“Responsible poverty is an endless cycle of no. No, you can’t have that. You can’t do that, can’t afford that, can’t eat that, can’t choose that. This is off-limits, and that is not for you, and this over here is meant for different kinds of people.”
Hand to Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America
Now that I am in a more stable financial situation (though still in a precarious one), I can actually speak of this obsession to know where the nearest food banks are located, which gave me a sense of comfort, and still does really. In the last five years, I have been living on the South Shore of Montréal, and though I moved twice due to rent increases, I stayed in the same neighbourhood as the church where I can go to the tiny room with tiny shelves that hold some basic foods such as cans of soups and tuna, and boxes of pasta, which is a fancier name for spaghetti as it was known in the 60s when I was a child.
In the last two years, a larger food bank has opened its doors to the wider population of the South Shore, and this has relieved some of my anxiety since the slow tumble into living below the poverty line. This was during Canada’s recession of 2008-2009 when work started drying up for many people, including freelance writers like me. In my case, this was compounded by the fact that I was on a disability cheque because I had suffered three major bouts of cancer that had left me in survival mode. I was also living alone since the death of my husband in 2002, when he was 49 years old. This loss had made me more fragile, but I was able to regain some degree of health with the care of my family and friends, and my strong faith. What I wanted was to continue to write and publish more books.
After moving to Côte-des-Neiges to be closer to the hospital where I had follow-up tests and appointments, and to be in the cultural milieu of Montréal where I could more easily earn money, Canada’s recession hit suddenly and hard. This had an impact on my life as it diminished my freelance contracts, some of which were obtained from friends who had delegated work to me. I also had fewer opportunities to do poetry readings and publish various articles and reviews. My physical energy diminished too under the stress, and daily became as unpredictable as the climate change weather graphs.
One day, I had to face the fact that there were no more options, and even borrowing on the future was no longer viable. As I stared into my near empty fridge, I was reminded of how my father used to tease me as a child and recite the nursery rhyme, missing some words but not the sense:
Old Mother Hubbard went to the cupboard
Only to find all the shelves bare
Then he’d laugh, but somehow this image of the bare shelves stirred my apprehension rather than making me laugh. I came from a middle-class family, but we had hard times when we were close to having bare cupboards.
One reason that I could live with my fate is that many friends and acquaintances were also living on borrowed money, if not borrowed time. I began to ask questions to Jenny who made use of food banks between low-paying jobs because she had no choice, and was honest about it.
I found out that the food bank that served many people in downtown Montréal gave so much food at once, (a boon certainly) that Jenny said you had to have someone drive you home or else shell out for a taxi, as it was not possible to take the bus with all the heavy bags. Problem was that not everyone had money for a taxi or a friend who could be a driver that one day a month. And Jenny* said everyone had to register and show identification. This was something I balked at, as it made me feel even more embarrassed to go to a food bank. She explained that this was the way the government kept a record so they could catch those who took advantage of the system.
I didn’t want to give my name and address but my social worker at the CLSC, an older lady who was sympathetic and had respect for my writing skills, said that was the norm. And she recommended I go to the local food bank.
As Kara* and I approached the door, my knees started to shake, my heart beat faster. How had I ended up here? I only had the strength to go that sunny autumn morning because Kara had insisted I had to go, and she would come with me. She wasn’t as strapped as I was financially, but was certainly at the edge as she had recently retired on a small pension to care full-time for her aged mother.
She opened the door, and there were stairs to go down and people waiting in line. It seemed symbolic of my life that I had to go down stairs. I could see a large room with rows of tables like in a cafeteria and two people behind a counter taking information, calling out numbers and giving heavy plastic bags out. It was good to see the bags since they gave me hope that I would have some food, maybe even some tea bags which were my luxury now, for the next few days. I didn’t feel like running back out anymore, and didn’t even mind that Kara had left me alone to go smoke a cigarette outside.
Finally it was my turn at the counter. I showed my identification cards, was registered, then was given a number and told to go sit at a table and wait. I was shy to look at anyone so was glad to spot Kara waving at me from the back where there were fewer people. After a short time, my number was called. I went back to the counter, and the woman who was more business-like than friendly gave me a white plastic bag which was as heavy as it looked. Kara insisted she would carry the bag to the car since she was stronger.
She drove me home and said she had to go back to her mother right away. I thanked her and went up the three flights of stairs lugging the bags, as I felt claustrophobic in the small elevator and avoided it. I was grateful for Kara accompanying me: now it was time to open the bag. I had placed it on my tiny table in my tiny kitchen: I reached for what felt heaviest and pulled out a huge monster of a cauliflower which could have fed me well, but it was all brown on the top and looked bruised so it turned my empty stomach immediately. How could this be given out?
What else was in the bag: a huge can of pea soup with a visible dent, and two small containers of yogurt, but with past expiration dates. I sat down on the edge of the kitchen chair as tears streamed down my cheeks and into my mouth, hot salty tears.
I called Kara and hearing how discouraged I was, she offered to come by with $20 so I could at least buy some fresh bread and eggs and not make myself sick.
After that experience, I did not go back to a food bank. Somehow I was able to cobble enough money together with my monthly disability cheque and work editing and doing translation for people who answered my ads, and writing articles and book reviews when I could get an assignment. The income was erratic but whenever it came, it was needed. I was also writing a novella when I had any left-over energy. This was what I liked to do.
By cutting my expenses down to the bone and using tips from people in similar dire straits, I survived over these hand-to-mouth years, but my clothes began to wear out. I lost 9 kg from my already slim frame. I became more of a recluse, feeling unable to be in crowds even at my church where I found support. When it was my birthday or Christmas, friends who lived out of town would send me generous gift cards from stores like Walmart and Loblaw’s. Friends nearby would bring over plates of food when I came down with the flu. Family helped in emergencies such as for the dentist or new prescription glasses, or winter boots because mine had holes in them. And my mother gave me the brand new winter coat that was too small for her. This made me feel a mixture of emotion since I was grateful but also ill-at-ease to be as needy as a child.
Though my financial situation has improved lately and is more stable, the economy is increasingly unstable. The 2016 HungerCount report from Food Banks of Canada highlights that there are 28% more people in need now than during the 2008-2009 recession.
One day, while at work on this essay, I picked up a copy of the local newspaper The St-Lambert Journal at the grocery store, and was struck and saddened by the front page headline: “Food bank is issuing urgent plea for donations.” The plea, I read later in the article, came from the Presbyterian Church where the small food bank was running out of food to satisfy the increasing number of people in need. This seemed very close to home.
* Jenny and Kara are fictionalized names used to protect these individuals’ privacy.
Tirado, Linda, Hand to Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America, Berkley Books, 2014