Asian woman – late twenties, hair dyed blonde, wearing a dark hoodie and sweatpants that say “Love Pink” over an obviously swollen belly. Her eyes are tired. So tired. As if she is carrying the world.
Black man – tall, tall; wearing a work shirt, pants, and a stocking cap. He stands straight, putting his dignity into his broad shoulders and back. He’s late twenties or early thirties. His eye holds mine on several occasions. I wish fleetingly that my beard looked as good as his.
Four children – three on foot, one in a carrier. Milk chocolate and honey. Little heads peeking over the counter. They move around but never stray far, never make much noise, only talk quietly with the man every once in awhile. Their eyes are bright and inquisitive, but I can already see a touch of the exhaustion that the woman wears.
We’re all at Safeway and I am several carts behind them. It’s the Sunday before the Fourth of July. The store is packed. The lines are long. People, including me, are irritable.
The woman is working with the checkout clerk to make sure she gets the most out of her foodstamps. Pricing items, running them down the conveyor to the man, who bags them, and then frequently asking them to be taken back so that a different configuration of groceries can be tried. I don’t see any really outrageous items. Two Safeway cupcakes in their plastic boxes are the only luxury I spot, though I’m not paying much attention and I don’t have a great view anyway.
I stand there as the tiny drama unfolds like a Chekov tragedy. We don’t get to see, but we can imagine it happening somewhere sometime soon,
There are two cupcakes.
They can only afford one cupcake.
It’s that or put back something else.
No matter how hard they try, no matter what they take out of and put into the cart, the math always seems to be coming out the same. One cupcake.
People in the line are getting angry. Hell, I’M getting angry. I after all have places to go and things to do. But the Asian woman just stands there at checkout, and the black man just stands at the end, bagging and rebagging.
And during the seventeen minutes I wait behind them, listening to the grumbling and complaints, and feeling them myself, the woman never – not once – glances back at the line, looks around, or in any way acknowledges that we are there. She looks at the cashier. She looks at her foodstamps. She looks through her coupons. She looks at other Safeway employees who wander in and out of the drama wondering what the holdup is. She is fighting to wring every last penny worth of nutrition out of her foodstamps and her money. And by God she is going to do it if it takes four hours of standing in that line.
And she’s fighting for the dignity that goes with being able to afford a luxury, no matter how small. Is it for the kids? Is it for the adults? Is it a pregnancy craving?
Does it matter?
Poverty in America is clawing and fighting and holding your ground and trying everything, everything you can do to make it work – and coming up one cupcake short.
Epilogue: I wish I had been able to solve this dilemma. I don’t have much money but I could have afforded one cupcake. I didn’t learn what I know of the story until I got to the checkout counter. The cupcake was still sitting there. It was $2.99.
“Can you believe it?” asked the checkout clerk (trying hard to be friendly and chatty to the people who had to wait). “All that over a cupcake?”