a descriptive essay

When I met her, she had four purses and four bags of clothes, all tucked into her wire shopping cart. She also had four names—Stephanie Lois Harper Watson*. I met her in July at Project Hospitality’s Food Pantry on Staten Island. For a hot summer day, Stephanie was surprisingly dressed. She wore what I would call a church dress with matching beads and dangling plastic earrings. Her thick shoulder-length black wig was curled slightly at the ends and set askew on her head.  Her recently applied lipstick was perfect, and one could smell her K-Mart cologne when she walked into the room.  Stephanie looked fancy compared to the rest of us hot and tired workers and shoppers. However, she stepped slowly and I looked down to see why she moved in such obvious pain. She had grossly swollen feet and ankles. Her calves were as thick as an elephant’s.  She was unable to get her size 10 shoes on, so she had flattened the heel to turn them into slip-ons. Stephanie had arrived.

She came into the room flamboyantly, like a 1950’s socialite. She asked if someone was available to guard her cart. I volunteered, and she helped me find a suitable location for her cart. She then went upstairs to get groceries.

The food pantry is like a small neighborhood grocery store. It has a freezer and deli, produce section, and rows of canned and baked goods. Clients shop with hand-held baskets. One of the differences between the food pantry and a bodega is that instead of prices you see signs like: Take one per person, Take 4, Only one dessert per family of 4, and so on.

The workers helped Stephanie carry her groceries down the stairs, and she and I packed them into her cart. To get everything in, two of the purses had to hang from the cart handle. The groceries then filled the small shopping cart to overflowing, with the bags perched precariously on top.

After we packed her groceries, Stephanie asked me to help her find a parking place for her cart because she was staying for lunch. We found a safe place out of food pantry traffic, and she sat down to rest her feet.

My servant husband not only noticed her bulging feet, but he did something about them.  He went to her and asked if she needed help. He removed her shoes and adjusted the laces so her stunted shoes would fit better.  He gently put her shoes back on. She had a 45-minute wait for lunch, so she sat while the rest of us began working to get ready for lunch.

Later I was waiting outside the restroom door for a few minutes when Stephanie peeked out and asked me to get her white pants and flowered shirt out of her shopping cart. I was glad to assist because I was one of the few who knew where her cart was. When I brought the clothes for her, she gratefully took them and closed the door again.

She came out in a few minutes with her dress in a plastic bag and her new outfit on. Although clearly she was concerned about fashion, I noticed this was not the reason she had changed clothes. Instead, she had had an accident and wet herself. I looked away not wanting to embarrass her.  I showed my judgmental spirit by wondering if she had some mental illness.  Who wets their pants at her age? I thought.

As if she read my mind, she began to explain to me that she was having trouble with water retention. She explained that she had run out of her medicine, Lasix, which normally prevented her legs from swelling, and of course, from having accidents.  She had run out of her medicine? Yes, but she didn’t run out because she had neglected to refill her prescription at Walgreen’s. She ran out of medicine because she didn’t have the money to buy it.

As we all know, health care reform is in the news now, in all the ugly manifestations of the 21st century media.  Many people are vocally against a public option for people like Stephanie. Would our opinion change if we were the ones who couldn’t fit into our shoes and were forced to carry changes of clothing for when we wet ourselves?

*Stephanie’s name has been changed.

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