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What Does Government Cheese Taste Like?


The other day, I had one of those really busy work days.  One of those days where your schedule is overpacked, and you know you're going to be hopping just to make everything work.  I was out of the office with meetings all morning.  I had to leave one meeting early just so I could find a quiet place to have a phone call with a prospective client.  So I rushed to the Starbucks down the street.  As I was pulling in, I saw a homeless man sitting on the curb right next to my parking spot.    

As I got out of the car, he gave me that look.  That look most people ignore when they see a homeless person.  I used to ignore that look too, as I pretended to be in a hurry to get somewhere else.  Anywhere else. But I knew that I had about 15 minutes until my phone call, so I wasn't really as late as I had thought.  So I asked him, "Are you hungry?"   

He simply replied, "Yes, I am." 

Next to the Starbucks was a Cuban lunch restaurant, so I told him that I would buy him lunch.  As we walked in, I noticed that he was immediately relieved to be in the air conditioning.  We walked up to the menu, and I told him to point out what he'd like, which he did.  As I ordered for him, I noticed the cashier give us a look.  I realized that we couldn't have looked more different if we tried:  I was in a dress shirt and slacks, and he looked like, well, a homeless person.   Once I dropped a generous tip in the tip jar, any look of concern disappeared. 

I stayed with him after the order, just to make sure that he didn't get hassled before receiving his food.  As we waited for his food to arrive, he began to tell me his story.  Robert, as he introduced himself, had only been homeless for 7 months.  And he'd already used up his allotted stays at the various homeless shelters.  Robert was on his own.  Although his mother was around, she lives in a 55+ community, so he isn't able to stay with her.  But the most surprising thing was when he told me his age.   

When I first saw Robert, I would have guessed that he was in his late thirties or early forties.  When he told me that he was 26, I almost fell out of my chair.  Seeing how much of a toll that homelessness takes on a person--that truly depressed me.  But Robert went on to tell me that he was scheduled to take the ASVAB test the next day, and that he was hoping to join the Army.   

As Robert's food arrived, I told him that I had to leave.  I wished him the best of luck and gave him my business card.  I asked him to send me an email or give me a call when he gets accepted into the military.  In turn, Robert looked at me with shameful eyes and simply said, "Thank you." 

I hope the military is able to find an opportunity for Robert, and I hope he makes the most of that opportunity.  As I left, three thoughts occurred to me: 

  1. My car is safe. There's a part of me, just like there is in most people, that reverts to self-preservation when encountering a situation that might be dangerous.  Seeing a homeless person next to your car usually counts as that, even if it's broad daylight.  
  1. Each day, you should do something special for someone who can never pay you back.  I've been the recipient of this more than I've been the donor.  Part of this is because I have a family, and they naturally come first.   
  1. That could have been me.  It's this last thought that made me cry a little as I left. 

My Childhood 

I know what government issued cheese tastes like.  It tastes like humiliation.  The humiliation of knowing that you didn’t earn it.  Government milk?  Tastes kind of like defeat.  Groceries bought with food stamps and welfare checks taste the same as regular groceries, though they come with a bitterness of knowing that the money you spent wasn’t yours.  It’s just that some people are so used to the flavor they no longer notice.   

But when I was growing up, I didn’t know any of this stuff.  It all just tasted like crap.   

When I got up in the morning to make cereal, I’d start with a nice warm glass of water.  That’s the only way you could hope to avoid clumping as you dump the powdered milk into it.  But there were still clumps.  Then you got to pour cereal into it.  And each day as I lifted that spoon, redolent with despair-filled clumps, into my mouth, I’d say to myself, “There’s got to be something better than this.” 

Look, my childhood wasn’t all bad.  In fact, it could have been much worse.  I was born in Los Angeles, California.  Although my parents were married, my father wasn’t what you’d call a good person.  And the fact that he had a stroke when I was 2 or 3 didn’t help things.  When that happened, my deaf mother had to struggle to not only put food on the table and take care of me, but to care for my infirm father as well.   

At some point, my mother wrote home to her parents, asking them for help.  They had just retired to Florida after a very successful Army career.  My grandmother flew out to visit us in California and was horrified to see us living in such squalor.  Upon her return, she told my grandfather, “Bill, our daughter and grandson are coming to live with us.  Build something for them to live in.” 

And so he did.  He took the roof off one of the two cinder-block garage buildings in his yard, put a second story on it, and raised the roof.  Literally…long before that became a passing fad.  Installed plumbing, electricity, everything.  We moved in with them, and my father moved to a state-sponsored care facility.   

Had it not been for all that, I could have ended up dead.  When the LA riots broke out in 1992, our local paper displayed a picture of a burned out storefront.  I don’t remember where the intersection was, but my mother recognized it.  She said that the building we lived in had been a block or two away, while it still existed.  Shortly after we moved in with my grandparents, our apartment building was condemned and eventually demolished.  Were it not for them, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have had the childhood that I remember, clumpy milk or not.   

But I didn’t know all that when I was a kid.  All I knew was that eating powdered cereal sucked.  Wearing the same clothes for an entire school year sucked.  Having to wear patched jeans and shoes with holes in the bottom sucked.   

So a week after I turned 17, I joined the Navy’s delayed entry program.  A month after high school graduation, I was off to boot camp.  As much as boot camp sucked, I ate like a champ.  In fact, I might be the only person I know who GAINED weight in boot camp.  And I never had to worry about the food I ate again.  No matter how bad a meal is, I’ve earned the right to complain about the food I’ve earned.  Fortunately, Tania is a wonderful cook…she’s the only person in our house who complains about her cooking. 

For Better or For Worse 

But over the course of my adult life, I’ve thought back to the days when I received public assistance.  I've come a long way since then.  But I think that once you're in that position, it never really leaves you.  Some people put as much distance between that life and themselves as possible.  Others, it just seems like they can't ever shake it loose, no matter how hard they try.  It's kind of like quicksand...you either get out of it quickly, or you get trapped forever.   

And getting out of that life...that's easier said than done.  For all those stories that you read about people living with free cell phones, free paychecks, and handouts, it still sucks.  It's just that those people have been in the life of public assistance for so long that they'll never get out.   

And what's worse than piecing together a life of free cell phones, free housing, and free paychecks?  Sitting on a curb, too tired to think about your next move.  Waiting for a phone call from your mother to sneak you into her 55+ community so you can take a shower.  Because the homeless shelters won't let you in until next month.    

Recalling my childhood, I’d often accompany my mother as she visited her deaf friends.  It’s easy to dismiss many of these people as just living for their Social Security or welfare checks.  But what I remember is that some of these folks were living in squalor not much better than what we left.  For a long time, I used to think, “They can’t be satisfied with this, can they?”  But I don’t think that was the right question.  I’m pretty sure people who live in squalor aren’t satisfied with it.  But they’re afraid of losing what little they have.  So the question that they’ve decided to answer is:   

How can I avoid losing what little I have?

Under public assistance programs, the answer is simple:  "Keep your income as low as possible, and don't make any waves."  So collect the free cell phone, take that handout—but don't ask for those extra hours.  Don't get that promotion to $13.00 an hour.  Because that'll put you over the top.  And put you in jeopardy. 

The Public Assistance Safety Net 

That’s the fallacy of the public assistance ‘safety net.’ 

The way I see it, public assistance is a net of sorts, designed to keep you from getting through it.  And it’s very effective.  But where most people think that the net keeps folks from falling through it, I see the opposite.  It’s a net that keeps people from breaking out.  It’s like the ‘glass ceiling’ many people talk about, albeit at a much lower level.   

Unlike the glass ceiling, the public assistance net is available for all to see.  It wasn’t designed this way.  It just is.  And will always be, regardless of what people do to try and change it. 

And even then, there are people like Robert, who fall through unnoticed by society.  Fortunately, there's another safety net that I hope Robert is able to take advantage of:  the military. 

The military, for all its faults, is society's last bastion of truly equitable, merit-based distribution.  Regardless of branch, anyone who enlists starts at the same place:  the bottom.  For someone like Robert, the bottom's not a bad place to be.  Instantly, food, shelter, and a paycheck are available—all you have to do is accept orders and carry them out.  And if you're willing to be trained and put in a little extra effort, you can open yourself to so many opportunities. 

Perhaps that's what made me gravitate to the military.  I was pretty sure that I needed everything the military provided me.   

Why I Hope Robert Makes It   

To reiterate my previous statement, I hope that Robert finds a place in the military.  And I hope he is able to take advantage of that opportunity.  If Robert can enlist, I think he will. 

Because he knows what it's like to slip through that public safety net.  And whatever the military has in store for him...it's a lot better than sitting on that curb, not knowing your future.  Not knowing where your next meal is coming from.  And most importantly, not knowing if someone will give you that chance to prove yourself.   

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