There is no way to look cool or dignified while picking up a free lunch card
. The teacher
s hand out the bright blue cards to the poor kid
s right in front of the whole class. They mark us. It is a sadistic ritual. The star bellied Sneetches watch and smirk with the kind of self-righteousness only allowed to the offspring of the well respected.
The first day of each month the teachers gleefully state that it is time to pass out the cards, then call out our names. In case there is any doubt among the children of the lawyers, dentists and CEO’s of the town. In case they had somehow missed the fact that we are poor and wear hand-me-downs and can never keep up with cutting edge accessory trends. Those of us on the receiving end of this smug charity turn red or act deaf. It is bad if the teacher has to call your name, link it up with the words FREE LUNCH right in front of everyone. Some of the snobby ones ALWAYS giggle. Maybe trip you a little on the way up front.
To have to be extracted from your seat really feels bad. But then, rushing up there at the first hint the cards are about to come out, well, that makes you seem desperate, hungry. We are herded together. There is the overly mousy girl who smells kind of funny, the quiet frail boy with the black socks and the meanest asshole loudmouth boy. The last is a mulleted, no-sock-wearing bully in high-tops. He has one KISS T-shirt and he loves to pretend it’s because he really loves the band, that he is some kind of card-carrying member of the KISS army. But really he doesn’t have another shirt to change into. Then there is me, teetering on the verge of hysterical giggles, trying to meld into the wall, wearing frosty blue eyeliner and some odd combination of purple, pink and turquoise. I try to get my card and look surprised, “Why, this must be a mistake! My family is far too well off for this to be necessary!” But there is no face saving way to be humiliated. I know because I have tried all the ways I could think up; acceptance speech, sullen silence, shock, a sudden urgent calling to the little girls’ room. Unfortunately these theatrics just made it funny for the teacher and the children of privilege. They hand out the rope and we hang ourselves with it in the most interesting ways. Poor kids are disposable, but necessary. Like toilet paper. The rich kids use our poverty as a weapon.
There is a fresh humiliation in actually using the card, getting that weird looking lunch lady to wink and give me extra mashed potatoes. Having all the snobby rich kids look at me while she punches the date out, leaving holes in the card until it comes to resemble the Swiss cheese of my self-esteem. The lunch lady notices that I missed a bunch of days and quizzes me about it right there in front of everyone. “My Mom packed me a lunch.” I lie. Pretend she would do that for me even if we could afford it. My skin is hot with shame tingles. The extra mashed potatoes are wasted because my mouth is too dry to eat. I sit at one of the long noisy tables. Alone. Soon I take to hanging out in the bathroom, and then start sneaking into the library.
While I am at this same school I embarrass myself in swimming class. My bathing suit comes down in the front during a forced diving mission in gym. I waddle out in my mom’s stupid rust red suit with the baby blue and yellow orchids on it, and all my classmates are lined up next to the pool, looking right at my thighs, talking about the way my butt jiggles. And here I am, up high, diving though I have never done it before, diving in front of kids who swam summers in the Mediterranean. They still have their tans. The girls wear waterproof make-up and change into swimming watches. They are sparkly hot pink waterproof girls. Girls who have different bathing suits everyday. Girls who are already well enmeshed in their eating disorders and not well enough to jiggle, but rich and very critical. So I jump off and split the water with an embarrassing smack, lose composure, come up fast, unsure which way is up, and then BAM, head in the air, gasping gasping, total loss of equilibrium, laughter from all around. Suddenly my friend is there in the water, shielding me, “Your bathing suit! Pull it up!” I am ashamed of myself. I think about death, going under and never seeing those faces again. The gym teacher is smirking. I am the joke of the day. Worse, the girls with fake sympathy in the locker room, “Are you OK?” smirksnicker. A boy I have a crush on asks for a replay of the “titty flop”. I am not supposed to cry. Who could help me? I am not supposed to ask. I am not supposed to hide in the bathroom. I am expected to put my stupid cloths back on and sit in a dry room with these kids who hate me anew. My best friend sticks up for me like always, but this time even she seems disappointed in me.
I withdraw my name from the free lunch registry without telling my mother, who is the one who signed me up in the first place. A counselor I have never spoken to before asks to talk with me. We sit alone in his office with the door shut. He quizzes me about my family life. I had two “step” brothers who had also been students at Covington. Their attendance was poor and they were notorious for their bad behavior. He wants to know what kind of house I live in that would produce that type of kid.
…don’t talk don’t talk don’t talk…about the drinking, that the ex-wife of your mother’s boyfriend has moved in with all of you, about the holes she bashed into the bedroom door, the way she shoots dilauded into a vein in her breast, how your mom gassed the family dog in the basement and buried him in the yard, how you ate the tomatoes that grew from that dog you never liked but never wanted dead, how those tomatoes were so good that a few months later your mom was drunk and said too loud, “I killed that fucking dog and buried him in the garden, what do you think of those tomatoes now?” about the way your mom’s boyfriend acts like he might knock you through a wall whenever no one else is around. don’t ever talk about any of that because you have a sister to protect, and she is little and sweet and the other time you were separated you think something bad might have happened that no one wants to talk about, something worse than the dog…
This counselor wants to know if I eat breakfast. No is the real answer, but I know that would make trouble. I have a knack for saying what they want to hear. He wants to know what I do at lunchtime. I come clean about the library, “I have been going in there to read and write. I don’t need to eat.” He tells me the library is off limits and I start laughing. He gets red in the face. “Don’t think I don’t know what goes on in your house.” I might cry. I doubt that very much, motherfucker. If you knew the shit that went on in my house you would get me out of there. You would be nicer to me. Or at least know I am stronger than you in ways that really count.
He offers to give me actual money to buy lunch. He figures the card itself is at fault, that I forget it or something. I am wretched, stained and poor. I am unpredictable, a savage nerd. I tell him whatever, secretly glad. He hands me exact change, $1.65, no cookie for me. I blush. I am in a tight space, taking money from an older man. He is very close to me. He has heat. I am twelve. I have breasts. I have hips. I am unaccounted for. I know that as he folds the money in my hand. I will not look him in the eye. I wait, frozen. He opens the door, waves me out. My breath comes out in a loud rush that he takes note of, closing the door between us, blocking me from his wide grin. He looks peppy, flattered. Old boy’s still got it.
I never take his money again. Nor do I eat lunch. I do not go into library at lunchtime because I tried once and the librarian busted me and made me go back to the cafeteria. I am locked off from all things. I have no food, no dignity, and no home to embrace me. I have a big mind and that makes it worse. People rub it in my face all the time. I am wasted potential, uncouth, malnourished, not living up to much. They have charts that measure my brainpower. They show me another to illustrate how badly I am squandering it. I have regular meetings with counselors, all kinds. I lie and lie and lie about who I am and where I come from, waiting for a clean break from all of it. The day when I can just walk away. I am twelve but dream that someday I will be eighteen. I think the number itself has special powers, wings will grow and I will whisk away to some better place, some kind of adult only never land. I start to backwards number my calendar, 2099 days to eighteen, 2098 days to eighteen, 2097 days to eighteen, like a meditation.
I dream about my own apartment. It’s never a posh kind of place, just mine. I imagine having a boyfriend but have no real idea how to do that right. I just know that I won’t get drunk and we won’t hit each other or sleep with each other’s friends. I will never own a Fleetwood Mac album because of all the bad things that happened when their music was playing. Santana is ruined for me too. Even the Doors are tainted, as well as Big Brother and the Holding Company. Ah, Janis and her Mercedes Benz, one of the first songs I could sing as a little kid. That always made the grown-ups crack up. Back when my parents were still together (for lack of a better term). I would rush out into the living room and swirl around and really belt it out, let ‘em have it. And the applause felt great. My mom got all embarrassed when I started singing Simon and Garfunkles Cecelia, “I got up to wash my face, and when I came back to bed someone’s taken my place.” My mom tells me later never to sing that song again because I am only five and that song is about eating out. I don’t get it; there are no restaurants in the song. Sometimes we eat out, at Ponderosa, all the chocolate mousse I can stand. But she tells me it wasn’t that kind of eating out. It was oral sex. Mouth sex. Oh, duh. I feel really dumb. My mother is prone to over-inform. I should have known better. I already knew about oral sex from her brother. “Remember mom? I already know about that”, I say pleadingly, searching her face to see if she is on my side yet. “You liked it,” she tells me. “You are oversexed.”
I only go to Covington for six months. In the middle my mom finally splits with her boyfriend and rents a house in Detroit for herself, my sister and I. It’s in an old Polish neighborhood with nice lawns and wee houses and lots of small businesses, deli’s, restaurants, a vegetable stand, bakeries. It is our own and I even have my own room. Inevitably my mother starts a relationship with the landlord, a pukey looking dude who owns a limousine business as well as renting us the house next to his. He parks his limos and then hooks the water hose to our meter and washes his cars. He offers me two bucks to clean his bachelor pad bathroom and I do not want to do it but my mom says I have to. There are pubic hairs on the walls, way up high. I can’t figure out how he managed that. I am really pissed, scrubbing away all his filth. When I come out he gives me two bucks and a cold Pepsi. My mom is sitting in his living room and she tells
me to go home. She has short shorts on. Her hair is styled. She is wearing too much blush and fluttering her raccoon lashes around like a lunatic in heat.
The next day I go and register myself for school. My mom says she is too tired to go with me. “You know the drill. You have been through this a million times. Tell ‘em where you came from and that you are in 6th grade. It’s pretty intuitive.”
I walk the whole way in that strange neighborhood. I had lived close by once before, on Ashton with my cousin Andy. His family had taken us in for a few weeks until my mom met the “rich” boyfriend at a bar in Royal Oak. She was so impressed that he had a big house in Birmingham, a boat, a twin, two handsome sons. He had even been in the Olympics in the 50’s. That was how she told me about him. Like he was some great catch. Come to find out the house is right on the edge of Birmingham, right behind a Dairy Queen, the boat never sees the water, the sons are drug addicts, he is older than her father and his fucking Olympic rowing stories were boring and incessant. Also, sometimes he would sneak us into the yacht club and make us pretend we were rich. He would even pretend to be his cleaner looking, more successful twin for free drinks. He bought my mother a red dress and paraded her around. Watching her mingle was embarrassing. Drink in hand and leading with her pelvis, she was a provocative maid on holiday. They fought about that a lot, the fact that my mom doesn’t know how to turn it off.
In any case, he is out of the picture and we are here to start over. I get to re-invent myself. I do not have to be the poor little wretch of titty-flop fame. I can pretend I have class and good breeding. Pretend that I just came in from someplace exciting and I am ready to learn learn learn.
I walk up to the building, Ruddiman Jr. High. It is imposing, perched near a gas station right over the freeway at Ford and Southfield. It is a dark institution with wire grids on the windows. I go in and find the office and tell them I am a new student and would like to start classes. The whole office looks at me funny. It is dead quiet. I am maybe the only kid who has ever registered herself for sixth grade. It’s the middle of a semester. They give me some paperwork. They ask me about my parent or guardian. I tell them she is unpacking boxes. Really she is sleeping and planning to take my little sister to register for Elementary. We do not have a telephone. They will have to trust me. I am not pulling a fast one, trying to bust into prison. I am taken to a class that is over full and noisy. There is only one other white kid in the class and she is a full-fledged puppy-eyed scab. She jumps up, practically hugs me, smells like urine. The others glare at me. It doesn’t go well. Fortunately I do not have to talk or do any work because it is like a circus of disciplinary infractions with no time for much else. Some of the boys are fifteen. It is sixth grade in a Detroit Public School.
At lunch the scabby little white girl tells me she really likes my cloths and really wants to know if I can spend the night because she really needs help with her hair. I tell her I really think she should try washing it. Everyone asks why I am not eating; did I forget my lunch card? I tell them no. I pretend that I have never heard of such a thing. Right away the whole group hears this differently than I mean it. They turn on me.
“Stuck up white bitch…White bread…Honky…Showing up in Birmingham trends thinking she better than everyone else...Snob…What’s wrong bitch, yo mama lose her dough and now you gotta muck around with the po’ folk?…Fucking cunt...Another case of some rich white bitch thinking she better than all us poor niggas.”
The discussion goes on like that, round and round until the bell rings. I am stuck with the poorly planned self I mapped out on the way there and never really redeem myself.
Fortunately, my mother is unstable and can not stay put long enough for me to get killed by my peers. We are off again in six months, where I start a new school for seventh grade. This time I have it all worked out. This time I am doing everything differently.