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Monica Bielanko
That's What She Said
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Tuesday
Dec192006

After New York City Chewed Me Up But Before She Spit Me out

The angel faced Polish girl scanned my items across the thingamajig. Taco shells, chicken, salsa, cheese, avacados, Diet Coke.
"$23.99." I slid my credit card across the scratched metal counter. While waiting to sign the receipt I examined the people lined up behind me.

Six-thirty in the evening. Rush hour at my local grocery store. The line stretched from the register all the way to frozen foods, snaking around shelves packed with standard store fare and the exotic items from around the world that always seem to find their way to New York City markets.

The teenage bag boy hastily tapped out a message on his cell phone before slapping it closed. He offered a toothy grin then began shoving my items into the crackling plastic bags stacked at his side.
"Um sorry, Miss? Your card? It says declined." It took a minute for me to register. It was the cashier. She was talking to me.

A rush of blood to the head. Cheeks immediately on fire.
"Oh! Uh, that's weird." I lied. Inside I knew. No room left on the credit card I've been abusing for food money. I couldn't look at the impatient people lined up behind me. If they looked me in the eye, they'd know. They would know that I'm a worthless pile of shit who can't seem to get a job. Can't seem to pay the bills. Would they be right? Seems to be the way it's been going for me.

New York City - 10.
Monica - 0.

"You want me to try card again?" the cashier asked helpfully. Hopefully.
"Nah. Too much Christmas shopping!" I feigned a giggle that sounded more like a car that won't start than holiday cheer. Frozen. What to do? Keep the line moving, gotta keep the line moving, avoid pissed off shoppers anxious to get home and start their own dinners. And hope for a miracle.
"Can you just set the groceries aside and keep ringing up other customers? I can withdraw from my checking account and pay with cash. I'll be right back."
"Yes, sure."
She smiled and began scanning the items of the customer behind me.
The young boy looked at me in sympathy and set my groceries aside. His family is poor, I thought. How else could the face of a 13 or 14 year old be filled with such compassion?

I sidled over to the ATM and with shaking fingers, jammed my debit card into the slot. I tapped in my code and waited, even though I already knew the embarrassing outcome. Instead of the comforting whoosh of crisp twenties depositing into the tray the machine scolded. INSUFFICIENT FUNDS!

My nose was tingling, my throat closing. In a last ditch attempt at saving face I tried my credit card, already knowing the miserable result.

What do I do, just walk out? I can't just walk out. My groceries are still sitting there. Well, they aren't really my groceries now are they? The taco dinner I'd hoped to cook for The Surge belongs to the store.

Humiliation. Devastation. Embarrassment. Hopelessness. Familiar feelings from a youth spent paying for milk and eggs with food stamps. I returned to the check-out counter and waited uncomfortably, avoiding the eyes of others, until the cashier finished with her customer.
"Um?" I wanly flapped my hand to get her attention. Unfortunately I garnered not only her attention, but everyone elses as well.
"There's something wrong with my card. I'm going to run home and get my husband's but I'll be right back."

Something wrong with my card. Please. Before she could answer I turned and tried to stroll casually out the front door, the eyes of my neighbors burning holes in my winter coat.

I almost made it across the street before I burst into tears. I stumbled home and spent the rest of last night curled on my bed sobbing. And today? I just arrived home from taking a writing test for a job as a network producer/writer. A national newscast that I'm sure you've seen. I got the job. I start tomorrow. My unemployment ran out yesterday, I didn't know how I'd manage January's rent... and I got the job.

I've learned more about myself in the past eight months than ever before. I faced my worst fears; being broke, ignoring bills, depression. I faced some new fears as well; drinking too much, smoking too much pot, laziness, hopelessness. It's been harder than I could bring myself to reveal in this blog. But I made it. And in a few weeks a new year begins.

Take that, New York City.