Wednesday, December 23, 2009

hard times: things are touch all over

It's been a while--years. But at least this time at the welfare office, I don't have a wailing baby. Clearly, I've made some progress in society. Now, I am in college. Again.

I'm moving up these days. I haven't been here since my angry teen was an angry infant. The last time I was chewing gum during receptionist interviews, wondering why I didn't quite land the job--even though my Spanish was great and I could type like the dickens despite my tappity acrylic nails.

But now, as I round the end of graduate level education, I can see where it has brought me: I'm applying for my county check. And within moments of my arrival through the the metal detectors, I have already been here for hours. How IS that?

But it's not through the waiting and the paperwork and the job placement programs that the learning is done. No, not for me. Once I get cattled across a few separate waiting areas, I learn one incredibly valuable bit about the welfare office building. No, I'm not talking about service in a healthy society or doing your part. Or am I?

People always tell you that a bar, a nightclub--these are the worst places you can meet a guy.

I say, bullsheeyit.

The worst place to meet a guy, has gots to be the Welfare Office.

At least at the bar, they let you drink. Some douchestrap might even pay for it--in regular ole currency that has nothing to do with a sidestreet cash-in of this month's foodstamps. He may even be employed somewhere and have a telephone in his name. Therein lie possibities. Possiblities in backseats and rooms paid for with cash--maybe credit. Maybe good credit. Reach for the moon.

Hanging at the bar, if you put on your 3-D(rink) goggles, you get things put into a palatable, though spinning, perspective where in the morning, at least your toilet is there for a hug.

At the Welfare office, I can barely bring myself to pee in those toilets, let alone hug them. At the Welfare office, you ain't got shit. Well, except for maybe some motel vouchers. I guess those really are handy if dates end well.

In one of many waiting areas, I sit. After I am done sitting, I sit some more. All sorts of people come here. It's disheartening, annoying, sad, loud and occasionally smelly. Things are touch all over. There's a woman across the way, the nicest lady in the place--all smiles and clearly living out of a shopping bag. I don't want to stare, but is that a bedpan in there? If you're homeless, is that really a necessity? I don't know. I have never been a practical packer. I pull out one of two paperbacks from my bag.

A gentleman approaches me. Heh, "gentleman", I crack me up. He looks normal enough.He is not packing a bedpan. Only one of his eyes has a cataract. He is not afraid of introductions. I am.

"Girl, I just came up,"

He says it kinda on the sly, taking a seat.


I say. I begin reading my book for dearlife. Everyone in this book* is a hustling criminal with no money. Shit, I can't escape this life. It is a flimsy forcefield because he keeps talking.

"Girl, they just gave me all these motel vouchers," he explains.

As incredible a conversation starter as that is, I am reluctant. I am wondering if working laps at strip bars might carry more dignity than continuing to wait here. Hmm, I bet this guy would be a shoddy tipper.

"Um, good for you?" I say. It's the most congratulatory thing I can say. I just can't make myself highfive him, even if that would be funny.

He sees that I clearly don't get it. He is going to have to up his game.

"Girl, they're supposed to make you sign these things. But they weren't even looking. I didn't sign shit! I'm about to sell these bitches!"

I can't figure out if I'm supposed to be impressed or making a purchase. Or notifying the authorities. I decide my best bet is to blink stupidly, and find my happy place, far, far from here.
Somewhere with palm trees or where people have jobs. We only have the former in Los Angeles.

"You got a place to stay?" he asks. "You having a hard time?"

Well, I am having a hard time, it's true. But, I think that he is the one giving it to me. This conversation is already doomed to be ridiculous. I should help it along.

"I'm fine. I wish you luck with your welfare fraud." It seems that I can only say the wrong thing. I just suck at boy meets girl, don't I. I watch the clock with fear and hatred. I think of the movie, Beetlejuice. I think of the dude in the waiting room with the shrunken head. I make wishes.

"Girl, it ain't like that. Don't worry."
He senses my concern and makes a quick save.
"I drive an Escalade!"

An Escalade? There is nowhere to run. I read the shit out of the same sentence, over and over, like a mantra or a spell that clearly isn't working because he is still sitting here. Hell, I am still sitting here too.

"Well, I don't wanna bother you. You look busy," he says. Oh, is he leaving? maybe it did work. I will work on the shrunken head part next. Or at least his other eye, but then he'd crash the Escalade on the way home. But it's a false sense of hope here at the welfare office--he keeps sitting there. I am in for more disappointment in myself. No, not in the paths I walked to get here, but in the fact that I react with such ugly honesty to him. I fold the corner of my book and explain that it is not that he is bothering me exactly, which, yes, I suppose that he is. But it is in that I do not drive an Escalade. I do not have a motel voucher racket. All I have is a headache and that I do not want to be here. Realization sweeps over him, there is a glimmer in his good eye.

"No, it ain't even like that," he says. "Girl, I used to work at the airport. That's how I got this eye. They gave me a settlement and THAT'S how i got my Escalade. We all have hard times. All of us do," he explains. I resist the urge to ask about a jet getting his eye somehow. Hard times, indeed. It's a very long book I got out of reading at school. I do feel bad for hard times, and whoever may be having them, despite how completely ridiculous each moment gets here at the welfare office--the West Los Angeles branch of Hard Times.

I just nod. I go back to my book. In it, a lady with two babies sells her plasma because she's strapped for cash. Dammit, why didn't I think of that.

"You alright girl. You real cool."

Shit, you're still here?

"I'm from the Bay area--I ain't racist. I would ask you for your phone number."

Yes, I know what you're thinking. I don't know what the Bay area has to do with his racism, or lack thereof, either. But, I am very glad to have dropped my phone into my cat's water bowl, just days prior. I get excited to speak more truths.

"My phone is broken. Sorry."

He offers to sell me one. Hell, he'd GIVE me one. His head doesn't need shrinking does it. He needs all the space up there he can get. But the good part hasn't come. The good part is when he offers me career advice. He explains that I should go back to school. That is what he is doing. Girl, if you go to school. They will pay you! You can take easy ass classes! P.E. 1+1 shit! I bet you could do it for the rest of your life! That's what I'm 'bout to do!

I think of the booklist in my bag, the one I can't afford to purchase despite the coming semester. I feel something like fury again. Before I can ask him how to get in on the cellphone selling racket, they call my name, tell me to wait in an additonal area. I don't even mind more waiting. I'm getting used to it. Hell, it's all about books and waiting at the welfare office. And bad dudes, with bad eyes, and bad luck too. I'm just glad that I can still see out of both eyes. Even if I can't afford the glasses it will take to do it right. I sit down again, turn the page, and keep reading about a young, stupid mom taking pills that make her feel funny. Don't do it! I want to say. Although, I sympathize. In a few pages, she'll get raped.

*Angels by Denis Johnson--shout out!


  1. absolutely *brilliant*.

    funny, self-effacing, and written with an eye to the halcyon days when, you know, people could actually write engaging english.

    carry on!

  2. Gurl, you b playa-hatin.