Monday, April 20, 2009


"It shur is hot," the old man sitting next to me said. I didn't agree with him and sat in silence. The heat of spring time in Oakland didn't match the balmy warmth of Bangkok. "I've been waiting here for a long time, a long time," he commented. He nodded after his statement as if he was pressing time forward. I continued my quiet state. A electronic sign hung on the ceiling above us announcing the ticket numbers. A mechanical voice devoid of emotion announced the numbers as they were called out. It was difficult to hear the voice over the din of Oakland's Social Services office.

A crowd of people hung about the door, waiting in line for a chance to get their forms. After receiving their forms they would take a sit and wait for their number to be called. Most of the clients were African American, old men, young women with children, and an occasional young man loitered around waiting for their turn with a worker.

The office located inconveniently by the Greyhound bus station in downtown Oakland is inaccessible by bart, and has no food or accouterments surrounding it. Its a tall, plain building, designed better than the bus station but still an eye sore. The office holds its hours from 9am to 12pm. At noon the office shuts down for an hour in order for the workers to have lunch. The office reopens at 1pm to service clients until 4pm. I arrived at 10:30 and waited in the initial line for fifteen minutes and then for an hour with my number. My number wasn't called before the lunch break.

"Guess I'll have to go home," the old man next to me said. "This is going to be a long time." I looked at him. He was about sixty years old with a bum eye. He was dressed rather shabbily but didn't smell. No doubt he'd been abandoned by his family or they were unable to take care of him. I imagined that he lived alone somewhere, or if not then in squalid conditions. A woman behind us spoke to her neighbor. "I can't come back. I have to pick up my baby at one o'clock. I hope my number is called," she said. I heard a baby cry in the distance, punctuating her worries.

I rode my bike home. It took me twenty minutes. I thought about how long a bus ride would take, probably 40 minutes and the cost, about $3. Hardly worth the time, money and effort. I came home and made a sandwich while a plumber fixed our kitchen sink. The sink has been leaking lately and so the landlord had the faucet replaced. The last few days have been a drag without running water in the kitchen. Its made doing dishes difficult.

The ride back to Oakland was smooth if warm. Sweat ran down the back of my neck and my face was red when I entered the building. The office was air conditioned but not powerfully. In Bangkok upon entering a mall, restaurant, or the bts, one is gushed with cool air. The air immediately drops your body temperature down and is a relaxing coolness. I sat down next to the old man again and thought about how all the people in the office negated the effects of the air conditioning.

"Won't be long now, just five more people," he said. To the other side of me a young woman sat with a south east asian man. She was talking to him about how she'd previously been in the office for 5 hours waiting for her services to be completed. Hearing her complaints I became even more sullenly silent. My number was called and I went to counter number 2.

"How can I help you today," the worker, an early thirties african american woman, said.

"I'm applying for food stamps," I replied.

"Can I see your paperwork?"

I handed her my paperwork and she set about punching away at the computer for fifteen minutes. Occasionally she'd have her coworker come over to answer some queries. Evidently she was new at the job.

"You can take a seat over by counter 12. They'll call you up," she said ending our dealings. I went over and sat back down. Ten minutes later I was called to the new counter.

"Can you please fill this out," the worker said pushing a paper at me. The paper asked how much money I'd made over the past few months. I filled out a handful of zeroes and gave it back to her.

"You've made no income? You have no savings?"

"I was working in a restaurant but got laid off during the slow season. Hopefully I'll start working again soon but until then I'm completely broke," I said, justifying my presence. There is no doubt in mind of my class status. I'm $30,000 in debt in school loans, another couple thousand in credit cards and unable, even when employed to pay the debt back. Added to the credit crisis I'm in is a more painful and current lack of capital. I had to borrow money from my friends and family in order to make it back from Thailand. Besides, I figured, the state owes me a living. I smiled widely at the worker as Crass lyrics ran through my mind.

"You are eligible for emergency food stamps. You'll want to go to room 114 and wait for a worker to call you."

I moved down the hallway and sat in a room that was composed of primarily young african american men. I sat down and played solitaire on my ipod as the minutes passed. Eventually a latina woman called my name and I followed her to her cubicle.

Her questions were simple, "Are you living in Berkeley? You have no money? How much are your bills a month? Do you live with other people? etc."

I answered factually and to the point hoping that in a few hours time I would escape this Kafkaesque nightmare and get some food. She had me sit back down in another hallway. She told me that I would get food stamps in three days, on Thursday morning if all went accordingly. I nodded and waited in the hallway for my finger prints to be taken.

"Yo, you should hear this guy," a young man said.

I overhead a man's voice in the main lobby. He was complaining loudly about the length of the lines and his already have waited a considerable amount. He came into the hallway in which we were seated. The security officer followed him in.

"Are you Harvey, Harvey Dent," the white security officer asked him. His potbelly hung over his skinny white legs giving him an odd top heavy look. I was surprised that his legs didn't collapse underneath him.

"Why yes sir I am," Harvey replied politely shuffling his odds and ends. "I've been waiting here all day, I came back at one o'clock and been waiting. I need to know the status of my GA (General Assistance). I just want my money."

"Well, Harvey it looks like you have a warrant out for your arrest. The warrant is for $734. Will you come with us," the security officer commanded.

Harvey dutifully followed the officer. "I jus' got outta jail," he said as he walked behind them.

The young man next to me laughed and then looked at his cell phone. "I don't like this phone. I think I'm gonna sell it for crackhead price, like $30." He played with his phone more and I stared at the cubicle walls before me. A woman called my name and I was finger printed on an electronic machine. The new office had a window. Outside I saw Harvey walking down the street.

1 comment:

tariqrahman said...

dude, you should write a book