VERMONT — When Paul came to take me to the airport, he admitted to me his guilty feelings.
“I woke up last night,” he said, “in a cold sweat. I felt bad about it all of a sudden. About what we did.”
“It” was Paul’s food stamps we had used to buy a cold cut spread for a poker game at my place.
“Really? I slept fine.” In fact, I had won against my Vermont cronies the night before. Even Paul ended up winning some money. The others, after their first hour of drinking and smoking pot, had predictably followed the inverse arc to losing. Paul doesn’t drink and I’d kept away from the beer, not because my fidelity to the game prohibits it, but because of my ongoing social anxiety that now rules my life: my pernicious gas problems thanks to the surgery on my stomach.
“I was thinking about what you were saying yesterday,” Paul said. “The ethical quandary.” He looked worried for moment, before his expression changed and he lashed out. “I can’t believe you were on my case about it!”
“Oh, about the food stamps?”
I had lightly berated Paul for using food stamps to pay for our spread. Paul receives a monthly food stipend of $170 even though he already gets fed three times a day in exchange for maintenance work. I berated him only lightly because if we didn’t use his food stamps, I would have had to pay for the turkey, the roast beef, the muenster cheese, the Gruyère, the cheddar, the crackers, the chicken wings, the kalamata olives, the breads, the spicy brown mustard and the mayonnaise, the potato chips, the hummus, and the Coca-Cola.
I wanted to buy beer, too, but food stamps don’t pay for beer. I’m not sure why potato chips get covered, though. The two go hand in hand.
“You realize,” I had said to him, as we prepared our shopping list, “that this is wrong.”
“Why is it wrong? They gave me the card. Why shouldn’t I use it?”
How Paul had gotten his food stamps card in the first place is a tale that I’ll get to in a minute.
“Because you don’t need it. It’s for people who don’t have food.”
“Listen, don’t tell any of those guys that we used my card for this. I want them to give us money for the food so we can split it. You and me.” It was a tradition among our group of players that the winners of hands threw a chip or two into the bank for the host.
“All right,” I said. We were wading into desperate waters. First, stealing from the government; then, stealing from our friends. That’s called double dipping and it’s frowned upon in these parts.
“I still don’t understand why you’re so upset about it,” Paul had insisted.
“Well, it’s not as though I’m indignant with outrage. I’m not flushing with shame. I’m not going to lose sleep over it. But let’s at least be honest with each other: buying poker food with food stamps is ethically suspect. It might even be fraud.”
“Look, the government gives grants to artists. What do you think they do with part of that money? They buy food.”
“Your only saving grace is that you didn’t actually ask for food stamps.”
No, Paul was just trying to get expanded state medical aid so he could schedule more appointments with his shrink. Now it’s time to tell the story of how Paul got his food stamps. He had gone to his state’s welfare office. Behind the desk, a tired, overweight, florid woman banged on a keyboard. Paul had been pleading his case. Suddenly the woman stopped typing. She looked closely at Paul.
“Uh oh,” thought Paul. “They’re going to deny me. They’re going to take away all my shrink appointments.”
“You don’t know,” said the woman, “how long it’s been. You’re the first person I’ve seen in weeks who can speak English.”
Paul smiled sweetly. They chatted. The woman happily expanded his medical benefits with a few clicks of her mouse.
“Ya want food stamps with that?” she asked with her fingers poised over the keyboard.
“Sure!” said Paul. The woman banged a few more keys and announced it done.
So Paul and I went to the Price Chopper and bought our poker food. Paul became nervous when we approached the checkout line. I felt too old — ridiculous, actually — for these sorts of shenanigans. So I abandoned Paul and waited for him near the supermarket’s entrance. I did this really because I am a coward. Of course the satan teens manning the checkout counter couldn’t have cared less about our plot as they bagged our Gruyère, olives, soda, chips and the rest of it.
And now, about to drive to the airport, having won at poker, having shared in the unintentional generosity of our friends, having enough leftovers to last a week, we – Paul, really – took a moment to feel guilty.
“I guess,” he conceded, “it’s not completely right what we did.”
“No, not really.” I threw my bag into the back of his car. “Er, should we make sandwiches for the road?”
“Yes,” he said. “Definitely.”