Waiting in Line
By Staci Lynn Bell
I have always hated waiting in line, whether it be a line to pay for groceries, buy something I really want, or get good seats for a concert. For most of my life, I never really had to wait in line. My family had money, lots of it, and money makes it easy to avoid lines.
Growing up wealthy in Highland Park, a suburb of Chicago along the shore of Lake Michigan, I was far removed from anything as pedestrian as lines. My grandparents were both upper class. My Papa was a lawyer, an importer/exporter from Japan, and Nana had come from money as well. Being the early 1960’s, however, memories of the Great Depression still affected the way my grandparents thought. Time and time again, I would hear Papa’s lesson “You know Stacala, not everyone is as comfortable as our family.” “Education is the key” Nana would chime in “without a solid education, we would have suffered even more.”
Papa, the smell of expensive Scotch warm against my neck as he cradled me in his lap, would then explain in detail how hard working people had gone from having jobs and food on their tables to no food, no table and no house in which to eat what they didn’t have. Nana promised this would never happen to me, as a standing prime rib roast cooked in the oven. “You will never know a bread line or ever have to worry about paying bills. Papa and I have you set up for life.” This assurance from them that I would not become one of “those” people made me feel safe. I would never have to beg for need of anything.
Imagine my surprise some 40 years after Papa’s death and 10 years after Nana’s, when I found myself waiting in a very long line contemplating how I had gotten behind in my mortgage, 2 months behind on the electric and had absolutely zero food in the house. Southwest Florida was hitting rock bottom by 2007, and I had been without work for more than 6 months, a fate most of my friends were going through as well, but they all had family to help. My family was long gone, and I had no clue what to do next. I only knew two things for sure. I was hungry and had no money.
I had just heard from the electric company. “Ms. Bell, you are two months behind on your bill with us, so now you owe the back bill plus we are adding a $300 deposit to your account,” stated the stony female customer service rep.
My voice shaking, I responded, “If I can’t get enough to pay the current and past due, how am I possibly going to come up with an extra 300?” The phone clicked off on her end. Holding my puppy, I snuggled my face into Cinder’s soft fur and thought about waiting in line.
Rumors spread through the mutterings of neighbors that an organization in the small town I lived in, just east of Ft. Myers, once a month helped out folks with their utility bills. The catch was you could only come for help once a year, and that day was tomorrow. I called the town hall and was given the phone number for this organization. An older woman answered the phone curtly, “How may I direct your call.”
Stammering, I choked out, “What time do you open tomorrow? I need help with my electric bill and I heard that you help local residents.”
Without even taking a breath, she recited by heart, her words, monotone, “We open at 9am, but we only usually get to the first 50 people, so if I were you, I’d be here at 4, no later.”
“I need over 400 dollars to keep my electric on,” I began, but she stopped me mid cry. She informed me that I must really get there early because once the money they have is gone, no matter where you are in line or how long you have waited, it’s gone. She did assure me, however, that 3am should be sufficient. Get up at 3am and wait in line for a place that doesn’t open until 9. Having never done anything like this before, miserable and humiliated, I knew I had no other choice.
I couldn’t believe what was happening! Me! A nice, rich Jewish girl, highly educated, very bright and had it all: thriving career, husband, home, food, clothes, vacations, things I now recognized as luxuries. I did it all the right way; this was not supposed to be happening to me! I had prepared early in life. College, great grades, worked my ass off climbing the proverbial ladder, the whole deal. At 47 I should be at the height of my career, with my loving husband, a larger house, more clothes, more things. I had none of those anymore. Instead I sat alone, save for Cinder, shivering in a tight ball, waiting, to wait in line.
I was precisely on time, 3am. The line already had 9 people waiting. I know that because I counted, and as I was counting I realized they were sitting in chairs, lawn chairs, sport chairs, all different types of chairs. Most ripped up, with strands of material hanging down. I had no chair, and none was offered. I had expected to see what I had seen on TV: “bums,” “low life’s,” “welfare whores,” of course all ignorant and certainly uneducated. “They” had snack bars and juice or coffee; they were smart enough to bring things like chairs and something to at least drink while waiting in line for 6 hours.
Helplessly crying, I took my place as the tenth person in line, gave in and called my ex-husband. He, taking pity on me and living nearby, brought me a golf chair. No back and only 2 feet off the ground, but I was grateful. By now at least 100 or more people were in line behind me…waiting.
A bit later, about 6:30, a timid looking woman approached me, looking near my age. Her offer of a cup of her juice more than kind. “You look so lost,” she said as she put her hand on mine “you look like I used to look and I have a story to tell you. I am a teacher, 8th grade, lost my job 9 months ago,” she whispered in my ear. “That man next to you is a plumber with 3 kids. He had been with his company for 15 years; they are losing their home.” I glanced over at him, just in time to see his pain, then it was gone behind the cloak he put up, for his children’s sake.
As the sun finally rose on June 4, 2007, I began to really see those around me, finding a part of me in each of them and their stories. Different backgrounds, different stories, different circumstances, yet I now saw us all as one.
Although surely the people inside saw the angst of us waiting just outside their door, the click of the lock turned at exactly 9am, not a second earlier. The vouchers went quickly, so quickly in fact, that I was only given one for 50 dollars. My heart sank, and I begged for more, but to no avail. I was also told to consider myself lucky since they only had 5 vouchers left and hundreds were going home with nothing. 6 hours waiting in line for a 50 dollar voucher, that was not going to stop my electric from being turned off at noon.
It has been almost 6 years since I stood in that line. I have thought about it many times. Reflecting on that day, my thoughts are different now. I didn’t spend 6 agonizing hours just waiting in line; I spent 6 hours learning to empathize; learning that we are all going through something, all just trying our best to make it day by day; learning that no one is better than another.
Now when I pass a church or community giving out boxes of food and see the lines those who have lost their lives and homes form as they wait to eat, I don’t judge, for I know all too well who they are. I always hated waiting in lines, until I found me, waiting in one.