We had a terse argument that ultimately got me to here. If he left work a few minutes early, we would lose a few dollars. But if I could leave home a few minutes early, I could pick up the food. The free food. But would it even be worth it?
Sometimes the boxes are more generous with fresh produce and even some yogurt or cheese in them. Sometimes they are measly, full of processed, chemical-filled “food” items that I am ashamed to feed my children. We finally agreed that the risk was worth the few dollars we would lose. The few dollars wouldn’t buy any produce or any other foods beside a gallon of milk.
The warehouse had moved since my visit last month, but I didn’t know that until I arrived and read the posted flier with a map directing me to the new location. I was tempted to take the flier so I wouldn’t forget the address, but it was the only one posted. I got back in our car, his work truck. We own just this one vehicle, but it doesn’t seat our entire family. I drove a little faster. We lose on the other end if I am late.
From the bright, midday sunlight I step into the dark, unfamiliar space, looking hurriedly for the number tags. Should someone else get the next number, it could mean late or later for me. New people don’t know the process. They take a number, sit and wait with the rest of us, waiting for food. But when the number is called the new person is then told to fill out paperwork which they should have filled out before they took a number. This can make the wait unpredictably and painfully longer. Some days there isn’t a wait. Other days, it could take an hour’s worth of waiting just to finally walk over to the counter and exchange a number tag for a box of food. If my turn is not called soon enough, I may have to leave without my box.
The warehouse is so noisy. Just like the old location. There are several workers, a few administrators, dozens of people waiting ahead of me, the television is on and of course, several small children are in various states of playing or clinging. I find the number dispenser and move further into the warehouse looking for a place to sit. So many people standing. So much noise. I hate it that they watch me as I stand looking for a place to sit and wait for the food.
Then I see her and realize that the noise is mostly a moaning sound. A very tall and heavyset woman is lying on her side on the painted cement floor. She is writhing just slightly and making a constant moan. Many people are standing around watching her, ignoring the Wizard of Oz on the TV. A man is on the floor cradling her shoulders and head in his lap, telling her: “You’re okay baby. You’re okay.” A woman is asking no one in particular if the moaning woman is diabetic. The curious or concerned woman has a family member who is diabetic; she guesses that perhaps this is the moaning woman’s problem. She is epileptic. This is repeated throughout the crowd. “She is epileptic.”
A woman is asking the man on the floor questions, relaying the information into the phone. I hesitate. Should I take a seat? I step just outside the entrance. Back into the brightness. My number is 56. I see a couple in the parking lot, loading their food into two backpacks. I want to ask them what number they had. I am envious that they got their food before whatever is happening happened and they don’t have to wait. The woman on the phone is the one who should be calling the numbers. Another couple leaves and I want to ask them what their number was. I peek through the door at a man standing near the pick-up window. I try to see what number is in his hand. I feel so callous. That woman is sick on the cement floor. She may not get her food. She may not need it anymore. Maybe I should leave.
I move along the side of the building, further away from the door. An ambulance comes. I watch the entrance closely for anyone else coming out with their box. I don’t know what time it is. I can see most of the inside of the waiting room. I don’t see a clock. I remember during another visit at the old location that the place didn’t have a clock on the wall. Maybe it makes the waiters too anxious. The Wizard of Oz is a VHS tape and won’t even give a commercial break to hint at how long I have been waiting. Someone else comes out with a box of food. I go back in. The number 59 is still hanging on the wall. I press myself against the wall next to the number tags. I stare down towards my feet and notice how my nails are digging into my hands. I can see the wrapper of a hypodermic needle on the table next to me. I can see her feet. She is lying on her back now. Only one of my friends knows that I do this. A few days ago I told her that I only felt desperate during my first visit to the food bank. I feel desperate again today.
This story originally appeared in University of Alaska Anchorage’s ‘Understory.’
Go here for a list of Muslim operated (and sometimes halal carrying) foodbanks.