By Brian Ellair
The door opens and we begin to shuffle forward. We are packed close together like prisoners in a black and white chain gang movie. The concrete sidewalk has been reflecting the July heat up at us even when we try to stand in the strip of shade against the building. Surprisingly everyone is docile and no one has struck out with rage from the waiting or the temperature. The faces around me seem almost disinterested in the surroundings. I don’t find the curiosity that I expect from a group of diverse people forced together by necessity. The only ones looking around are the few children that stay in close orbit of mothers or grandmothers. Some are clutching toys or handheld games. Clothing is as diverse as the people. There are jeans and t-shirts as well as hijab, and even one woman in an abaya. I try not to be obvious as I scan the line, since no one else seems interested in their surroundings. After a bit I put a name to the expressions on the adults. It’s resignation. These are people that have been here before and know they will be here again. There is no mystery and nothing to question.
We finally sat in metal folding chairs and waited to be called by the numbers we had been given as we entered. My little plastic square had a neat thirty-seven printed on it, so I settle in for a long wait. I fidget in my chair trying to find a comfortable posture. A feeling of shame starts to manifest the longer I sit. What was I doing here? I made the right choices, I worked hard, spending long hours in crappy jobs that I hoped would lead to better ones. I put my time in on the construction site and the retail floor to eventually manage others. Why do I feel guilty for coming to a place like this? Why do I feel that I have let down my family and know that I won’t tell my friends where I am today? The random choices of genes and circumstances have given me problems that become more life threatening as I get older, but I still feel that somehow it’s my fault. Not long ago I was a construction manager for a fortune 500 company, flying all over the United States, hiring construction people to build, and staff to run well known retail stores. Now I’m driving a car that is about to be repossessed. In the parking lot I see old cars and trucks that look as if they’re lucky to be on the road. My almost new car shouldn’t be there.
I pull out my phone to go online and check my email, a habit from my traveling days. There isn’t a very good signal from my cell provider so I turn on the WI-Fi like I always do. The phone searched for a while but didn’t find any hotspots. Like a slap I realized why. This wasn’t a hotel lobby or the waiting area at a restaurant. We were here because we couldn’t provide our families the most basic of human needs. After the money to the landlord, the doctors, and the utilities, there isn’t enough left to buy food. There are others in the room in the default posture of the twenty-first century, head down, holding an electronic device inches from their faces. There are flip phones and phones with built in keyboards. The lady a couple of chairs down has an old Motorola with a crack bisecting the screen. I don’t have an iPhone, but mine is certainly several electronic generations newer than what I see. For a lot of them these relics are probably the only way to communicate with a larger world.
I sit staring at the small screen in my hand. A vague feeling of unease sweeps through my body, finally tightening the muscles in my neck. I want to be anywhere else, do anything else, be anyone else, but no. this is where I am and what I’m doing. It’s all with the one goal of surviving, and hoping for something better. That’s the one thing that keeps me from total despair: hope. It may be misplaced, but for now, it doesn’t cost a dollar.