stories of failure

1. social services

I arrived at Social Services early for my appointment. It didn’t matter. The parking lot was already full. Four lines snaked from the door as people spilled from the sidewalk into the street. I found a spot in the adjacent lot and took a deep breath as I locked the car and began walking, holding my folder of papers, photocopies, letters, and documents and shifted the bag that rested heavily across my chest and shoulders. The only thing that worried me was that my appointment was Monday, September 14 which wasn’t actually a day. The 14th was on Sunday. But I had an appointment, and I figured it was a clerical error that could be easily fixed.

I had brought three books, not sure what might work this time.  Last time, I had brought two short story collections:  Success Stories by Russell Banks and For the Relief of Unbearable Urges by Nathan Englander.  Neither had been a good choice. I had sat in the waiting room hour after hour, waiting for my number as tears filled my eyes and number upon number was called, never mine. I waited as people within earshot told their stories to each other and the children around me cried. I listened and watched, one eye on the screen and the other on the book, as the words filling my ear and mind and heart left me empty with sadness.

This time I had brought a thick book of collected short stories by Amy Hempel, a compilation of best short stories from 1973, and a book of poems by Sharon Olds. When I got on line, I took out the book by Hempel and began reading as the line shuffled forward slowly. I looked around me, taking in the people who also waited on line. We were the poor, the desperate, the failures. I had been on unemployment and was looking for a job every day. When my unemployment ran out, I still hadn’t found a job and I had applied for and finally received a job at a large retail store which turned out to be a mistake. I was unemployed again.

I had been looking for a job forever it seemed. I applied for everything I thought I could do. I had both a CV and a resume. Since I have masters degrees in both education and creative writing, I was applying for teaching jobs at every level. Nursery school, preschool, elementary school, university and college. I applied for tutoring, daycare, nanny, and assistant teaching positions. I applied in the publishing industry for editing and writing jobs. I applied for entry level and assistant positions. I applied for web writing positions, writing and researching positions, writing for business positions. Then I started applying for other things as well. I applied for waitress, food service, barista, business, retail, sales, clerk, and cashier positions.

Nothing came back to me. I had no income. I had sold the small collection of jewelry I had in order to buy school supplies and some clothes for my children and pay some bills. But I was running out of money and I was running out of time. It didn’t matter how many resumes or CVs I sent out. It didn’t matter how many local places I went into, asking if they might be hiring. I was in a panic. I was back at social services. I had been there, back and forth for weeks, jumping through hoops, trying to get temporary assistance. I always left in tears.

We waited on line restlessly as the mid-September sun rose higher in the sky, beating down on all of us. I looked around, and read story after story. I smiled at the child next to me, who looked at me with huge sad eyes. The child did not smile back. I was the wrong color. I was in the wrong place. No one smiled at social services, not even the children. And that thought made me bite my lip to bite back the tears that threatened again. What the fuck was I doing here? I had had some bad luck. I had had a good teaching job. It was the economy. It wasn’t my fault. I was laid off and then the job market just closed to me. I looked around again. I wasn’t better or worse than any of these other people.

I was at a low point. I was going to get out of this cycle of poverty. I didn’t care if the people at social services saw me as a poor white unemployed single mother with two children. I was going to get a good job again and make money. I had two advanced degrees. I had potential. I should write about this, I thought. Someone needed to give voice to the voiceless, the poor, the downtrodden. I didn’t want to. I didn’t want to make it real. I wanted to leave that wretched place and never look back.

After waiting on line outside for over an hour, I had finally moved into the building. The lines stopped about four feet from the security guards and metal detectors. People were getting angry. Children were whining and crying in strollers and in their mother’s arms. Someone cut the line and a fight broke out and we all had to wait as the line stopped and the fight was taken care of. Every time I was at social services, at least one fight broke out. People waited and waited for hours just to go on to the next step that might bring some help. They were desperate, angry. A woman leaving the building was rushing out and mistook the plate of glass to the side of the door for the door. And all the while, numbers being called ominously filled the space with sound. First in English, then in Spanish, then they appeared on a screen.

I was feeling okay. I had an appointment. I had all my paperwork. I had all of our birth certificates and social security cards, letters of paternity, a letter of custody, proof that I didn’t receive child support, a notarized letter from my landlord, two notarized letters verifying my address, my w2 forms from the last three years, my bank statements from the last six months, documents from my children’s schools verifying their attendance, all of my bills, the four pages of paperwork that listed all of the jobs to which I had applied, documentation that I had met with the job program counselor, my ten page application for temporary assistance, and my picture ID. I had triple checked the checklist. There was no way they were going to tell me that I had to come back this time.

It took almost another hour to get to security. I knew the routine. A brief exchange, a serious nod, and I handed them my bag, my book, and my folder. I went through the metal detector, then held out my arms as one guard used handheld metal detector to trace the outline of my body and the other looked through my bag. They pushed my stuff through and told me I could get on line, pointing to the next line where three women worked at different stations, protected behind bullet proof glass.


I walked forward.

“I have an appointment.” I said, pulling out the appointment letter from my folder.

“Photo ID.”

“Yes,” I said. I handed her my license through the partition.

“You don’t have an appointment.”

“But I do … see, right there, on that letter. It says Monday, September 14.”

“Your application was cancelled.”


“Your application was cancelled.”

My heart started to race.

“No. But … it’s Monday …”

“This is showing that you had an appointment for September 14. You didn’t come so your application was cancelled.”

“But September 14 was yesterday. It was Sunday. You weren’t open.”

“Your application was cancelled.”

“But you weren’t open yesterday. It was a clerical error. Can’t you fix it?”

“You’ll have to reapply.”

“But … can’t you do anything?”

“Your application was cancelled. You can take a number but it’s too late to reapply today. You’ll have to come back tomorrow.”

I slammed my book on the counter.

Our eyes met.

“Now I understand why people go crazy in this place.”

She looked behind me, searching for security.

I grabbed my things and walked away quickly, fighting back tears, anger running through me like a terrible, helpless, hurtful thing. A woman in a wheelchair blocked my way out and pushed along so slowly, I felt my anger deepen and then I felt ashamed. I took halting steps behind her as tears just fell down my cheeks, wanting to run, wanting to run away and never come back. I was never going to go back, I thought.

When I left the building, the sun blinded my eyes, dizzying my vision. I broke into a run. When I got into the car, I fell apart.

The next week, I would reapply. It would another few weeks before my application was accepted. The same week it was accepted, a preschool I had applied to called me and asked if I was still interested. I went on the interview, and they hired me at $8/hr. I was going to make less money than I had received from unemployment. But it was a job. It was an opening that could lead to something better in the future. I had potential. I was well educated. I was a great teacher. I was back in the workforce in the teaching field, doing something I loved. Things would get better for me. They had to get better. There was no room left to fall.



 “I am young, still young, and poor / and all my beauties sacrificed to hope.”
~ Cynthia Huntington


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