They say I have to be on my feet. Well I’ll tell you what, my feet hurt, and I’ve shifted my weight so many times today it’s stopped giving any kind of relief.
They say I have to be on my feet, and that I have to wear industrial steel-toed black leather boots, and I said those are factory boots, those are for folks who work in the factories with machines so that when something drops on their foot the factory won’t get sued. I said that and they said well we don’t want to get sued if someone steps on your foot. Which happens, they said.
My shoes have got rubber soles and the steel toes they said I needed and I’m probably going to find some orthotics to put in them. They aren’t feminine. Everything about a security uniform was made for men to wear, and just about all of it looks stupid on a woman. Most women I know who do security work just take it like their uniform may as well be pajamas—they know they can’t make it look good so they leave it and don’t bother. I get the temptation, but my face is really feminine, like it’d be hard to drag as anything other than a pudgy 12 year old boy, so most mornings I put on base and concealer and eye shadow and mascara. I don’t do lipstick, though. That’d just be stupid. And I’ve thought about getting the uniform tailored, but it does not seem worth my time.
I can’t wear earrings the same reason I need the steel-toed boots, in case I have to fight someone or have to break up a fight or in case somebody fights me. None of these has ever happened, but I bet it’d make me forget what my feet feel like for a few minutes.
I’ve found this spot on the front counter by where the reception sits, just behind and to the left of the counter, where the counter juts out past the wall by about a foot and a half. I put my elbows there like I’m surveying all the way down the lobby, keeping an eye on everyone waiting for food stamps and all their stuff, but then I put my weight, as much of it as I can, onto my elbows and try to lift up, to take it off my feet. It helps a little, but it pulls me off my feet and onto my toes, so then my toes get worn out and my heels get enough of a rest for the blood to return to them and by the time I stand back upright my heels are too sensitive and it hurts.
While I have my elbows on the counter like that I can look at my phone and read the Japanese text message romance novels, as long as it doesn’t get in the way of me breaking up fights or fighting someone or somebody fighting me. Which it doesn’t, because nobody fights as I’ve seen so far. It’ll probably happen eventually. But right now, this is hands-down the most boring job I have ever done or even heard about in my life and I don’t know anybody who could contradict that. I stand guard in one room in the Department of Social Services building on DeKalb Avenue off the G line in Brooklyn. Even when it gets rowdy, like when someone starts pacing and muttering about the wait louder and louder trying to get some attention, most people would rather sit down when I tell them to than leave and wait in line again tomorrow. I’m not allowed to stand in the back of the lobby where I can see the television, but that’s why I’ve got the Japanese text message romance novels.
When I filled out the application for this job, they asked me if I knew what the DSS office was for. I think they can’t ask anyone applying if they’ve ever had food stamps, because that’s probably a labor rights violation, so this must be their tricky way of figuring out if the person in front of them is going to over-sympathize with the customers. I don’t like questions that beat around the bush, so I told them I’d never been on food stamps before. The woman who interviewed me didn’t ask me to clarify whether I knew about their office. I figured that proved my point.
I should have been on food stamps when I was a kid, but my father was a businessman and had too much pride to walk into the Brooklyn DSS and ask for them. We talked about food all the time in my house. How much we had and how much each of us could eat and when we’d get more. We made it last and we each got some each day, but every one of us agreed we could have had more and been happy about it. There were those mornings when we got to school early and smelled the oatmeal from the cafeteria where the kids on food stamps ate breakfast, and that was going to be a bad day. We even heard my mother asking my dad to go to the DSS office to apply, but he wouldn’t and he said he never would. She couldn’t apply herself without proof of his income and he wouldn’t give it to her, so that basically held us all hostage to his idea that we were above any government assistance. It made me hate my father, and it made my older brothers just like him. It made my sister stupid because she went out and found a man just like him. It made my younger brother so fat the doctor says he’s past fat, he’s obese. He knows he’s got to stop but man, he’s too scared to ever let food out of his thick hands.
I started this job at the food stamps office a year and a half ago. When I’d been working here six months, my father died. I felt a lot about that. I got crazy some days, sometimes I felt pissed off at the customers or jealous in retrospect, or some days bitter and sad, but then I found the Japanese text message romance novels and that helped pass the time and ease my mind. Then I read in a travel magazine that some Asian peoples from Nepal shave their heads every year on the anniversary of their father’s death and so I did it, just took my husband’s electric razor and shaved my head when my father died. I don’t think I’ll do it next year.
I was still full of anger about my father when he died, about the food and about lots of other stuff that happened while I was growing up, but the food constituted the major offense. We were hungry. My older brothers are stupid and prideful just like him now, and Terrence is going to need disability soon for his obesity or maybe even a shrink and that would put my mother in her grave.
One day after my dad died I got in a fight with my sister about whether or not it was fair, how we didn’t get enough food when we were kids. She still sucks up to him even though he’s dead. Well we got in a fight about him and I said that’s enough, and I went into his desk and got all his papers about money and income and proof of this and that. I looked at those papers until my eyes went crossed, and then a week more, and I used all my eavesdropping at the food stamps office to determine his eligibility like they say. I added all of it in. I used his income from when we were kids and the eligibility requirements from the same years and I was going to prove that he’d stiffed us on proper nutrients. I thought maybe I’d even get really serious about it and figure out how much money per month Terrence spent on food now and whether we were all shorter than we should have been if we’d gotten all our vitamins. I tell you I took a deep, deep look at those financials.
My father’s business was a convenience store, it sold chips and candy and lottery tickets and sex pills for men and calling cards to anywhere in the world. He said that if he ever had to close his store none of us would ever eat again, so we all shut up when he used family money for store rent and moved us to a tiny shitty apartment to keep the shop going. He had loans from banks and sharks. He owed so much money on that store that it wasn’t even an asset.
When I finished with his papers I calculated whether we could have eaten better when we were kids. There were five of us plus my mother and him, and adults count if you’ve got kids so we were a family of seven until my brothers started turning 21. I was ready to shove those papers back in my sister’s face so she could see what he stole from us—the chance to eat better!—but that is not how it turned out. My family did not meet the eligibility rules.
We couldn’t have gotten on food stamps if he’d let us. I was too surprised at first but then I started picturing this movie, all bit-by-bit at first and then like a full movie I could watch with my eyes wide open, of my father leaving work one day to apply for us for food stamps. He could’ve left and applied and after they denied him for eligibility he could have thought well I’ll just tell them we don’t need that. He could have hid the denial letter from the mail and talked about a man’s pride until we stopped asking. This is something I’ll never know because he was too proud at least to tell us.
When my feet hurt, which is basically all of the time, I think about how people must hurt sitting in those sick plastic chairs while they’re waiting in the lobby, watching television and wondering if they’re poor enough to get benefits. They come in to report a new job they got on the 17th and I tell them to come back next month, get themselves an extra month of food before it gets cut. They work the factory jobs that have high hours around the holidays and low hours the rest of the time, I tell them they better apply before work picks up, either that or wait until February. They ask for a job application and I tell them the name of my contracting agency, and I tell them to say they don’t know one damn thing about this DSS building.
(This story was first published in Issue 11.)
MARGARET REDMOND WHITEHEAD received her MA in Literary Reportage from NYU and was a Banff Centre for Arts & Creativity Literary Journalism Fellow in 2017. Her work has appeared in publications including Good Housekeeping, Reason Magazine, and Narratively. You can follow her on Twitter @margredwhite