The Children and Families office was closed during the pandemic and low-income people could renew their applications by phone. Now the office has reopened, and the telephone agents are not obligated to help you when you pleadingly call on the phone to renew or activate or deactivate anything on the application corresponding to your name and date of birth.
The answering machine, when it answers your call, makes a remark that one should be aware of, so as not to have to spend more than 60 minutes in the line waiting like a Penelope in a parking lot: people over 65 and people with a disability will be served. I have a disability: I am reluctant to the bureaucracy of government offices and all the bureaucracies that exist. I know I am not the only one.
When I arrive at the office there is a line of people outside, indoors, at the hottest time of Miami’s glare, waiting to receive a number from a pink paper tape. The man handing out the numbers, before giving me the number, asked me: where do I know you from? My immediate answer made him smile: from yesterday. Today I got number 8.
Yesterday I also came, early, and I got a two-digit number. Identical in number of digits to today’s number, but different in meaning. Yesterday, shortly after entering, it began to rain with a counterrevolutionary force. It looked like a dissident downpour, a contagious downpour. That maximum force that knows it is right and that it must oppose a very square and destructive system. The downpour spoke to me and told me: don’t wait any longer, come to me.
The thing is that everyone who is a low-income citizen must, as the protocol and the telephone answering machine dictates, make the first line outside and then the second line inside and then sit on a dark blue plastic chair when the authorized lady calls you after making the second line and asks you for your birthday, phone number, last name, first name, in that order. These are the data with which they corroborate one’s identity in the computerized program of the office.
A person of low resources is not necessarily a person without intellectual resources, nor without literary, musical or plastic resources. They are resources of an opaque gray nature, something like the color of the mold that proliferates in the filters of Miami’s air conditioners. The low-income person has low resources because he/she earns a basic, minimum or depressed salary. Depressed is a nice word to designate the salary of low-income people. They are, in short, immigrants, pregnant women, single mothers, the disabled, the elderly, criminals and losers, etc.
The thing is that when you enter, after doing the first row, you start doing the second row. The room is medium sized and is full of blue circles on the floor that say: PLEASE KEEP SOCIAL DISTANCE. The floor is also marked, in blue lettering, that each circle is separated from the other by six feet. All signs are written in two languages. Yesterday a Haitian did not make himself understood and did not understand either. Most of the people verifying your identity are Cuban or Latino and speak Spanish.
The woman at the window recognized me. She took the little number from me and sent me to sit down. I told her to give me back the number because that number meant a lot to me. She looked at me with a look on her face like, “You’ve got a loose screw’’. I had already thrown the number in the trash when I asked her to give it back to me. I asked in a nice way, almost in a whisper, almost in a plea. I was brought up to talk like that and try to keep that tone when addressing strangers in an office or in a public place, even if the dialogue was about idiocy.
I already threw it in the trash, she said. Pick it up, please, I said. I can’t pick it up, she said. How come? I said. No, I can’t, she said. But you have the garbage next to you, I said. But they won’t let me put my hand in the garbage, she said. Ah, they won’t let you put your hand in the garbage, I repeated. The next person, she told me, as if I were twice me and could be, at the same time, the person she had in front of her and the person I had behind me.
I swear, when I leave, I’m going to tell her I’ll pay her five dollars if she reaches into the trash and retrieves my little number and gives it back to me. Now, without that little number with me, I need it more than ever. Now that little number has become my lucky number. If she doesn’t agree to five dollars, I’ll tell her I’ll give her ten dollars. If she doesn’t agree to ten dollars, I’ll tell her to go to hell. I was brought up to never ever send anyone to hell, but there are boundaries in life.
The wait in the plastic chairs is the longest of all. Most are fat Latina women with small children. Most of the children cry because they are bored. Children are experts at being bored. No one imagines that after they are born, they will have to sit in one of these chairs. When a woman has a child, she puts on weight faster than when she does not. It’s all about metabolism. Everything slows down and women to put on weight, to become armoires. Sometimes they don’t even need to eat. Women with children get fat when they breathe.
The chairs and the signs on the floor are not the only things blue at the Children and Families office on 27th Avenue in Miami’s Northwest. Everything is blue in the Children and Families office, except the little numbers pulled from the pink paper tape. In reality, when you walk into the office it’s like walking into heaven or Facebook. Imagine walking into heaven or Facebook, all blue everywhere, because that’s what it’s like. There is silence and crying children and whispered conversations in different Latin accents that make everyone more and more tired.
Today there is also a Haitian who does not make himself understood and who does not understand what is said to him. The woman who did not want to put her hand in the trash to retrieve my little number looks him in the eye: repeat, repeat, repeat (with a Cuban accent). The Haitian looks the woman in the eyes: what, what, what (with a Creole accent). It sounds like a counter-revolutionary trash reggaeton with very good conditions to sweep the Billboard Latin Music Awards in the Independent Music category. I don’t know if that category exists or I’m just imagining it.
The heading of the letters that the Department of Children and Families sends to its aspiring beneficiaries is predetermined. It gives the impression that you get the same letter every six months. Correction: you get the same letter every six months:
Notice of Eligibility Review
The following information pertains to your eligibility for benefits
Food Assistance and/or Cash Assistance
Please be reminded that the last month you will receive assistance is September, 2021, unless you reapply. You or your authorized representative must reapply by September 15, 2021, to continue receiving assistance without interruption. If you completed a review or returned your interim contact form within the last thirty days, you do not need to reapply now.
A woman dropped a card and left without picking it up. On the card are her details to log in to her online account. Her name is Esperanza, like my great-grandmother. Her last name is Gomez and her case number is: 132 087 86 36. If Esperanza Gomez reads this on Facebook maybe she becomes a reader of El Estornudo. Or maybe she doesn’t have time to read. Low-income citizens barely have time to look at the Facebook pages of their friends and family or funny Facebook stuff or diet recommendations for weight loss. Before I finished writing this paragraph, a woman came up to me and said, pointing to my knee: I’ve been looking for that card for a long time. She looks like she wants to hug me, but I won’t allow it, I don’t want to be hugged by an unknown woman.
The air conditioning must be at the same temperature as at the North Pole. I have been sitting in the dark blue plastic chair for three hours, waiting to be called like a Cuban Penelope with no lucky number and low resources. I am very hungry, very thirsty and very sleepy. I feel like being in Camagüey in the year 2001 writing very bad poems and cleaning my wooden house at four o’clock in the afternoon before my mother comes home from work and my grandmother sends me to buy a milk cream sweet at the kiosk on the corner with a one-peso coin.
Applications must be renewed every six months or sooner, depending on the letters the office sends you. Sometimes the office needs to verify if you are still a low-income citizen or if you are no longer a low-income citizen and have become an achiever, a magnificent example of the American dream. The most natural thing in the chain of resources is for a low-income person to lose the few resources he or she had left and become an example of the American nightmare. But it is true that miracles do happen.
The woman who couldn’t reach into the trash to return my little number didn’t assign my name to any of the agents who are experts in updating the cases of low-income people either. I was the last one to leave the office, in a hurry, straight to pick up the child on the other side of the world, at a Southwest’s child daycare center. Mr. Ubaldo, an effeminate old man, was my expert agent after four hours of sitting in a dark blue plastic chair waiting for my first or last name to be called, like a rickety Penelope.
Before I left I looked straight ahead at the woman who couldn’t reach into the trash full of little pink numbers that formed an unlucky mattress. The woman met my gaze for a minute or so, then turned her eyes to the trash and then directed her right hand there. She stirred a bit pretending she couldn’t find it until she said: it was the B08, wasn’t it?
If you want to see a miracle, look to Cuba. People are still alive after a 62 year dictatorship. Not only alive but dreaming, creative, intelligent. A dictatorship is when a government takes away a country’s resources and turns it into a low-income country, calling itself a Revolution. That euphemistic and selfish attitude for 62 years in a row deserves at least a counterrevolutionary acid rain like the one that fell yesterday.
A dictatorship is when a government turns its citizens into emigrants, pregnant women, single mothers, handicapped, old people, criminals and losers, etc., calling itself a Revolution. That euphemistic and selfish attitude for 62 years in a row deserves at least a counterrevolutionary acid rain like the downpour that fell yesterday.
Translation from Spanish by Sergio Vitier.