Not wanting

cafeteria
Photo courtesy of Richard Styles
I currently have insurance coverage for prescriptions, and I try not to think about what would happen if I didn’t. This afternoon, when I picked up a refill, the pharmacist reminded me that the medicine would have cost nearly a thousand dollars without the discount. Honestly, I can’t get my mind around that dollar figure, but the pharmacist was concerned about how I’d react to my co-payment, which had doubled yet was roughly equivalent to a meal at a casual restaurant. I wasn’t worried. After all, I’d just left the office supply store, where I’d placed an order for a stack of brochures to be printed at two dollars a page. It’s impossible to calculate the true value of anything. What matters is how much you have in your wallet when you need to pay.

Lately, at the checkout counter or in the bank, I’m overhearing people who are stressed because their wallets are empty and the bills are overdue. It takes me back to the times when, as a kid, I had to watch every penny I spent.

When I was sixteen, I was hired as a supermarket cashier, which, in the era before scanners, was a job that required a few days of training at the company’s main warehouse. On the day of the first training session, I hadn’t expected to be invited to join my new coworkers for lunch, and I was too embarrassed to say anything, so I spent my bus fare on a bowl of soup. At the end of the day, in order to get home I had to walk ten miles through the worst parts of the inner city in the dark.

Three years later, I was still using public transportation in a city crowded with motorists, but I had a better job at a department store—a retailer now called Macy’s. One of our benefits as employees, in that bygone era, was a cafeteria where we were fed so cheaply that we must have been paying less than the wholesale cost of the food. One day at lunchtime, I selected my yogurt, slid my tray to the checkout, and came up a nickel short. The cashier reassured me that I could bring her a nickel the next day. I was so mortified that I couldn’t hold back the tears. To this day, I can recall that miserable feeling, that flush of shame.

Nowadays, truthfully, I have more than I need. I call myself stressed at times, but I have no right to complain. Thirty-odd years ago, the teenage me would have been envious. I wish I could go back and help her out. And I wish I could give that compassionate cashier a great big hug.

4 Replies to “Not wanting”

  1. Oh, Robin, this is so sad. Our teenaged selves were so unsure of ourselves and downright poor. I long to tell that long-ago girl how resourceful and beautiful she really is. I want to give her a ride home, lend her a nickel and teach her that shame is reserved for a lack of character, not merely a lack of money.

    You really are a good writer…

  2. What’s sad is how long it takes to get a proper perspective or, like, a car for that ride home. (laughing)

    People respond to what I write when I’m angry, I think. I was angry when I wrote this post, because I don’t know what to say to people who express contempt for those who have less. I’m always dumbfounded by the attitude. Drew Whitlock once called it “a different kind of poverty,” probably quoting Stephen Stills’ lyrics.

  3. Years ago, what made an impression on me was a board game, like Monopoly, but it was called something like the Welfare Game. I drew the character card of a single, uneducated mother with two kids and little income. No matter what I threw with the dice, no matter what activity card I drew, most of the choices spiralled me deeper into debt, and after awhile I realised that I/my character would never ‘win’ in any lasting sense.
    This game, more than anything else, taught me to look for the systemic influences that cripple the lives of some people.

  4. That sounds like the movie Precious, Marsha. It’s just as striking to see the effect of being born into privilege and what sort of harm that does to people. Being in the middle somewhere might be optimal. It’s tough to measure, isn’t it?

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