Short Story. The Welfare Investigator by Stephen Witt. Enjoy this amazing story, Yareah Magazine friends. Art is Everywhere!
The Welfare Investigator
The welfare investigator looked like a trollop which immediately raised my suspicions of being entrapped. But my sex drive is void of such logic. I would have confessed to three murders and half the unsolved burglaries in Brooklyn for a night with her – let alone admitting to small amounts of money I had stashed away that would keep me from getting public assistance.
“My name is Julia Barnes,” she said as I put my worn coat on the back of the chair across the desk from her and sat down. “Did you bring a picture ID with you, Mr. Rich?”
“Forgive me for sounding forward,” I said, whipping the driver’s license from my wallet and handing it to her. “But I’ve always admired black women who keep their hair natural.”
We were at the far end of a narrow row of small cubicles, all stripped naked of everything but a computer and a landline telephone on the investigators’ side of the desks. But as far as I was concerned we were in a dive bar drinking two-dollar beers.
“It’s a wig,” she said.
She was my type alright; a deep, dark chocolate skinned woman, very curvy, and with prominent cheekbones and large cocoa brown eyes in the shape of almonds. They were accentuated with long false eyelashes, glued on rather badly, and which she batted about like a dragonfly hovering over a lagoon on a muggy morning. Her wig, though, was the topper. It was natural afro in design, and pulled out wild with thick strands of kinky hair going every which way.
“Really!? Do you always wear this kind of get-up for work?”
“Sometimes,” she replied with a smile that could have been be used as the after photo for a cosmetic dentist advertisement on the subway train. Then she checked my photo ID against her computer screen and handed it back to me. “Did you bring your birth certificate and social security card, Mr. Rich?”
“Please, call me Art,” I said.
“It’s against regulations to call clients by their first name.”
“Well then may I call you Julia?”
“As you wish, Mr. Rich.”
“Thank you Julia.”
“So did you bring your birth certificate and social security card with you today, Mr. Rich?” she repeated.
I spilled the contents of the large manila envelope I brought with me on my side of the desk and fished through the papers before finding my tattered birth certificate and social security card.
“Did you fill out the form the receptionist gave you?” she asked as I handed her the documents.
This wasn’t a trick question, but I drew a blank on it. “What form?”
“When you came in today, the receptionist gives everybody a form to fill out.”
“Damn. I totally forgot,” I said, only vaguely remembering getting some paperwork earlier in the day. Then I started checking my pants pockets and then the pockets of my winter coat. “I’m usually quick to fill out these types of forms, but I suppose I was a little depressed having to apply for public assistance.”
“Don’t feel depressed, Mr. Rich. We’re here to help,” Julie said with a smile that suddenly seemed more empathizing than cosmetic.
After checking all my pants, shirt and coat pockets twice, I finally found the forms folded in half amongst the pile of papers on my side of the desk. I must have inadvertently stuffed them in the manila envelope when the receptionist gave them to me. Then, I pulled a pen from my pocket, and began filling them out. The questions were geared to find any source of income or savings or even cash in my pocket that I had on hand. As I checked off answers, Julia’s smart phone, which was inconspicuously next to her computer, made a bee-like buzzing sound as it vibrated against the desk and she answered it.
“I told you my daughter’s away this weekend,” she said, after listening a few seconds. “… I’m not telling you what to do. You make the decision. You’re a man… If you feel that’s more important than spending time with me then do what you have to do. Just don’t give me any more excuses. Either you’re coming over or you’re not… Then fine, do what you have to do. I’m with a client now.”
“Boyfriend problems,” I observed after she hung up the phone.
“He’s not my boyfriend,” she replied, somewhat defensively.
“You’re Jamaican,” I said.
“How’d you know?”
“I detected a Caribbean accent when you spoke with your man.”
“I told you he’s not my man.”
“You also spoke to him with that Jamaican feistiness.”
“What do you know about Jamaican feistiness?”
“My ex-wife is Jamaican.”
“So you like Jamaican women?”
“I find myself dating them even now,” I replied. “You know the old saying, ‘Once you go Jamaican every other woman is fake’n.’”
Julia laughed. “I think you made that one up, Mr. Rich,” she said. “Did you bring a letter from your landlord?
I again picked through the mountain of papers documenting my existence until I came up with the landlord’s letter and handed it to her.
“You only pay $475 per month?” she asked, reading the landlord’s note
“I have a wrap-around boiler room basement apartment, and my landlord’s a good man.”
“Some landlords are angels,” Julia replied. “Mine is the same way.”
“You live in Brooklyn?” I asked.
“I know Canarsie. I used to cover it as part of my beat. I’m a journalist by trade.”
“Did you bring a utility bill addressed to you?” she asked, unimpressed.
I dug my cell phone bill from the pile and Julia excused herself to make copies of all my documents.
After she disappeared, I cursed myself for telling her I was a journalist. It’s something I often do in casual conversations with strangers because it makes me feel more important. But of late it had the opposite effect. Instead of reinvention, it was recycling my former self and that thought was depressing. The stark reality was I was no more important than the dozens of other people who sat with me in the waiting area to see investigators. We sat together in rows of sturdy metal frame chairs beneath humming florescent lights and the murmur of a TV mounted high on a grainy, scuffed yellow wall. We were mostly young mothers trying to quiet pre-school aged children with threats or pacifying them with crispy snacks and candy. We were mainly black or Hispanic, but we were also Hassidic Jews, Muslims, Chinese and middle-aged white American men such as myself. For even in poverty, America is a melting pot.
As I waited for Julia to return I played in my head for the umpteenth time my stupidity for jumping at the buyout offer from the large newspaper chain where I worked for nearly ten years. At the time, I considered myself a maverick and I was burnt out from over twenty years of reporting. Between late nights of drinking and cranking out ten stories a week, I needed time to rethink and recharge. Besides, the buyout included a decent severance and then unemployment. I’ve always prided myself on being resourceful and reinvention, and at the time I didn’t think it would be any problem landing on my feet. Perhaps I’d switch gears into a related profession like being a spokesperson for some government agency or moving into communications for a non-profit organization. But nothing materialized, and now in my fifties, I began feeling the weight of my age. Sure I had a few fifty or hundred dollar writing assignments a month, but it wasn’t enough to even cover my rent and now I was at risk of being thrown out into the street. So I applied for public assistance, which I told myself was only temporary. But something in my gut had me worried it might be permanent.
Julia came back, and while I finished filling out the form, she continued to add data into the computer about me.
“I see you have a bank account,” she said. “How much money do you have in it?”
“A little less than four hundred dollars,” I said. “But I’m going to close it because the balance isn’t big enough to keep the bank from taking $20 dollars a month as a fee.”
“You shouldn’t close it because then social services will think you’re hiding something,” said Julia.
“But if I keep it open the bank will continue to take the charges until there’s nothing left.”
“I don’t know what else I can tell you.”
Julia’s suggestion gave me the confidence to risk asking her about the one question on the form that had me in a quandary. “I see this form asks me about my 401k,” I said. “Will social services force me to go into mine? It’s all the money I have in the world after more than thirty years of working. And it really isn’t much, but it’s all I have. If welfare forces me to spend it, the government will take twenty percent as a fine because I haven’t reached retirement age yet, and then I will have nothing when I retire.”
Julia looked up as if God dwelled behind the chipped paint of the welfare office ceiling instead of in the heavens. “Forgive me Lord,” she whispered solemnly. “But I did not hear this man tell me about a 401k. I never heard him mention it and I know nothing about it.”
“Thank you,” I said, checking off that I had no 401k. “You know, Julia, I don’t like to sound like a sad sack, but I spend more time than I care to say going over all the mistakes I’ve made in my life.”
“Count your blessings, not your mistakes, Mr. Rich,” said Julia, batting her eyelashes. “You know the secret to Jamaican culture is having faith. With it anything in the world can be achieved.”
“Have you ever dated a Jewish man, Julia?” I asked, suddenly missing my ex-wife.
“You should try it. Jewish men will make you laugh.”
“Jamaicans love to laugh,” said Julia with a stifled library-type laugh.
“So maybe you’d like to go out with me sometime. I don’t have much money, but perhaps I could scrap enough together to take you out for coffee or we could meet up at the public library. Do you like to read, Julia?”
Julia smiled politely. “You’re paperwork is complete,” she said.
“Well what do you say? Why don’t you give me your phone number?”
“I don’t give out my phone number to clients.”
“Yes, of course,” I replied. “That is the prudent thing to do, but perhaps you can make an exception this time.”
My trollop batted her dragonfly eyelashes. “Do you have any questions about this interview, Mr. Rich?”
“Will I be approved for cash assistance and food stamp benefits until I get on my feet?”
“You will begin getting them on the 15th of the month.”
“Then thank you for everything, Ms. Burns,” I said, getting up and putting on my worn coat. “And if you ever change your mind about going out with one of your clients, please feel free to give me a call. My contact information, as you know, is in the file.”
Ms. Burns closed the file.
“Have a good day, Mr. Rich, and the best of luck to you.”