I grew up in the Heartland of America, in a small town right off the Interstate, which basically consists of about a mile-long stretch of gas station-convenient stores, a few truck-stops, a dollar store, a grocery store, a few fast food restaurants and a liquor store. If you blink your eyes a couple of times driving through you might miss it. The town is basically a Stop-N-Go fill up station for Interstate traffic. I’ve lived most of my entire life in that small town, but I’ve moved on up in the world since then (insert sarcasm here). I now live in the small town next door which is basically the same town except that it has a casino! Whoopee! Skittle-me-doo! (insert even more sarcasm here). Let’s just say that it’s not exactly “the land of opportunity” around these parts. And every time I’ve ever tried to leave it -I always ended up coming right back to it full circle. It’s where my family and friends are and it’s always been my comfort zone, if that makes any sense. “I Was Born In A Small Town“ By -John Cougar Melloncamp. The story of my life.
Years back when I was still single and going through a mid-life crises (during one of my escape attempts) I had gotten to know someone online (internet dating) and she had invited me to come live with her and to look for work in Walton, NY. I had nothing to lose. I had just quit my most recent crappy job working for an inventory company as a “counter” where they herded hundreds of us around the state in vans like cattle to show up at one Wal-Mart Supercenter after another to count “every single piece of merchandise in the entire store” and they consistently berated us for not counting everything fast enough. It reminded me too much of the military. We worked sometimes 12-16 hour shifts and part of the deal was that our hotel rooms would be paid for, but during our latest venture the supervisor claimed that all of the hotels were booked (our rooms were supposed to be reserved) and after working one of these dreadful, backbreaking 16 hour shifts we ended up having to “sleep” sitting up and crammed together like sardines in the van, after which we were expected to work another 12-16 hour shift. That was it for me. I was done. Hello Greyhound. Arrangements were finalized and I used my last pay-check to purchase my bus ticket across the country. It took me more than a couple of days of lugging three hefty duffle bags filled with everything that I owned from one bus to another during transfers, but I got there. I only wished that I had packed lighter.
My first experience of NY was waking up from sleeping all night on my luggage at one of the bus stations. My neck was stiff. My whole body was sore and I felt totally exhausted, but I was in good spirits because my final bus to Walton had just arrived. The passengers departed and headed towards me as I waited for the bus to unload. I thought the girl at the front of the line was cute and prepared to greet her cheerfully as she approached. “Hellooo” I waved and said with a bright cheerful small-town smile. She squinted her eyes at me and looked offended. “What did you just call me???”, she replied angrily as she stormed past me with her nose up in the air, disgusted with my existence. “I was…just saying….hello….” I tried to explain as she continued to storm past not even hearing me. My good mood deflated like a balloon. “Welcome to NY”, I mumbled tiredly to myself.
As the bus continued to unload, a group of about 20-30 Amish people began to crowd the station around me, all dressed in black with their Pilgrim looking hats. I had never seen a real Amish person before and thought to myself casually, “Aren’t they supposed to shun modern technology? What are they doing riding a bus?”. As the last of the bus passengers departed I held the door open for one of them and then realized that the group of 20-30 Amish people were taking it upon themselves to start the boarding line all together as a group. Again I’m thinking to myself, “Ohh no. This isn’t fair. I was here first! I’ve been here all night!” I tried to get in line with them but they were all sticking close together and making it impossible. “Noooo” I cried inwardly as I stood there holding the door for them and trying to smile at the situation. “They’re gonna take up all the available bus seats and I’m gonna be stuck here for another night at this crappy bus station sleeping on my luggage! Oh God Please Noooo” lol A busload of Amish people later, the last one said “thank you” to me for holding the door. I said you’re “welcome”, as I followed close behind (breathing a sigh of relief) and rode for the next few hours or so with the Amish. None of them said a word during the entire trip, it was creepily quiet. But at least that made it easy to sleep.
Destination, Walton, NY. I knew that it wasn’t going to be a huge place like New York City, but I had no idea that it was going to be an even smaller version of the small town that I grew up in. This place was in the middle of nowhere it seemed without even a nearby Interstate to stimulate business. Instead of a mile’s length of convenient stores, etc., it was about a half of a mile’s length of a handful of small stores. A grocery store, a very small factory, a mom and pop restaurant, a Chinese restaurant, a pizza place, a tobacco shop, a used clothing store, a dollar store, a couple of gas station-convenient stores and that was it! Welcome to Walton.
The first thing I had to do was to sign up with social services (a social service worker had to come pick me up and drive me to another town) to apply for food stamps, etc. and to get on a job search program. It was required that anyone applying for government aid had to enroll in what was called the BEST program, which would last for about a month. 5 days a week, we had to show up every day for 8 hours a day and attend classes and workshops that were designed to prepare us to enter the “workforce“. I was college educated and these classes were more like GED classes. But I pulled through it reluctantly, it was either that or starve to death. On graduation day a month later I felt like I was graduating kindergarten all over again. I’m a big boy now! lol They even made it official and gave us diplomas and passed out cookies and Kool-Aid. Whoopee! lol We were The BEST.
Now it was time to enter the “workforce”. I was required to apply for employment at a minimum of 3 places / week, 12 places / month. Well, I thought, there is not even 12 places to work in this entire town! lol But I did end up finding 12 places and I applied for every one of them and none of them were hiring. No surprise there. Welcome to what it’s like to be poor and unemployed in Walton, NY. Next they tell me that since I’m not able to find work that I will be required to work doing odd jobs 2-3 days /week for social services in order to continue receiving my food stamps! Work for food stamps? lol Were they serious? I’m from the Heartland they don’t make us work for food stamps lol If I’m being forced to work shouldn’t I at least get paid in *money*? Nope. Just food stamps evidently. A social service worker who came to be known as “the boss” would pick us up and take us to various work sites where we would be expected to work all day doing jobs like moving *everything* from someone’s entire apartment, couches, recliners, tables, etc etc. from a truck up a flight of rickety stairs to the second floor while they stood by and watched, paint an entire church inside and out, while they supervised, help move this here, help load that there. “The boss” would just drive us around all day sometimes trying to find stuff for us to do. Why not? We were his trained b****** and we worked for free lol It’s not like we had *a life* or anything.
This went on for months. It was now summer time and my girlfriend (who also received food stamps for her and her child but wasn’t required to do any of this because she was considered disabled) had the heads up and informed me of what was about to happen. We were about to have a new member on our work for food stamps chain-gang: a convicted child molester fresh out of prison! And my new job was to mow graveyards with him for the entire summer! I was outraged. I was furious. Words cannot describe. “Are you f****** serious??? They expect me to mow graveyards all summer with a convicted child molester for food stamps???” Yup. Welcome to what it’s like to be poor and unemployed in Walton, NY. They were not even required to inform any of us about him either. I only knew because my girlfriend knew and the fact that it was a small town.
I began asking around with the other chain-gang workers who were accustomed to this type of s*** as everyday life. “What happens if we never get a job? Does this just go on forever?” Yup. And not only that, every few months if you do not have a job yet they send you back through the BEST program. It was a continuous cycle.
But wait it gets “worst“! Next I learn that from now on I would not only be expected to work for my own food stamps but for my girlfriend’s food stamps and for her child’s food stamps as well. Since I had agreed to combine my food stamps as part of the household of my girlfriend (who was considered disabled) and her child, they used this as a way to consider me the able-bodied worker of that household and I would now be working 5 days a week, full-time on the food stamp chain-gang for “the boss”. Welcome to what it’s like to be poor and unemployed in Walton, NY.
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