August 6, 2014
This is the final part of the play that I co-wrote with a group of women living on welfare. It has been called “a witty, down to earth look at life on welfare”:
Under the Line
by No Name Brand Clan and Tanya Lester
(Scene 3 opens at the cash out counter of a supermarket. There is a long line up. Linda is at the end.)
Cashier: Belgian truffles. Gourmet frozen dinners. Artichoke hearts. Chocolate mousse. T-bone steaks. Designer napkins… That will be $189.53 please. Your change. Thank you. Have a nice day.
Linda: No Name corn flakes. No Name crackers. No Name peanut butter. No Name tomato soup. I’m a walking advertisement for No Name Brand. If they paid me to do their advertising, you’d be looking at a rich woman right now.
(Vanessa runs over and bumps into the line.)
Vanessa: Mommm, Mommmmm! Buy me some…
Linda: Vanessa, stop it. Oh, it’s you Eleanor. I didn’t see you there.
Eleanor: Didn’t see you either. I was too busy reading this. You know, it says here that giant cockroaches, the size of a small bulldog, invaded an apartment block in California.
Linda: Hmmm. Wouldn’t be surprised if they’re headed for my house. What a dump that place is. Maybe they can fix the stove while they’re there. Then I wouldn’t have to buy things to heat up in one pot, because I’ve only got one burner working on my stove. I’m waiting for the welfare people to make a home visit so they’ll give me the money to fix it. I used up all my special needs money a long time ago.
Vanessa: Come on Susan, look at these.
(Susan giggles. Vanessa and Susan run over to the candy bar stand.)
Eleanor: Special needs? You can’t do much on $150 a year, can you?
Linda: I’ve already waited a couple of months for them to come and check out my stove.
Eleanor: Didn’t you say you were going down to the welfare office today? Didn’t you say anything to them about it?
Linda: No. I forgot. I was too concerned about my cheque. I wish I had said a lot of things when I was in there today. But that Mrs. Pop wasn’t listening anyway. It seems she can’t do anything without my damn file in front of her now. You know, I remember once I had a good worker. At least she listened while I talked. But they shifted her off to a new job pretty quick. That’s typical of the system. It seems if you get a good worker, she doesn’t last very long. That Mrs. Pop or whatever her name is, well, she’ll be there forever.
Eleanor: I don’t know anything about the system. I’m not one to say much. I just get my cheque once a month and come down here to buy my groceries.
Cashier: $25.46. Your change. Thank you. Have a nice day.
(The customer exits. The line moves forward.)
Vanessa: Mommy, the other store always had better chocolate bars.
Linda: Well, maybe so, Vanessa. Everything was better back at our old place, eh?
(Vanessa goes back to the candy bar stand.)
Linda: Funny. All my kids like the other place better. Even Jolene who seems to complain about everything these days. Well, I don’t blame them. I liked it better there, too.
Eleanor: Why? Did you like your neighbours better?
Linda: Oh no. Making friends like you has been the only good thing about our move. I was working for a Native Rights Group and with that SAFER money, we were able to stay in a real nice apartment — almost new, with a fridge and a stove that worked. And lots of hot baths, and the toilet always flushed.
Eleanor: So why did you quit your job?
Linda: I didn’t. No more money. They had to close down my program. And I didn’t have enough weeks to get UIC. I only had 18 and you needed 20. I had to go back on welfare. But then I was no longer what they called a “low income earner”. So I couldn’t get the SAFER money anymore. Well that was it for that. That was it for that place. They wanted me to pay more rent and what could I do? I mean, I don’t think getting welfare puts me in a high income bracket. But the provincial government seems to think so.
Eleanor: I guess if you had another job…
Linda: I want to work. But there just aren’t enough jobs to go around.
(Vanessa puts some chocolate bars in Linda’s cart.)
Linda: Vanessa! take those chocolate bars out of there and put them back where you got them. It’s bad enough that everyone always thinks that people on welfare live on junk food.
Eleanor: Susan! Get over here.
(Eleanor gives her basket to Susan.)
Linda: Oh, I forgot to tell you. When I went down to the welfare office, they gave me this voucher.
Cashier: $84.58. Your change. Thank you. Have a nice day.
(The customer exits. The line moves forward.)
Linda: I know one thing. When I hand this voucher to the cashier, she’ll think I’m a drunk. Everyone in this place will think I’m a drunk, and that I can’t be trusted with money from welfare. I’m trying to do my best. But I get fed up. Sometimes I think I should just take all my kids in there and say to those workers: “Here, you feed them.” We have to start to speak up. Shit, every time I get a bloody penny from them, they act like they’re taking the money out of their own pockets.
Eleanor: I know what you mean.
Cashier: $54.79. Your change. Thank you. Have a nice day.
(The customer exits. The line moves forward.)
Eleanor: Let’s walk home together. I brought the wagon with me. We can put the heavy stuff on it.
(Linda moves forward and hands the voucher to the cashier.)
Linda: Sure. That’ll be great.
(The cashier waves the voucher in the air.)
Cashier: Hey, Harry, how do you process a welfare voucher?
Linda: I knew something like this would happen.
Vanessa: Mommy, what’s a voucher?
Linda: You don’t want to know, kid.
(They all exit.)
(Scene 4 opens in Linda’s kitchen. Jolene and Vanessa are sitting at the table having breakfast. Linda stands at the stove stirring a pot of porridge. Jolene is on the phone.)
Jolene: Oh, and you know what, Suzie? You should see this new guy in my math class. Man, what a hunk! Yeah, he looks just like Bono from U2, and you know what? I get to help him with his algebra… Yeah… Uh huh… No… Oh… I get it…
Vanessa: Mom, do I have to eat this junk again?
Linda: There’s no more puffed wheat left. So it’s porridge, kid. You know what it’s like the last week before the cheque gets here, and you don’t like eggs. Besides, porridge is good for you.
Vanessa: Yeah, but I’m starting to feel like Goldilocks.
Jolene: Grrrr and I’m the big bad bear, but where is your golden hair? Come on, eat your porridge. Hey, mom, where did you get the eggs? I thought we didn’t have any.
Linda: Well, I traded a package of chicken noodle soup with Eleanor down the street. She was sick of eating eggs for lunch, and I sure can’t eat soup for breakfast.
(Mrs. Roberts is knocking on the door.)
Linda: Jolene, get the door.
Jolene: I’m busy.
(Linda walks across the room to open the door.)
Linda: Well, you’re closer to the door than I am. You make me walk all the way over here. (Linda opens the door) Oh, Mrs. Roberts. I didn’t know you were coming today. I thought you were supposed to phone first.
Mrs. Roberts: I’m here because you requested a new stove.
Linda: I didn’t ask for a new stove. I just want to get it fixed. You try cooking for a family with only one burner working and no oven!
Mrs. Roberts: Well, I don’t know what I’m doing here anyway. I checked your files this morning. You used up all your special needs funds.
Linda: That’s not what the welfare rights group I went to see told me. They said each of us on welfare has excess special needs money coming to us if we need it.
Mrs. Roberts: Only if my supervisor approves it.
Linda: Well, come and take a look at the stove then, but excuse the mess.
Mrs. Roberts: How many people do you have staying here anyway? You’re not supposed to have all these people staying here.
Linda: Well, where do you expect them to stay? I’m not going to throw them out just because I’m on welfare. If your daughter and first grandchild came to visit you, wouldn’t you let them stay with you? (Pause) Well, it’s over here.
Mrs. Roberts: It looks like you haven’t cleaned up in here for weeks.
Linda: It’s not even nine o’clock yet. We didn’t get to bed until late last night. My daughter and I had a lot of catching up to do.
Mrs. Roberts: Looks like you were doing more than catching up last night. Maybe drinking? Were you partying last night ? You can’t afford to fix your stove?
Jolene: Well, we tried to fix it with beer, but it doesn’t drink.
Linda: Jolene, go take your sister to the park.
Jolene: Come on, Vanessa.
Vanessa: I didn’t want to eat this anyway.
Linda: Those beer bottles have been sitting here since we moved in. Some of my son’s friends helped us. When we finished, they bought two cases of beer and some fried chicken. Can’t you see the dust on them? This is what you came to look at, isn’t it?
Mrs. Roberts: Well, if you people cashed in the cases of empty bottles that you’ve accumulated, you could get your things fixed yourselves and give the taxpayers a break. And what about your boyfriend? Couldn’t her take some responsibility and help you out?
Linda: I don’t drink, and I don’t have time for a boyfriend. I’m too busy trying to exist and raise my kids. Now, like I said, there’s the stove. See for yourself. Only one burner gets hot.
Mrs. Roberts: Ok,ok. Well, it’s obviously broken. Get a repairman to estimate how much it will cost. I’ll report it to my supervisor and maybe you’ll get your excess special needs money to cover it.
Linda: Ok, I’ll get the estimate for you, and next time, remember to phone first.
Mrs. Roberts: You know, Linda, you were a lot easier to get along with before you started visiting those welfare rights groups.
Linda: You mean I was a pushover.
Mrs. Roberts: Goodbye, Linda.
(Mrs. Roberts exits. Rita comes in, just out of bed.)
Linda: You’re up? Did you sleep well?
Rita: Not bad. The baby didn’t wake up. What was all that noise down here a while ago?
Linda: Oh, that,s Mrs. Roberts from the welfare office. She made a home visit this morning to see if they stove really wasn’t working properly.
Rita: How come you were talking so loud?
Linda: That’s the first time I’ve really stood up to a worker. It sure feels good. You know, where you kids were younger, I was always scared they’d take something away from me if I rocked the boat. At one time, before that law was changed, they always seemed to be looking for something. Some were worse than others, and if workers felt like snooping around, then they would. They’d go through the closets looking for men’s clothing, and they’d open up the medicine cabinet looking for shaving gear.
Rita: I didn’t know that.
Linda: Oh, sure, but one thing they didn’t think of is that we women shave. You should see my legs.
(Linda gets up and gets the laundry basket.)
Linda: I had one who would open up my fridge and cupboards. He would look in there to see if I had food.
Rita: The nerve. I mean, would you go over to someone’s house, a complete stranger, and check out their food situation?
Linda: He could’ve just asked. You get no respect on welfare. Talk about rights. You don’t have any rights, and they think you’re lying all the time. Truth is, sometimes they back you into a corner with all their red tape so that you don’t have much choice.
Rita: Things are changing for me . I’m gonna get out of this rut. I’ve registered for the training program with the transit system. When the baby’s old enough to go into daycare, I’ll be learning how to drive a bus. I don’t see why I can’t work and raise a family too.
Linda: Well, if I was your age, that’s where I would be. Back then, I thought that since you kids didn’t have a father to speak of, I should be around for you. There was no other way.
Rita: Mom, how have you been able to stand it all these years?
Linda: There were times when it was pretty bad. I remember when my brother, your uncle Harold, and his friends would come over and visit me because I was really lonely. There I was, a single woman living alone with small children. I was very scared sometimes, and I had to stay close to home. Where could I go? Most places don’t welcome kids, and sometimes, even my friends wouldn’t. With no money, I couldn’t even take them out to a movie at night. I’m sure you know, Rita, there’s no money in a welfare budget for recreation at all. It just goes to food and clothing, period.
Rita: Yeah, it’s still the same.
Linda: So, like I said, your uncle and his friends would come over and we would play cards. I don’t know what I would have done without them.
Rita: But they stopped coming around. I thought it had something to do with me always bugging him. You know how I used to ask so many questions.
Linda: Nah! It wasn’t that. But you and your uncle were little devils. The real reason that made your uncle stop coming was the neighbours. They reported to welfare that men were coming in and out of my house. I told your uncle to stop coming over. I was more scared of that system cutting me off than I was scared of being alone. After that I sure was lonely.
Rita: But you stood up to that system today, didn’t you mom?
Linda: Yeah, I did.
Rita: You’re getting radical in your old age.
Linda: Sure, what do I have to lose now? You kids are mostly grown up.
Rita: You’re a liberated grandmother.
Linda: Yeah, that’s right. And where’s that grandson of mine?
Rita: Last I saw him, his father was changing his diaper.
Linda: Why don’t you bring him down? I was to go show him off to my neighbour. I happen to know that Eleanor loves babies, especially a cute one like my grandson.
Rita: Okay, I’ll go get him.
(Linda and Rita exit.)
(Scene 5 opens in the backyard of Eleanor’s house. Eleanor is sitting in a lawn chair with a glass of orange Kool-Aid in one hand. On the table beside her is a jug of Kool-Aid and a couple of glasses. Eleanor, a middle-aged woman, wipes her forehead and then gets up and starts hanging clothes, taking them from a big basket, and pinning them onto the line.)
Eleanor: Oh, it’s hot today.
Linda: (from off stage) Anybody home?
Eleanor: (turning her head towards the voice, yelling) Here!
(Linda enters carrying the baby in a Snugli. Rita, a bit behind, follows them.)
Linda: Hi Eleanor. I see you’re washing today.
Eleanor: (perking up when she sees that Linda has a baby) Oh, is this the new baby?
Linda: Yeah. Will you look at how cute it is?
(Linda moves closer to Eleanor so she can see the face of the baby.)
Eleanor: (with an amazed look on her face) Oh, look at all this hair. He’ll need a barber with all that hair.
Linda: Rita, come here and meet my neighbour Eleanor.
Eleanor: So this is your oldest daughter. Your mother told me so much about you! Your son is beautiful.
Rita: Thank you. He takes after his mother.
(Eleanor motions them to sit down at the table. They do so and she keeps on hanging clothes.)
Eleanor: Have a seat.
Linda: So what are you drinking there?
Eleanor: Welfare juice. Want some?
Rita: What flavour of Kool-Aid?
Eleanor: Orange. Oh, it’s hot and sticky today! I’m beat. I spent the whole morning washing clothes. I spent hours tracking down all the kids’ dirty clothes, and then the wringer washer started acting up.
Linda: I thought you were going to get an automatic washer.
Eleanor: I never have enough special needs money for that. I’m waiting for my income tax refund.
Rita: Speaking of special needs, you should have heard my mom standing up to her worker. She woke me up, she was talking so loud.
(Linda puffs out her chest and sits up straighter.)
Linda: Yeah, I even surprised myself. I think it’s been because we’ve been talking at our Wednesday meetings about how we’re all getting ripped off. It’s been making me angry when I hear about how they get away with doing the same things to all of us. We’re thinking of writing some letters.
Rita: You mean lobbying politicians?
Linda: Yeah, I guess that’s what you would call it. Eleanor, why don’t you come with me next Wednesday? We can always use more members.
Eleanor: (sounding reluctant) Well, I don’t know…I’m not the pushy sort.
Linda: Well, neither am I, but I’m tired of always being pushed around. I don’t believe I’m a second class citizen anymore. Maybe I don’t know how to speak with all those big words, and I’ll never have expensive clothes, but I’m as good as anyone else. I believe that now.
Rita: (teasing) Mom, if you keep on talking like that, Peter Warren is going to want you on his show.
Eleanor: Yeah, and when you’re famous, I’ll say to people, “That’s Linda Whitehawk. She lives in my neighbourhood. I used to trade eggs with her for soup.”
Linda: Speaking of food, what are you cooking for supper tonight?
Eleanor: Probably eggs and hash browns again. We’ve been eating them all week. I have no money for anything else until the cheque comes. Mary, next door, doesn’t even have that much. My kids were saying her bunch ate the last of their food yesterday.
Linda: Well, I still have some soup left and some bologna.
(Jolene and Susan enter.)
Jolene: Hi, Mom.
Linda: I thought you two are supposed to be at the community club.
Jolene: There wasn’t anything happening at the centre, so we came home. What did I hear about food?
Linda: I was just going to suggest that we put all our food together and eat over here. And we can invite Mary and her kids to join us. Is that alright with you, Eleanor?
Eleanor: Sure, we can have a welfare steak dinner. You kids can help me bring out the food and set the table.
Linda: Jolene, go fetch Mary and her bunch, and bring whatever you can find in the fridge.
Eleanor: Now, set this up here and oh, we forgot the glasses and Kool-Aid. Run back and get them, Susan.
(Susan exits as Mary enters with Jolene.)
Mary: What’s this I hear about a feast?
Linda: Well, it’s not going to be fancy, but we thought we,d share what we had, and we want you to join in.
Mary: Is it okay if my sister Donna comes along? She’s over having coffee.
Linda: Why not? The more the merrier.
(Mary calls Donna over. Donna enters.)
Donna: You sure have nice neighbours, Mary.
Mary: Yeah, I do, don’t I?
(Enter Vanessa and Susan carrying dishes and a card table. Susan exits, and Vanessa sets the table. Jolene enters.)
Jolene: Here’s the food.
Eleanor: Well, I guess we’re ready. Dig in, folks.
(They all rush to the table. Linda looks at the audience and gives a toast with her glass.)
Linda: Hey! Who says I’m poor? I may not have much money in my pockets, but one thing I’m rich in are family and friends. To family and friends.
All: To family and friends.
To read earlier posts on this blog, go to http://www.writingsmall.wordpress.com
Facebook. LinkedIn. Twitter.
Confessions of a Tea Leaf Readerby Tanya Lester can be purchased from the author or by going to the title and author name at amazon.com where you can read the first pages and buy it.