Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Class guilt

Today, for the first time in my life, I visited a food bank. I showed a recent piece of mail to prove my current address, presented my driver's license to prove that I'm me, and filled out a brief form. Then I got a laminated card that told me how many cans of fruit, dairy products, grain products, proteins (beans, in my case), and cans of vegetables I could claim. (Fresh veggies were apparently just up for grabs.) While I was shopping, a volunteer started shouting at a tall, skinny woman whom he accused of stealing. She and her boyfriend were running some kind of scam wherein one of them exited out the back door rather than the front one. They were trying to make off with more than their share, the volunteer alleged. The woman was ejected from the food bank and told not to come back. Outside, people in line shook their heads, and another volunteer expressed amazement. Stealing from a food bank!

From my perspective, it's just a sign of the times, like the nervous-looking crowd today at WorkSource, the state-run employment support agency that provides workshops and other resources free of charge to the un- and underemployed. I took a three-hour class today on writing effective résumés and cover letters, and I enjoyed it thoroughly, thanks to the humor and enthusiasm of the teacher. I plan to go back later this month for the workshop on interviewing. I didn't feel particularly guilty taking advantage of WorkSource's free class, since I am unemployed, and my unemployment isn't voluntary. Being at the food bank, on the other hand, made me a little uneasy. Was I taking food from the mouths of people who needed it more? The form I filled out included the question: Are you homeless?

I'm the furthest thing from homeless, and I think my risk of becoming homeless in the immediate future in extremely low. My mother owns a house outside Detroit; worse-case scenario, I'd move back there. I'm also not poor in terms of my upbringing, or my family's current standing. We have money; I have an inheritance fund that I still receive monthly installments of $1,000 from. I just don't have any work-based income right now. Maybe visiting the food bank every week as a way to supplement purchases from Rising Sun, the cheap grocery stand eight blocks from our house, and the occasional PCC or Whole Foods splurge (though I'm trying to avoid those now), isn't causing some truly impoverished local family to go hungry.

Still, texting a friend outside the food bank, I felt like a tourist. Hell, I felt like one when I reached the checkout and the guy bagging my food asked: "No meat?" I didn't want to confess to being a vegetarian; it seemed privileged and precious and not in the spirit of taking as much food as you're allowed, because hey, maybe that's the only food you can afford this week. I didn't feel like figuring out which produce was worth taking home. I didn't want to take an unlabeled can of corn. Some kind of bourgeois instinct kicked in: Unlabeled stuff is sketchy. Don't do it!

As a friend pointed out, I had a day that exposed me to the lives of the poor and unemployed. I may be the latter, but I'm not really the former, and while I'll definitely revisit WorkSource, I'm not sure about the food bank. I'll have to give that some thought.

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