99 Problems

Published on September 13th, 2013 | by Victoria Petron



I always see a look of fear in the cashier’s faces when they see my WIC check. It does not matter what age they are or how long they have been working there. Countless other times cashiers struggle with the WIC whilst managers idle nearby talking to their employees or other managers about the real reason Cassie or Joe didn’t show up for work. I like to stare at them with my best bitchy face, but they ignore me. The younger kids, the ones who are making the absolute best out of working their first real job, grow nervous and red as the register refuses to cooperate. My daughter, a toddler, is demonstrating more patience than all of us grown adults, happily singing about her day while trying to touch the credit card machine. Behind me there are more sighs and looks of disdain. People are walking away from the line now, and frustration is mounting.

A cashier once told me they all had to go to a work meeting to learn how to decipher the four or five kinds of peaches from one another. Employees are expected to detect a type of peach, but are seemingly never trained to ring up WIC with ease. On one trip, I chose an older cashier’s line, thinking he’d been around since WIC was invented, he can do it. He ended up shouting “Damn it!” after the third failed attempt and pounded his fists loudly into the stainless steel around the scanner. I thought that was a little melodramatic. “I’m sorry, are you new? These WIC checks are tough,” I say empathically.

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Some of those behind me transfer to another line immediately. If I’m lucky there are a few women with children or people enjoying my daughter’s singing and cuteness behind me in line. If I’m unlucky, behind me will be a middle aged man in a tight polo short, khaki shorts, his Guy Harvey hat and boat shoes telling everyone he is rich enough to have his own boat on which he can drunkenly fish off of. He is a strict Republican, he’s racist and he grew up working tobacco fields, and he is god damn tired of paying taxes so irresponsible sluts like me can pay for food for myself and illegitimate children.

It’s my fault, this sudden chaos in the grocery store line. I may have it worse than the crazy coupon lady. I sweetly look to the people behind me, “Sorry,” I say timidly. I hold back because what I really want to say is, “Don’t come to the grocery store when you’re in such a hurry next time,” or “Sorry I’m taking up five minutes of your precious vacation time with my pathetic government checks”.  Or how about, “You don’t know me or what I have been through. Yes I have government assistance, but I’m also a single mother and a college student. I struggle to get to and from college, to pay for school supplies. I don’t have rich parents that encouraged me to find a dorm and join a sorority before I went out and got knocked up. I’m in college so I don’t have to depend on government handouts the rest of my life, and so my daughter will be raised by an independent woman. I was once a high school drop out because my school cast me out when my family deviated from the upper middle class squeaky clean norms of my town. I worked for five years and paid taxes before I had my child. I give back when I can. Last week I sold one hundred dollars’ worth of my jewelry so I had something to give to a family friend who has expensive cancer treatments. I am a very smart and motivated individual, and my generation will be taking care of your generation when you are old and senile so you better be nicer to me”.

I used to get upset and cry on the drive home, but now I am immune to the shame. I just want to reach over the counter and tell the cashier, “It’s okay, I’ll do it myself” Press the WIC button, scan each item, press WIC wholesale, write the total on the check, have the customer sign it, and feed the check into the register. Instead the cashier, determined, tries it over and over, finally they are yelling at the manager to please come help them. “You have to redo everything,” they always say. All the food has to be taken back out of the bags. The people behind me are really disgusted now. The cashier is embarrassed. The manager could give a shit.


Yesterday I got to witness this happening to someone else other than myself. To my surprise it was a man in line with the WIC check, and he looked thoroughly annoyed that our silver haired, female cashier was having a hard time with the transaction. The cashier shouted over to the service desk girl for help, but she was ringing up the town’s junkie tattoo artist. I wanted to tell the cashier it was alright, take her time, but it wasn’t my check, it was this man’s. This man was not supposed to be using the checks anyway. WIC stands for women, infants, and children, and he is none of those. The cashier obviously didn’t know the rules behind WIC and nor did the man. I highly doubt he made the fifteen minute trip to the county’s social services complex every three months with cranky children to sit and wait for the child’s finger to be pricked, the papers to be signed, the counselor to go through her nutrition spiel, and the checks to be printed up. I’m sure he never rented a breast pump from WIC, or spent time crying because he lost the folder with the checks in it again. I was perplexed.

A manager finally noticed the woman struggling and helped her scan the items. The man, ironically enough, was clean cut, with a polo shirt and Guy Harvey hat, and he was relieved to finally be on his way. I wondered if he could sacrifice fishing or beer so he could pay twenty odd bucks for the cart of milk, bread, juice, cereal, eggs, and peanut butter himself. I don’t typically picture a man of his style abusing the system on such a small scale. Surely embezzling money at some large business would be more satisfying. Did someone offer to trade him the checks for some cash? Some people in this town are known to trade food stamps for drug money. I estimate a few WIC coupons to be worth enough to buy a 40oz and a joint. The man didn’t look like the type to be in close contact with people like that. It made me wonder if his wife made him go get the stuff because she was really sick or something. The man gave up some of his precious time to go to the store for her so she would stop nagging him. Maybe he was impatient with the cashier because he was embarrassed, exhausted from the stress of the mother of his children recently leaving them. The scenarios in my head grew more depressing. The original owner of the checks may have recently died. The man may be the current guardian of orphaned children.

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I visualized children coming home from school happy to have sandwiches and juice. Children don’t understand all that is involved with keeping food in the fridge, but they do understand when there isn’t enough of it. As I imagined what had transpired in the man’s personal life, I felt a mixture of compassion and guilt set in. Stupid WIC always puts me in such a complex spot in which I judge strangers, yet I don’t want them to judge me. I am guilty of assuming the worst. I reach the conclusion that if the man is getting food for children then he is entitled to do so. I dare to think he should be commended for engaging in the female dominated task of grocery shopping.

The pendulum swings the other way occasionally. Once my check wasn’t good for another month, and the man behind me paid for my groceries. He gave me ten extra “so you can buy something for yourself”. I cried, so thankful to be a part of his random kindness, but also because it reminded me how people have a clear choice to be kind or cruel. Someday I won’t need the checks, and I promise to patiently wait, stand beside a fellow parent in support, while the cashier fumbles with their checks. I will gladly dole out ten or twenty bucks so that a young girl grocery shopping will retain some faith in people.

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About the Author

Victoria Petron is a student, single mother, and a C.I.S. volunteer. Her daughter is her best friend, and they reside in coastal North Carolina. She’s interested in hybrid literary genres, conceptual art, and pedagogy.

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