The tinny voice on the other end of the receiver starts speaking, as though he had no idea why I was calling.
I stood there, feeling like an idiot. I wasn't calling my best friend to hang out. I was broke as fuck, with no job, nowhere to turn, and twenty-five dollars in my wallet; hoping, in vain, that I could get a few extra bucks today so I could buy a comforter; sleeping underneath dirty laundry in a continental climate gets old fast, at night.
"Hi. Um, I, well...I just moved here, like a month ago, and I'm having trouble finding a job, and, like, I was wondering if, uh, um..."
"Yes?" No sympathy on the other end. No attempt to finish my sentences. If you want the government to pay your way, you better prostrate yourself as thoroughly as possible.
"Well, I was wondering, if, um, there was some sort of program whereby I could receive, uh, funding, um, while I look for a job, since my rent is due and I'm kinda not very rich and-"
He cut me off from a long-winded self-immolation; thank God.
"Are you interested in enrolling in social assistance?"
Ah, yes, that was the key word I was missing. "Yes, sir."
"Well I will set you up for an appointment today."
"Today??" Glee. "What time, when should I-"
"The receptionist will let you know." *click*
I sat back down in the waiting room, wedged between a head-banging teen of thirty-five and a young mother with three loud kids crawling about the cramped waiting room. I received a tip from a family member as to the location of the provincial social services office; I went, gave my name, and when it was my turn, talked by telephone to the local social worker; who, I later found out, was forty feet away in the same building.
I sat, unsteadily, and fidgeted, while reading a 16-month old issue of Parenting Monthly, laid out innocently on the coffee table. I had never even been close to a social services office before, and had no clue what the fuck I was doing. I've always believed that they don't cover the true necessities in high school; namely, how to file tax returns, buying groceries, and applying for welfare. On all three, you're on your own, armed only with knowledge gleaned from the Internet and popular media. All I knew about welfare, from my mother, was that it existed; and that the government was notoriously tight about distributing its largesse to those less fortunate. My mother blamed many dinners consisting of dry Corn Flakes on the government, and that damn Mike Harris.
But then, she was newly divorced, my father being borderline schizophrenic, with no job and hungry mouths to feed, so she had an excuse. I was a bonified fuck-up; being the first person in my family to ever set foot inside a university, and promptly dropping out, moving into my mom's couch and working nine hours a day at a pressboard factory. Five months of that shit, and I was done; I packed my meager possessions into a couple bags, walked down to the Greyhound station, and fucked right off. I have seen her only three times since that day.
"Mr. vanCube, please. Mr. vanCube..."
The receptionist's voice pierces my reverie. I put down the August, 2002 issue of Maclean's and head up to her wicket. She is a kindly, ample woman, with dyed red hair pulled back into a frizzy ponytail. She looks at me through the plate glass window.
"Hello, Mr. vancube"
"Sorry, vonCube. Mr. Heatherington is ready to see you, now, for your evaluation."
A buzz, and a click, and the reinforced steel door to my left is open. I look at it, questioningly.
"Just through that door, mr. vonCube."
I walk down a narrow hallway lined with offices on each side; and in each one, a supplicant, spilling their tale of woe. It smells like dust and carpet cleaner here. I reach the end of the hallway, at a door marked "John Heatherington", and walk in.
He is holding up a paper, reading it as intently as possible. He doesn't notice me at all.
"Hello, sir, I'm, uh, Mr. von-"
He looks at a list beside his desk. "Mr. van Cube. Please. Have a seat". He motions towards a stock office chair sitting askew in the middle of his cramped office. I sit down, silent, and tent my fingers. He is balding, with glasses, yet young.
"ok, mr. van Cube, so based on our conversation, you say you are looking for a job, but can't find one. Is that true?"
"Yes sir. I've applied to six, no, seven. Actually, eight places, now, and I guess there's just no-one hiring, and I'm running pretty low on cash, I saved up a bit before I came here but-"
He cuts me off again. He's probably heard every story on earth. "Where are you from?"
He nods. Ontario. Ontarians have a bad reputation in these parts, and are fairly well hated. His eyes narrow just the slightest.
"So why are you here?" Surely there are better provinces for an indigent Ontarian to leech off of.
"Well, I have family here, so-"
No need to elaborate. That was all the justification he needed. His stern face softened, and he reached into his desk, fished around for a form, and handed it to me.
"Ok, mr. VanCube, I want you to fill this out right now. It takes about ten minutes, be honest and forthright, and I will process it as soon as I can."
Mr. Heatherington had decided that, instead of putting me on straight welfare, it was best to enroll me in a working program; basically, it meant that for three months, the government would give me welfare payments every two weeks, but in return, I had to visit a jobs counsellor every week for job-hunting and resume tips, and show to them how many places I had applied to, how I applied, and if I had gotten an interview or not. It was like being a kid again. Like I was imposing on them for their hard-taxed money, and so they had to be absolutely sure I wasn't abusing the system, god forbid. Fair enough, I guess, they don't really want to be bankrolling my beer and marijuana. But I needed food, and the basics. Just to be safe, I suppose.
I filled out the form, which was an exhaustive survery of my current cash-strappedness. He looked over it, looked at me, and asked me one more question.
"How much money do you have in your wallet?"
I stammered. "Um, uh, like ten dollars, I think."
He looked at me, unconvinced. "Take it out and show me".
I reached into my back pocket, pulled out my tattered, worn, black leather wallet and opened it up; two twenties and a five. I looked at it, face red with humiliation.
"Oh, um, I guess I have a little more than I thought. My bad..."
Mr. Heatherington made a note on the form; his barely-concealed thoughts were fresh on his breath.
Subtract forty-five from total...minus fifteen in bank account...
I sat still, waiting for the verdict. Finally, he handed me a slip of paper.
"Give this to the Ms. Kibb on your way out."
I gave it to Ms. Kibb; one week later, I went to the career counselling centre to be berated about my lack of effort re: finding jobs. Three days later, I received my monthly payment deposited directly into my bank account.
Four hundred and twelve dollars.
I slept under a new comforter that night, stoned and warm; rent be damned.