MORNING AT THE WELFARE OFFICE
Today the lobby feels like a cocktail party.
Clients rarely bring books to the welfare office.
Aladdin is playing on the TV,
strains of “A Whole New World” fill the room.
I’m at the reception desk by eight,
people already lined up between the ropes
like they’re waiting for a Ferris wheel.
My first client is an exotic dancer,
in the shortest shorts possible,
bleeding from her neck.
Her legal name is Baby.
She is a mother of three children
with three absent fathers.
My next client, a young woman in sunglasses and a wig,
using an alias,
hiding from a man who beat and raped her
in front of their four-year-old son.
* * *
I can hear two strangers commiserate over the waiting list
for Section 8 housing;
two more argue which homeless shelter
serves the best food;
and it seems someone is always mentioning
a person they know who cheats the system.
But every single hour
while the rest of the city
sip chai lattes at coffee houses
or eat over-priced panini
at trendy cafes,
someone sits across from me
who is hungry.
The newspaper calls it food insecurity—
it looks like terror.
* * *
I sneak jelly beans into my mouth
to reassure myself
I have enough;
there will be enough.
A woman in a black burqa,
only her eyes visible
behind their narrow window,
leans across my desk
Where can I get free birth control?
I can see on her case,
she has six children under ten.
I slip her Planned Parenthood’s number.
Her husband is ten feet away.
She glances in his direction,
If he hears us, he will beat me.
Contraception is frowned upon;
wife abuse, it seems, is not.
She’s thirty-two years old
and moves like a grandmother.
A girl, my daughter’s age,
comes to the desk.
She twists her long, dark hair,
and stares at me.
She tells me her friend filled out her paperwork
The application asks:
Last grade completed?
The friend has written a null sign.
When I inquire, she admits
I didn’t get to go.
She tells me she is from a family of gypsies,
who do not believe in educating their girls.
In this country, in this century,
she never attended school.
* * *
I ask for her signature.
She clutches her social security card
and carefully copies
each letter of her name.
The State closes people’s food stamp cases
when they are incarcerated—
clients are forced to return to this office
they’ve been locked up.
The woman at my desk seems friendly,
a stubbed out cigarette
tucked behind her ear,
rhinestones glued to her acrylic fingernails.
I break the unspoken rule
and ask why she went to jail.
She answers, Oh, just a PV—
as if people in the regular world
should know a Probation Violation
when they hear one.
She shrugs and says,
Once they got ya, they got ya.
* * *
I want to press harder,
ask what put her in jail the first time,
but there are questions
you never ask:
Why do you stay with him,
when he throws you
Do you need another baby,
when you can’t support
the five (or seven or ten)
you already have?
And why all those tattoos
on your face?
* * *
I won’t talk about
the acrid smell
of body odor,
urine and mildew
that lingers in the lobby,
clinging to the homeless
and their sad bags
I won’t admit
some days I’m toxic with judgment,
nut jobs and rodeo clowns
behind their backs.
I check my personal email
and count the minutes till lunch.
On my lunch break I take a walk.
Across the street
a Somali woman leaves Safeway
with two bags full of groceries
balanced on top of her head.
Graceful as an egret,
the highland plateau in her memory,
she speaks into a phone
tucked between her hijab and cheek.
At noon on the corner of Pepe’s Sandwiches
and Quick Cash Checks,
the world is full of every poverty
and every wealth.
I wait for the light.
—from Rattle #50, Winter 2015
Readers’ Choice Award Winner
Valentina Gnup: “When I worked at the Department of Human Services last year, I hid a notebook in a drawer at my desk and secretly kept notes about the clients. I probably would have been fired if my manager caught me. The state offered rather ineffective workshops on how to handle ‘secondary trauma.’ I survived by working on the poems. I wish ‘Morning at the Welfare Office’ was a product of my imagination, but every character in it came through that door.”