Growing up in poverty in the US isn’t what you imagine. It’s not like some sappy Sarah McLaughlin infomercial about alleviating hunger in a third world country. Food wasn’t the issue, my smorgasbord of junk food was actually the envy of all the kids at school—Gusherz, SunnyD, Lunchables—that crap was so fake they had to make up words to describe it. No, the worst part about growing up poor…ok, maybe not actual abject poverty, upper low class maybe? Either way, the worst part was actually doing the grocery shopping.
A little back story: at the end of my 10th summer, my folks packed everything we owned into a little U-Haul and moved us to sunny California. Now, you can’t do a damn thing in So-Cal without a car, so my father, the ingenious man he was, decided to hang on to that U-Haul a lot longer than was the agreement and just kept using it like it was his personal vehicle. I hated that thing. Imagine being the kid dropped off on the first day of middle school in a massive stolen vehicle. It was mortifying. The next day I asked to be dropped off a couple of blocks away and the devastating, pained look on my dad’s face was almost enough to make me take it back…but fuck that, kids can be so cruel.
So we’re driving this hot car all around the city, going to work and school, running errands, grocery shopping, everything in this god damn hideous stolen rental. Until one day we learn that they can track these things and commandeer them whenever they please. Apparently, they enjoy using the most inopportune time for the thieves to take back what is rightfully theirs, because ours was taken from the parking lot of a Safeway grocery store. We were stranded a mile away from home with about a dozen bags of groceries without enough money for even the bus, so we did the only thing we could, we walked, pushing a shopping cart like a family of hobos.
We made that humiliating journey for a few months until my parents could save up enough to buy a car but at some point before that our neighbors joined along, which was both a blessing and a curse. The family of five had a girl about my age, Shelby (the blessing), two younger brothers, a wildly inappropriate semi-nudist of a father and a mother that was barely an inch over being classified as a dwarf—we became a convoy of carnies with carts (the curse). It really wasn’t too terrible with Shelby around, we would usually fall behind enough to not appear a part of the pitiful procession, but we could only hide for so long, until we hit that unavoidable gravel road.
This much loathed unpaved road was located beside a park which many of our classmates would inevitably be playing at. The first time we hit that road, the cart bounced and nearly toppled, groceries flying out like popcorn kernels from an uncovered pot. From then on it demanded all hands on deck to prevent the carts from capsizing, and the two of us girls couldn’t pretend to be from other families until that gravel road was passed. It was embarrassing enough trying to tame the bucking cart as it was, but the sound was absolutely unbearable. It was like an unceasing cascade of shattering glass for a full minute. The cacophony of the carts interrupted the tranquil atmosphere of the park, and like the sudden scratching of a record during a party scene in a movie, it demanded that everyone stop and stare. Boys shot air balls as they watched the sad parade go by.
I experienced my first heartbreak on that gravel road. On that fateful day, just before we began to cross that treacherous street, I saw Neil, my crush, the dreamiest boy in school, dribbling a ball towards the park. My hands tensed on the handles, I looked down to avoid eye contact as we passed each other, but I couldn’t avoid hearing his nasty comment. Nice cart, he said. Maybe it was in my head. Still, I died right there on that gravel road.