergency card. On another snowy Wisconsin morning I weaved my way through the slick white streets of northeastern Madison to the Dane County Job Center, across the railroad tracks from the Oscar Mayer plant. I have no idea if there was intended irony in this or not. I had been here earlier to drop off my original application on a sunnier day. Then the place was packed with screaming kids and people named Tanisha and Jermichael. I shoved my application in the drop box and exited as fast as I had entered. On this trip the scene was very different. Snowy streets have a way of affecting us poor more than those with better financial standing. In my impoverished state I’m required to load the back of the Ford Escort with boxes of books for traction in the hopes of keeping the “Sorency” mobile on the road and out of the ditch. Hummers, four wheel drive or even tires with treads are still dreams from a former life. I pulled into the parking lot as a pick-up truck with an attached plow started carving out paths in the etch-a-sketch canvas of the center’s parking lot. Once in the center my competition for a prominent place in line had dwindled to a handful of hopefuls. I walked up to the counter and asked the attendant for the special form my case worker said she would leave for me. She had specifically asked that I come in early since she was giving me an extra day to get it to her. I had in typical "Lee" fashion missed the original deadline.
“Hi, Ms. Swanson told me she would leave a form at the front desk for me to fill out so I can get an emergency Quest card.”
The attendant's eyes did a quick dart to a shelf outside my field of vision and then zipped back to stare at me. “I’m sorry but there isn’t anything here for you. We don’t get deliveries at the desk until 12:30.” As much as this had looked like a slam dunk I was now worrying I might not get out in time to pick-up Emmy once school let out in the late afternoon.
“Can I get a message to Ms. Swanson to see if we can get the form a little sooner?”
“I can email her and you can wait over there to see if she responds” If she was booked for the entire day I didn’t hold out a lot of hope I’d be walking out of here with a card in my hand. I shuffled off to the waiting area and took a seat across from the security guard‘s cubicle. I hadn’t brought a newspaper or a crossword puzzle with me. I looked around for anything to sooth my anxiety, the only things I could find were the posters plastered on the walls of the security guard’s cubicle.
“No children allowed in the Security Guard’s area”
“Children left unattended will be tied an eaten”
“Don’t ask me, I only work here”
“If you don’t see a clock, don’t ask for the time”
“Lee” I was jolted back to my purpose in being here. I walked back to the front desk where the form had been found. I only had to sign the form and then they would print out a card while I waited. Back to the waiting area and the written wisdom of the security guard’s walls.
“Mr. Mel-uh-han” A large black woman with a gap-toothed smile beckoned me to her glass partitioned desk where she held my card in her hands. First she handed back my signed form. I had just enough time to notice the back had a list of acceptable food groups you could purchase. The restrictions were printed in broad strokes. You could use if for breads and cereals, meat, poultry and fish, dairy products, the basics. The list was specific enough to make me question what I could do yet general enough to make me unsure what might be included.
“Any questions hon?”
“I’m not sure what all I can get with this. Is peanut butter okay?”
“Oh ya, you can get just about anything you can eat. You can even get yourself some steak, or shrimp or chips. You just can’t get yourself any toilet paper or plastic utensils. They don’t check on what you buy honey. Go out and get yourself a big box of chocolate chip cookies” She handed over the card with a sweetness that said it’s okay, you don’t need to be ashamed, you needed help and that’s all that this is.
Check out all available services in the area. Don’t be afraid to ask for assistance from any group or agency willing to give it. You can find insurance, medical assistance, even food . Then remember to give back. So many organizations need volunteers. (This part of the story to be continued later.)