Contents of this page: A common citizen

Newman Occasional Journal: A common citizen

August 8, 1998

A common citizen

I was at the market yesterday -- an altogether common experience. When I got to the check-out stand there was a young woman in line ahead of me. She was accompanied by a boy about seven or eight years old who stood next to her silently, though not quite still. She wore the summertime uniform of citizens here: a light-colored t-shirt, faded blue denim shorts, and sandals. She was on the tall side of average, but neither too heavy nor too slim. She engaged the clerk in chit-chat appropriate to the occasion. She seemed just an average suburban soccer mom.

When the clerk announced the total of her purchases she withdrew her wallet from her purse and took out a book of food stamps (I suppose that officially they are known as USDA Food Coupons -- to satisfy the part of me which obsessively insists upon correctness) and tore out the appropriate number of coupons, dug in her coin purse to retrieve enough cash for the non-food items, and tendered it all to the clerk. He completed the transaction in the same efficient manner as all the others before and after, all the while maintaining their casual conversation. Nothing about their conversation made me think that they had any other contact with one another than just then at that check-out counter -- I think they spoke of the merits of various home health remedies, in any case the discussion was not a matter that attracted my attention.

But what was there that made this more than just a common wait in the supermarket check-out line? It was my reaction to her use of food stamps. Now I often see people use food stamps for their purchases (though I must admit that I see it more often at other markets than this one), so that was not an event uncommon enough to warrant special attention. What was disturbing is that seeing the food stamps caused me to take a closer look at the woman.

First I thought: she is so young and (assuming the boy is her son) was perhaps one of those teen mothers we hear about. Now she is struggling to raise her son as a single parent. But she doesn't have the appearance of a "welfare mom" -- their clothes are clean, in good repair, and not outrageously incongruous with the styles which are in current fashion. They both seem to be well-mannered and pleasant. I wonder if it has been difficult for her -- has she suffered the prejudice and social stigma which were the lot of unmarried parents of previous generations? It has probably been difficult, but she seems to be succeeding.

Then I looked again. She was wearing a wedding ring -- so she is perhaps not a single parent, at least now. But this ring was more than a simple gold band, much more. It was elaborate, large, ornate -- whatever, it was much fancier than anything I would consider buying for my wife. And her other hand had three rings on it, her ears each held two earrings, and there was a lovely gold chain around her neck. I wondered, because I don't know anything about them myself, whether their clothes were the "designer" type purchased at the likes of Niemann-Marcus or if they were what I might find at Wal-Mart. I wondered what kind of car she was driving -- was it the two- or three-year-old minivan of the suburban soccer mom, or was it the ten-year-old compact of a struggling single parent, or is it a welfare Cadillac? Has my perception of her changed from "common everyday housewife" to "struggling single parent" to "welfare cheat" in 20 seconds time?

Or perhaps, I thought, there is another possibility. She did have her fist child young, while she was still in high school. She got married and their family enjoyed some success, which would account for the jewelery. But now they have encountered some difficulty which makes the food stamps necessary -- marital difficulties, a job layoff, a catastrophic illness -- there are many possibilities.

What now? She started as a common citizen, and this she remains -- nothing more or less. She is as any one of us: a unique individual who cannot be judged by a single glance or even by a lengthy application and interview for public assistance. She has dreams and desires and goals, and she has pains and sorrows and regrets. If I would know who she truly is I would have to learn all of those and so much more. So she will remain a common citizen, and I will remember that appearances are nothing more than that -- they can provide clues but they are of little value in judging who a person really is.

📅 c: 1998-08-08 00:00 ✏️ e:

tags: #family #perspective

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