“Dad, I’m hungry,” my son said on his way to the pantry. I was reviewing the guide on the television to find something to take my mind away from all the bad news in the world. Before I could tell him we just had dinner an hour ago, and he didn’t need it, he was half-way into a pop tart, a peanut butter one sprayed with sugar crystals on top. The pop tart was attractive and enticing, partly because I never had a choice of fancy pop-tarts. I don’t even think they made pop-tarts when I was a kid. If they did, my parents couldn’t have afforded them. The other reason it was attractive and enticing to me was my body had been conditioned to crave carbs, the poor man’s food. Carbs, like run off from too much rain, had eroded my body to the point that I shouldn’t eat them: too much weight, fillings in almost all of my teeth, a bad complexion. Those are the visible manifestations of a life of carbs. Who knows what I couldn’t see. I didn’t think I wanted to know.
Last week, I spent nearly $300 from two different grocery stores, one of which is where I buy paper, cleaning, and non-perishable products, and the other where I buy our meats, fruits, vegetables, and dairy. I don’t spend $300 every week for our family of four, but I do spend $200 per week. It seemed like a lot, and I find myself thinking like my dad: I better buy extra in case something happens. A product of the depression period, he over-buys and doesn’t throw away. I’ve come to view him now more as a hoarder, cramming things in drawers all over my parents’ house. Even some drawers no longer open.
He and my aunts and uncles constantly fed all of us too much, encouraging seconds and thirds, much of which came from free surplus. Calls from my grandmother that “Old man Ivey says he’s got greens that’s gonna spoil” sent relatives in cars and trucks to the Ivey’s field to pick it clean like buzzards feeding on roadkill on the shoulder of a highway.
When I moved from my roots and family circle to attend a university, my only network was other students and the professors in the department where I worked part time. The pay was probably less than minimum wage at the state university, and I had a hard time paying the bills: $200 per month for my garage apartment with no air conditioning, no shower (just a claw foot bath tub), and no cable. Electricity and water were included. I had a black and white TV with rabbit ears. I did have a phone. Now, it’s called a land line. Back then, it was just a phone and the only kind you could get. The irony was that I didn’t qualify for financial aid with three siblings and two parents who worked hard and would probably have been classified as lower middle class at the time. I did get student loans to pay the tuition, which I’m still paying back.
About ten days out from payday, I was out of food. I had gone through the saltine crackers, the Vienna sausage, which I warmed in the oven, and cheese slices. My stomach growled. It even rumbled in the night and woke me. I drank water and hoped it’d be quiet by the time I got to class and work. I snuck around the department, taking hard candy and chocolate from jars faculty members had on their desks. As the week progressed, my few pairs of clothes I owned became looser and I kept pulling up my jeans. I didn’t ask anyone for help, but I think some folks knew. One friend had previously told me he went dumpster diving at fast food restaurants come closing time when they threw out the food and I had been appalled, particularly because he had a meal plan in the dining hall and didn’t need to do that. I didn’t think I could do that, but the idea kept coming back and I wondered if I might sneak over there come closing time.
Near the end of my week of hunger, I had some friends who had a garden and they invited me for a garden supper, and after eating, I’d felt better. When I got home, I found someone had left a sack of groceries by my door. I wanted to open all the contents, just to feel full again, like I had as a child, but it was more than that. It meant to me someone wanted me to live and thrive. It meant someone truly cared. It meant I had a new circle and I would never again experience hunger. It meant I didn’t have to go dumpster diving.
Once my son had gone back upstairs, I crept over to the cupboard and noticed he’d left the peanut butter pop tart with sugar crystals exposed where the foil had been torn. I knew ants or worse might find their way into the cupboard to feed on the pop tart, so I decided that rather than wrap it to protect, I’d just eat it.