Did I want this Wonder bread-looking substance for $1.59 or my regular multi-grain for a buck more? I stared at my calculator.
I was at $7.49. My Michigan Bridge Card (otherwise known as food stamps) only had $29.35 on it. The wheat stared at me. It’d be a great way to get my fiber, I told myself.
The loaf of white stared at me. I glanced at my calculator. I shot a look at the pitifully few items in my cart. White probably would taste better with peanut butter and jelly, anyway.
Like Gov. Jennifer Granholm, Department of Human Services Director Ishmael Ahmed and nearly 300 lawmakers, community leaders and business executives, I was buying a week’s worth of groceries with a $29.35 Bridge Card, the amount a single person on public assistance in Michigan is allowed per week. I pretended I was back in Yuma, Ariz., living off a $20,000-a-year salary, trying to feed Bridget and myself with my $40-a-week grocery budget.
I’d dusted off my old recipes. Potato pancakes. Tuna noodle casserole. A bean and rice Mexican pie. No fresh meat. No fresh fish. No beer. No soda. Only fruits and vegetables on sale and in season.
It seemed harder this time. I put a $2.59 box of decaf tea bags in the cart. I took it out two aisles later. Instead of my regular box of breakfast granola, I nabbed a couple $1 boxes of off-brand Cap’n Crunch and Coco Pebbles. Maybe I could find the Cheez Whiz for my nonorganic celery sticks and relive age 12 all over again.
Did this gallon of milk come from a hormone-injected cow living in a crammed, smelly confined animal feed operation? For the first time in three years, I didn’t care. It was on sale. My calculator read $27.12 and I couldn’t have been more proud.
Breakfast, lunch, dinner. All theoretically taken care of. I still had a couple bucks, though. Maybe I could grab that bag of pears I eyed when I walked into the L&L. They were only $1.99 a pound.
I found the cashier with no line, keeping my Bridge card hidden in my long sleeve. Did those pears ring up at $6.10? Maybe I’d read the screen wrong.
A lump grew in my throat. My hands started to sweat. Two other customers joined me in line. “Your total is $33.22,” the cashier smiled.
“NOOO!!!!” I screamed in my head. “I’d done so well. Why didn’t I weigh those pears?!?” Suddenly, a new panic set in. I didn’t know how to use this Bridge card. “Uh, I gotta pay with this,” I muttered stupidly to the floor, flashing the cashier the Bridge card. She pushed a button. I ran the card through. Another customer joined us in line. Three people deep now. Great.
Maybe I can just pay the $3.87 difference in cash. Maybe the card would just cover it. Maybe God will strike me dead right here and end this. “It says your card is not being accepted,” the cashier said. Was that customer No. 3 jumping to the next line or was that my imagination? I ran the card again. The cashier pushed another button … come on, come on. … “Sorry, it’s not going through.”
“Maybe I have too much on the bill,” I hurried. “Could you take the pears off?” Was the bagger rolling his eyes or did I just imagine that? I could feel my antiperspirant caving in. I swallowed hard and closed my eyes. This couldn’t be happening to me. I’d become “that guy.” That poor schmo who didn’t count his pennies and who was trying to pay for his pittance of groceries with money he didn’t have; who wasted the public’s time because he couldn’t figure out how to use his public assistance.
“I’m sorry, sir …” I think the cashier was still talking to me. Did she say something about “activating” the card? Had I read the materials that came with the Bridge Card? Did I call some number or something? But by that point, I’d already buried the Bridge card back into my wallet and handed her my Mastercard. I’ll just consider it my donation back to the DHS. Somebody who really needs their $29.35 can have it. “And by the way,” I said. “You can put those pears back on my bill.” (Kyle Melinn is the editor at the MIRS newsletter. His column runs weekly. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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