64: Drive-through Giveaway

64: Drive-through Giveaway

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Tough Times, Tough People

Drive-through Giveaway

If everything comes your way, you are in the wrong lane.

~Author Unknown

In 1984, my husband lost his job in San Diego, California. He wasn’t eligible for unemployment benefits. We had two young sons to feed. I worked full-time as a bookstore clerk, but I earned minimum wage, which at that time was $1.50 per hour. Plus, I was pregnant and at that time didn’t know I was carrying twins.

One Saturday, we were out of more than money. I opened our refrigerator, and the empty shelves seemed as barren as the Arctic Circle. I closed the fridge. The only valuable possession we had left was a late-model silver-gray Pontiac Trans Am.

I’d picked up a flyer, where a local church advertised supplemental food boxes, free to anyone who needed one. There was one hitch: this was a drive-through giveaway. You stayed in the car while a volunteer handed a box to you through your window.

My husband felt humiliated. “No way am I telling the whole world that we’re begging for food,” he said, folding his arms against his chest. Instead of the usual sunny weather, it had been raining all morning, so our sons sat building with Legos on the floor.

My husband had grown up disadvantaged, so I couldn’t blame him. Five-year-old Nate looked up from his blocks. “I’m hungry, Mom. What’s for lunch?”

Three-year-old Chris chimed in. “I’m hungry too.”

The mother in me knew I had to put food on the table for the boys. And I didn’t know it at the time, but I was eating for three. “Fine,” I said. “I’ll go.” I grabbed the car keys and started out the door. I stopped. “Chris, Nate, want to ride with Mommy?”

Both boys zoomed out and buckled into their car seats.

At the church on that rainy Saturday, I queued up in our silver Pontiac Trans Am, the only vestige of our former abundant life. The Trans Am rumbled to the rear of a line of battered station wagons and junk heaps. The rain stopped, but the scene was dreary, and most people looked as if they had nothing to smile about. As we inched forward, I felt all eyes on me. Everyone seemed as frozen as my fridge.

I wanted to explain to all the other poor folks that I only looked well off—that my car was more a burden than a blessing, that it was all we had left. Appearances, I wanted to scream, can be deceiving. Instead, I kept my mouth shut and thought of all the cars I’d ever owned.

My first set of wheels had been a Chevy Malibu my grandmother donated to me when I was a poor college student. That car had cloth seats and air conditioning. I felt proud.

The Malibu seldom broke down, and if my husband hadn’t wrecked it (don’t ask), I’d probably get to drive it in heaven. The Chevy gave way to a miserable parade of awful transportation—from VW buses that caught fire to a rusted-out Oldsmobile we called Betsy.

Now I sat behind the wheel of the fanciest model I’d ever owned. The Trans Am, with its sleek lines and cool louvered rear window, idled in a very long line, with the kids getting antsy and my pride long gone. Nate asked, “Mom, why is everybody staring at us?”

I couldn’t bear to look, slouching down further in the bucket seat. They begged me to roll down the windows, and I did, if only to keep them quiet.

But our boys hadn’t heard of car status or shame. They hung out the open windows, yelling and waving.

“Hi mister!” Chris shouted to an elderly gentleman in his red and white Rambler.

“Cool bike!” Nate said to a young man on a scooter. One by one my sons greeted folks who were either down on their luck or there to help others.

Cars inched forward, some cutting their engines in between advances. Along the way, the Rambler died and wouldn’t restart. Several men helped push it through the line, and then jumpstarted it for the old guy. By the time we got to the head of the line, people were smiling, talking together, laughing. I wished my husband had come along, if only to see that many others were struggling too.

Finally we reached the place where a volunteer stood ready to hand me my food box. The boys continued their banter, until the volunteer remarked, “Your kids are so happy, it makes standing out here worthwhile.”

I smiled. “Thanks,” I said. The others in line now felt more like family than strangers. We were all in the same predicament.

When our twins arrived a few months later, we traded that Trans Am in for a car that seated six. Before Food Box Saturday, I believed people judged me based on what I drove. I’m sure some thought I took advantage, because the Trans Am made me appear wealthier than I really was. Yet once the ice was broken, nobody judged.

With the groceries safely tucked in the backseat, Nate and Chris waved back at those still waiting. It was raining again. I closed the windows and sat up straight for the drive home.

My children taught me there’s no shame in reaching out to others, even if all you can offer is a smile and a cheerful hello. We’re all in this together.

~Linda S. Clare

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