No Other Choice

David was about 3, and he and I were living in Monterrey in California. I was working as a waitress and making just enough to pay for the basics—rent, child care, food, utilities, phone, gas.

I had developed an infection in the lymph nodes in my groin and had to undergo surgery to remove them. I was in the hospital for two days for the surgery and lost two days’ pay. On the third day, I limped back to work only to discover that I had lost my job to someone with a larger bra size and perhaps a greater willingness to use that to her advantage.

I had lost my job, before the rent came due and didn’t have all the money needed to pay it. I paid as much as I could, which left me without food money and with maybe a gallon of gas in the car. I had to pay as much as I could; in those days, landlords didn’t necessarily give notice, and if you didn’t pay all your rent on time you could come home to find your furniture in the trash and the locks changed.

For two weeks after that, my day began with getting David up at 8 in the morning and getting an oatmeal breakfast into the two of us. Figuring I’d better save the gas that was in the car for real emergencies, I walked David to day care. Then, I walked the streets, dropping in to every restaurant and store I passed and asking for work.  I left my name and a phone number and asked for a message to be left for me if there were any work I might be able to do. I stated that I would take any work at all, janitor, assistant, anything.

When I encountered people on the street, I said, “Excuse me.  I’m just out of the hospital and have a child. I don’t have enough money for food. Could you spare some change?” Each day when I got enough in change to make a purchase, I walked to the nearest grocery store, bought something—and stole something else.

When it got dark, I walked to day care, picked up David and carried him home.

At the beginning of the third week, one of the cooks at a restaurant I had visited umpteen times told me his wife needed babysitting for their child after school until she could get home from work, and some house cleaning, too. I took the job that day, immediately walking to day care to pick up David and then spending my begging money from that day on gas to get to my new employers’ house. I was paid daily, base pay, and I got leftovers from their dinners as well.

At that point, I started walking the streets from 9 o’clock, after I dropped David off, until 2 in the afternoon when I picked him up again and drove to my maid’s job, which began at 3. My wages plus my begging money were enough for me to finish paying the previous month’s rent and keep current on bills, providing I continued to steal—which I did.

I continued to steal from another grocery store, though. At the first store, I got caught secreting a container of cottage cheese in my jacket while paying only for some macaroni. By that time, my “hospital … child … not enough money for food” speech probably sounded worn when practiced on the irate store manager, but it worked. I had a fright, but I didn’t go to jail.

In the fourth week of my … let’s call this an adventure … I got a job. The cook whose wife had hired me talked to some friends of his, and one of them got me work at a restaurant on a breakfast and lunch shift. Luckily, my day care opened at 6 in the morning, so I could get David there early and be at work half an hour later. It was my first time being required to be up at what my mother had always called “an ungodly hour” (we were both night people).

Each day started with getting up early and accomplishing one thing, then another thing, and then another. I took each day as it came. Sometimes, I took each minute as it came. I had to. I had a baby to care for.

Three months later, my bills were caught up, and since I had two jobs David and I were living well. I was starting to be able to save a little money.

I’m old now. All this happened a long time ago. I might have forgotten it since so many things have happened since. But I have this reminder: a surgery scar you can still see today. That thin white line near my groin reminds me of how much I, or anybody, really, can accomplish if they have absolutely no other choice.