A Sleeping Bag and a Sack of Rice

A Sleeping Bag and a Sack of Rice July 13, 2017

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I happened to notice this in my newsfeed today; please take a look when you get five minutes:

Oh, I know how that feels.

We’re still poor and probably always will be, but in some ways that’s hard for me to remember because it used to be so much worse. After Rose was born, we were broke indeed. We gave our last three hundred bucks to that con artist fake midwife because she was threatening us, and then we had nothing. We lived on about five hundred dollars a month plus food stamps, and those five hundred were a gift from my grandmother, the only relative who still liked me, so it wasn’t as though we could feel any dignity about having earned it. Our apartment was in a dilapidated slum building on the worst street in LaBelle. There was mold eating the bathroom wall; the floor tiles were peeling up; there was an insane woman living upstairs who liked to wake us up at two o’clock in the morning screaming at her latest boyfriend and wailing away on the guitar. She liked to pound on the floor so hard it shook the walls. Once she pounded on the floor and broke our kitchen light fixture; the broken glass went right into the meal I was trying to make on the stove.

I had been raised with the general assumption that there were two kinds of people: there were normal people who didn’t need food stamps, and there were “less fortunate” people who did, and I was meant to be of the former kind. There were accomplished people with things to be proud of, and there were failures, and I was meant to be accomplished. There were normal people who lived in respectable houses they owned themselves and “street people” who lived in squalor, and I was to avoid anything that would make me look like a “street person.” I was deeply humiliated to now find myself on the “street person” side of the Great Divide, with no way out.

I was severely traumatized by Rose’s birth  and by the run-in with my parents; I would have felt like garbage in any case. I especially felt like garbage in that apartment. I had nothing to take my mind off of the fact that I felt like garbage. I couldn’t sleep without the upstairs neighbor waking me. A good two weeks out of the month, after the food stamps ran out, I couldn’t eat very much either. I couldn’t watch TV because we couldn’t afford TV service, a Netflix subscription or anything of the kind. We had internet, on and off, when a college student in the building let us go halves on a wifi network, and that was all.

I felt I wasn’t human, and I had nothing to take my mind off of that fact.

During this time, Molly was busy founding The Friendship Room.  She didn’t know that that was what she was doing; she thought she was starting a temporary project to help local homeless people during a polar vortex. The weather was set to get much cooler than usual, down to minus fifteen degrees Fahrenheit at the very warmest for a few nights. On a normal winter night, you could theoretically survive sleeping outdoors in downtown Steubenville, though it would be a horrible experience. But during the polar vortex, any homeless person who couldn’t get a bed in the already overcrowded homeless shelter would die.

Molly opened a store front downtown; she set up camping cots and sleeping bags for people to lie on. She got a percolator and made some hot coffee. She got on Facebook and asked her friends to bring warm soup.

It was far better attended than she thought. It turned out that it wasn’t just the homeless who needed help during the polar vortex. Molly discovered a whole population of poor people who were not quite homeless, but who couldn’t afford to keep the utilities turned on. They had apartments downtown with no electricity or gas; they nailed blankets over the windows and slept in their coats. And they suffered horribly all winter long.

Molly decided to leave her makeshift shelter open, just until spring.

She got on Facebook again. “We need warm food– soup, chili, stew, tea, also instant oatmeal packets and disposable bowls. And any blankets you can spare. Just bring them downtown to me.”

I wanted to help so badly. I knew if I told anyone I knew how much I wanted to help, they’d scold. I was a charity case myself, a failure and a “street person.” I couldn’t afford to be charitable. It would be irresponsible.

I hated myself even more than usual.

Then, I remembered: we had a sleeping bag. One of Michael’s old roommates had abandoned it here, or maybe it was something his mother had seen at a thrift store and given to him because it looked so useful. It was moth-nibbled and smelled like dust, but it was mostly whole.

“Would you take a sleeping bag?” I asked.

“Yes,” she replied.

I got the sleeping bag down from the closet.

I went to the kitchen to have a look around.

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