For years, I thought I had set an unbreakable record for personal humiliation, one I would never top.
There was a, for simplicity’s sake we’ll say contractor, at the company where I worked. I was still a (relatively) young man at the time, and I decided that I liked this contractor and I wanted to impress her.
This was a bad idea. My friends know that when I decide to impress someone, the fact that the effort is conscious means I’m doomed to a horrible failure.
To convince her that I was an all-around nice guy, I offered to guide her to another employee’s desk when she mentioned she had an appointment with that employee.
I got lost.
I got lost in my own building.
I got lost in my own building with the woman I was trying to impress in tow.
I still wince when I think about this moment.
You’d think getting laid off would be just as humiliating, but given the economic situation that surrounded my loss of employment, it wasn’t. I didn’t lose my job because of anything I did or didn’t do. I lost that job because the company failed.
(And I readily lay the blame for that failure on incompetent upper management.)
Not surprisingly, it required a state government agency to top my personal humiliation ‘best’.
When I was laid off from the aforementioned job, my wife was pregnant. So in addition to unemployment, we also qualified for something called WIC, or Women with Infants and Children. This is basically a food stamps program for families in need.
Using this program is also the most shame-inducing experience I have ever endured.
Here’s how it works: every month you are issued a stack of checks that list items you can buy with them. Each check is for a specific type of item or items. You cannot deviate from this in even the slightest way. If the check is for the orange box of steel milled oatmeal, God help you if you accidentally pick up the orange box of steel double milled oatmeal.
That’s confusing, but not the most humiliating part.
The most humiliating part is using the checks at the cash register.
Every check has to be rung up separately. If you are buying 20 items, and each check gives you three, were talking six or seven ring ups.
The cashiers don’t like this. A significant percentage of the cashiers make that clear to you, giving you “How dare you lose your job and have to rely on government assistance to feed you family when it is such an inconvenience to me?”
The people in line behind you don’t like this. A nonzero but certainly less significant percentage of these people make that clear to you too.
The system is designed to shame the user into not using the program. That’s the only conclusion I can come to. Other states have debit cards where you scan everything, swipe your debit card, and the items covered are automatically deducted from the bill.
One simple transaction. People behind you wouldn’t even know you were using government aid to buy your groceries.
For fuck’s sake, I live in California. In Silicon Valley. You know, High Tech central. But those checks were printed out on dot matrix printers. Yes, dot matrix.
I dreaded using these checks. I dreaded the dirty looks from the cashiers who, incidentally, also got in a lot of trouble if they miss processed any of these transactions, as several cashiers were happy to point out. One major store chain in has a policy to fire cashiers who screw up three times.
I also dreaded the impatient glares from the people behind me as well as the dawning realization in some of them that I was on government assistance.
I tried to go during non-peak hours, to minimize the likelihood of inconveniencing other shoppers. But the ring up process was so slow I always ended up having people queue up behind me. I warned people as they got in line, “No, you don’t want this line. I have WIC checks, and they take forever to ring up.”
I died a little each time that happened.
I not only felt like an abject failure in my personal and professional life, as a father-to-be and a breadwinner, but I also perceive myself to be getting in other people’s way. Which I most definitely was when I used those damn checks.
I’m lucky. I found work. I don’t need any government help now. But I do find it particularly painful to hear about all the cuts in these programs, and having to listen to some people call the unemployed ‘lazy’ or ‘unmotivated’. I know from personal experience just how badly needed these programs are, and I know a huge number of unemployed people who are anything but lazy or unmotivated.
The worst part of it? Beyond the shame, using those checks destroyed my sense of worth and pride. But if I suddenly found myself in the same situation again, I would not hesitate to use that program again.
Why? Why would I put myself through that?
Same reason I endured it the first time:
Because my wife and children needed those checks. And for them, I will endure anything.