The Bottom Line, a short story by StevenHunley. Date added: 2010-10-20. Times viewed: 705.
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- Intro: A man applies for food stamps
The Bottom Line
There’s a song in Elton John’s album Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy called Meal Ticket. It’s a great song and has many useful lines for a would-be writer, like,
“I’m on the bottom line.”
Right now I’m standing in the bottom line myself, waiting for a meal ticket.Yep, this is it, and it’s not just my line alone, it’s America’s Bottom Line. It wraps tightly around the building at the Department of Social Services like a giant hungry anaconda. Inside is the madhouse. It’s the food stamp line. Yummy, the delicious food stamp line.
Compton is where it is. It’s early but the line is still long. Many people here are “people of color” all sorts of colors. They told us in school that America was a melting pot but I fail to see it. The colors are pretty separate here, not mixed, and share only one thing in common. They’re hungry.
In front of me are big-boned men and wild-haired women from Samoa and right behind them a thin short delicate couple from Vietnam holding hands. There’s plenty of Mexicans, this is Compton. Blacks are not unknown here either. In fact, one is walking by to take her place behind me having been directed here by one of the workers sporting a name tag, pointing his finger. She’s grumbling,
“Go to the end of the line. Go to the end of the line, it’s customary.
“Shit, customary for who? My people have been going to the end of the line ever since there was a line!”
She solemnly takes her place.
There are two or three pregnant women, three or four oldsters like myself in various stages of decay. There’s always a man who stinks. I have nothing against people who stink as long as they don’t stand too close to me, you know how it is. Naturally there are always a few that look lost. There are still one or two more that look like crack-heads that have lost their pipes in the gutter. On the other hand some are students, some from countries you can’t identify, and few, very few, seem what I call “normal.” You wonder why they are here. Still others cannot be read. Such a marvelous mix of humanity.
On the street outside a BMW rolls by, chrome gleaming, spinners on each wheel, the smell of Purple Kush emanating from its open windows, the radio blasting Elton John from sixteen inch speakers,
“I’d have a cardiac if I had such luck
Lucky losers, lucky losers landing on Skid Row, landing on Skid Row.
While the Diamond Jim’s and the King’s Road pimps breathe heavy in their brand new clothes
I’m on the bottom line
I’m on the bottom line.”
But bottom or not I’m at the head of the line and next to get in. But first are the metal detectors.
For these little gems you must remove everything metal. Pocket change must go and your belt. In Compton, due to the fashion of sagging your pants this is always a challenge. Men must pull their pants up with one hand, waltz through the machine with precision, then re-thread their belt with the other. They’re gangsters, they’re good at it. They’ve had plenty of practice entering the Compton Courthouse.
They hand you a stack of papers to fill out the size of a telephone book. So OK. It gives you something to do while you’re waiting. They’re big on making you wait here. You haven’t filled out this many pieces of paper since you entered college. Now you’re filling them out here. Something must have gone wrong. What’s wrong with you anyway? Nothing that’s not wrong with anyone else here. You bought into the American dream and found out you couldn’t make the payments. They repossessed it. Uncle Sam is a repo man. Who would have figured?
They call your name and you go to a window. A good looking girl behind the glass removes the thing that blocks the bottom so you can slide your papers on in. Cool air rushes out and you can smell her perfume. Its fragrance enchants you. She smiles at you from behind the glass, then turns to her fellow worker and laughs, showing tiny white teeth that sparkle. Her smile is beguiling. She’s happy she has a job.
“Now wait and we’ll call your name.”
She hands you a scrap of green paper.
“Thanks,” is all you can say to her.
Her position, her beauty, the glass, all make her out of your reach. You regain your seat with resignation. You’re not here for her. And when it comes down to it, she’s not here for you either. To her you are but a number.
You’ve been here some time and start to get hungry.
“And I gotta get a meal ticket
To survive you need a meal ticket
To stay alive you need a meal ticket.”
Again they call your name so you can be “live scanned” which is to say electronically fingerprinted. Some people have multiple cases going under different names. They know how to play the system. After that you get to wait some more, but it’s in a different room so you take advantage of it and look at the different faces. Now here’s something I didn’t see before in the other room. It’s one of those things I call “a beautiful girl.”
She’s got to be in her early twenties. She’s dark-haired and probably Hispanic, her hair tied behind her head in a ponytail. She’s sitting down but you can see from her limbs that she’s tall. Her features are regular, and her nose is perfect. Dark is all you see of her eyes and it’s quite enough thank you. And the beauty, oh the beauty, like a Venus! A Venus in Dickies blue-jeans. She has no hint of makeup, not the eyes or the lips, not even mascara. Incredible beauty but no make up at all, what a feat! How can make-up manufacturers compete against this? This girl’s face would run them out of business. She all in black from top to bottom with black Nike tennies as well. She has a proud look, one of disdain. But that’s just it, it’s a hard look.
Then you notice the tattoo on her arm, it’s a name. No butterflies, no flowers, just the name “Margarete.” Not colored ink, plain black done in old English script. That’s it! This is Compton. Margarete is a gangster girl. When they call her name she stands up and you can see by the way she holds herself what’s up.
There’s a certain degree of swagger to her walk and when she stops and stands she displays a “gangster lean”. One sees it on every street corner in Compton. What a waste. What am I thinking anyway? I’m here for the stamps, for the EBT card, not shopping for gangster girls.
My name is called, they give me the card, and eight shiny bus tokens to send me on my way but I ask,
“When will it be good?”
“Today after five.”
I’m out the door in a flash, the card gripped tightly in my hand. Looks like I’ll be feasting at five. God bless America.
“Feel no pain
When the line’s been signed you’re someone else
Do yourself a favor
The meal ticket does the rest
My thanks to Sir Elton for the inspiration. Always quote your sources.
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