Friday, July 9, 2010

Pressed ham and vanilla wafers

Every so often, normally when I'm getting tired of listening to people blame all of society's ills on the poor, I remember the summer after my first last semester in college, when I worked on a CETA-funded program to provide summer jobs for disadvantaged youth. This particular program entailed loading a couple of hundred high school kids on school buses and taking them out to clean up illegal dumpsites, or pick up trash from the side of the highway.

The day-to-day administration of this little band included myself, my older brother, his future ex-wife, a friend who would later become a preacher only to leave the ministry to work as an over-the-road trucker, and various liberal do-gooders, most of whom did not last the summer. We were called counselors, as if this were some especially shitty summer camp.  We had three or four senior* counselors who drove the buses and provided on-site supervision, and another who floated from site to site, making supply runs and relaying messages to and from the program's administrators when upper-level decisions were required.

Upper level decisions included things like what to do about the six foot wasp nest, or giant snake pit, or dead horse we occasionally ran across at the dumpsites. (That's right. Dead horse. Swear to Baby Jesus.) While we waited for decisions, supplies, or backup,** work would stop at the site and the kids would chase each other around, or braid each other's hair, or find especially disgusting bits of trash to throw at each other. You know, regular teenager stuff. I was possibly the first white boy in Arkansas to have cornrows. Fortunately, they looked really good on me.

It was obvious that some of the kids didn't really have a chance to amount to much. Those kids generally didn't last long. An eighteen year old (not in the program) walked onto a bus and shot one of our fifteen year old boys while we waited to leave one morning. Other kids would just fail to show up one day, and we wouldn't see them again. But mostly these were good kids. Just like your kids, but not as spoiled. They depended on each other, and took care of each other. You could tell that many of them were fending for themselves, or that the money they were making was feeding their family.

They even took care of me. I was really poor at this point, among other things, and rarely had any food for lunch. As far as I was concerned, there were better things for me to do with the pittance I made at that job than feed myself. A group of my kids stopped at their neighborhood grocery every morning and bought pressed ham*** and a bag of vanilla wafers to share for lunch. These weren't Nilla brand wafers. In fact, they probably weren't even vanilla. Just some sort of illa wafers.

Anyway, I digress. About a week after they noticed that I was starving to death, the kids started feeding me. What you do is, you tear a piece of meat in half, fold it once, place it between two illa wafers and eat it like some sort of Soviet-era Oreo from Hell. They're disgusting, but they are great if you are hungry enough, and it was all these kids could afford.

It was incredibly touching that these children, who had been crapped on by life from birth, and had no reason to expect any different in the future, would share with me what  might be their only meal that day. I have never forgotten their unassuming kindness, and while I know that the experience that summer affected some of them in a positive way, I don't see how they could have gotten more from it than I did.  My attitudes about work, and poverty, and facing adversity with grace, were changed forever by a handful of kids from the ghetto and a few scraps of food.

I know that most of those kids have faced an uphill battle since that summer, and too many are probably dead, or in jail, or in some other desperate strait. But I'm sure that many have met whatever situations they faced with as much faith, kindness, and humor as they could muster. Every couple of years, I will put a piece or two of Black Forest ham between Nilla wafers and remember. And hope, and be thankful.

* "Senior" in this case meant more or less 25, and able to buy beer.

** This is what life was like before cell phones. People sat around waiting a lot. And without the Internet, we had no choice but to learn things about each other. It was horrible.

*** Pressed ham is lunch meat that is sort of like SPAM, but not as snooty. And it's conveniently shaped for Wonder bread and sliced about as thick as a Hallmark card.


  1. What? You mean that whole 'poverty' thing is not just because they're lazy and unwilling to to go to college?

    great story. well told.

    oh, and "I was possibly the first white boy in Arkansas to have cornrows." we want pics.

  2. Isn't it just so often the way: the less people have, the more generous they are with it.

  3. @daisyfae: Who would've thought? But I think we can still blame them for the financial crisis, since they were all out there buying houses they couldn't afford.

    @Pueblo: Absolutely. This was the first time I saw it, but not the last.

  4. My heart is now heavier from reading this -- marvelous -- story -- (thanks?) -- which really deserves publication in a wider-reading audience. Thank you for sharing.

    I don't know where I was, but I had no idea of this, wow...

    I too have found that most often those you would think have least to share are quite often far more generous than others with 'plenty.'