It’s funny that I am titling this essay Working Poor Chronicles #1, because I have decades-worth of these stories. But this is the first essay on this topic in this essay project, so there you have it. I usually keep these stories to myself, or share them with close friends who get it, or occasionally post a Facebook rant about it that I later delete. But, here goes.
So, I’ve been donating plasma twice a week for almost two years now. I took a break after my car accident last fall as I was healing. I’m still recovering from the brain injury, but that’s another post, and I resumed donating recently. Again, as with most things involved in being poor, and working poor, or working class, there is shame involved in donating plasma. I don’t tell people that I do. I keep it hidden. I don’t want to be judged for selling body fluids to just keep food on the table. But that’s what’s up. I started donating when I wasn’t working and continued donating after I finally got employment in this town, because wages are so low here, and the extra $250-300 a month really helps keep me afloat. But I have told very few people I do so, unless I know they are working poor themselves, or have a class analysis without judgment towards poor people.
For those of you not familiar with the process, there are millions of plasma donation centers around the country. You can only donate twice in a seven-day period, and there must be a day in between donations, because it takes your body 48 hours to replenish the fluids, proteins, and white blood cells lost in a donation. You can’t donate blood when donating plasma. Your body takes 56 days to replenish one pint of blood. When you donate plasma, a pint or so of blood is removed and returned to your body after it goes through a centrifuge to remove the plasma. Payment depends on your weight, and because I’m in the heaviest weight class, I am paid $25 for the first donation and $45 for the second donation of each week. Occasionally there are bonuses added to the second donation of the week, or the 7th or 8th donation of the month. Plasma is extremely useful in the manufacturing of many life saving medicines, and also often necessary in hospitals and emergency rooms for people who sustain traumatic injuries.
So, right now I am working four days a week at my job, still working my way back up to full time after the accident, and I go to donate on my days off on Wednesdays and Saturdays. I don’t go on Sunday because the buses don’t run on Sunday, and I don’t have a car. I spend half of my day of my days off donating plasma. On a good day, you can get in and out in hour-and-half. On bad days, it could take three or even four hours of your day to get through the process. I could donate after work any day of the week, because the center is open until 7pm, but then I would have to spend $10 of my donation money for a cab ride home, because the buses stop running at 6pm in this town. So, I go on my days off. Which has it’s own challenges, because I usually need the extra rest time while I’m still recovering from the brain injury. Or I just need some down time, or some time to do things around the house. But, you do what you do to survive. That’s what’s up when you are poor/working poor.
A few weeks ago, I went to donate on Saturday. I really needed some extra rest and downtime that morning, so I didn’t get out of the house until after Noon. Even though I only live about 4 miles from the donation center, the bus ride is 30 minutes there, and 50 minutes home. By the time I got there, the morning lull was over and it was fairly busy. I waited in line to register at the kiosk, which you have to do every time, answering questions regarding your health. Then I waited in line to be screened, where you meet with a medical tech who takes all your vitals, including measuring your protein and iron levels in your blood. Those levels and your blood pressure and temperature need to be within certain ranges to be cleared to donate. Then I waited in line to be called onto the floor to a donation station, where you get hooked up to the plasmapheresis machine. It takes me about 35-40 minutes to donate the plasma. I earned $45 that day, and went next door to the Dollar General where I purchased cat food and dog food, and some little bits of groceries I could get at the Dollar General. The nearest grocery store is half a mile walk from my house, and not bus-able, so getting a few essentials at the dollar store is helpful.
I was super broke that day. I spent my last $1.75 on the bus. Bus transfers only last two hours and are given when you pay your fare getting on the bus, so they include the time you are riding TO your destination. By the time I was out of the dollar store, I was cutting it close on my bus transfer. Because it was mid afternoon on a Saturday, the dollar store was no longer giving cash back on purchases (for a fee), so there was no way for me to get any cash off my plasma debit card to get more bus fare. There were no ATMs in the area, without a long walk to a bank uphill on a busy arterial, further from home.
I carried my purchases across the parking lot to the bus stop and waited for the bus. The bus only runs every hour on Saturdays. And it often runs late. It was late that day, so when it finally arrived about ten minutes late, my transfer was expired by about eight minutes. The bus driver was not budging on the expired transfer and didn’t let me ride. It was the last bus directly home for the day. I could have walked along a busy arterial for 30 minutes to catch a different bus that would have taken me to the bus terminal to switch to another bus to get me to a stop a 15 minute walk from home. IF I found an ATM to get money off my card, and it would have cost me $5 in fees to do so. Remember, I live about 4 miles from the donation center.
So, I was pushed close to my edge at that point. Close to tears. Frustrated, stressed, and unsure what to do. I grabbed my bags and walked back towards the donation center to see if there was anyone I recognized that I felt comfortable enough to ask for a ride. Of course, that would cost me the hood rate of $5 for the ride, and would require me getting to an ATM somehow to get money off my plasma debit card. I stood outside the donation center and contemplated. You aren’t supposed to loiter outside the center, but I did anyway, right under the ‘No Loitering’ sign. (If you have to wait for a someone to come pick you up after you donate, you have to go across part of the parking lot and wait by the big tree.)
Well, I didn’t see anyone I felt comfortable asking for a ride. I broke down, pulled out my phone and called a cab. I didn’t think there was much chance I would get a ride, seeing it was a Saturday afternoon, and on Saturdays the cab companies are tied up shuttling the sailors and marines from the naval air station around town to the mall, and the movies, and the tattoo shops, and out to the beach. Thankfully, I saw a cab go up the main drag as I was calling, and that cab dropped off their rider nearby and circled back and picked me up. That cost me the other $10 of the donation money I earned that day. But, the animals had some food to eat, and I at least had some eggs and half-and-half.
So, last Saturday I went to donate. I took the bus up to the center early in the morning, as I had a friend coming into town at some point that day, and I wanted to get business handled. When I arrived, I realized I had a small dime-sized bruise on my right arm, within a few inches of the donation site. You can’t have any bruises within 3 inches of the donation site on either arm, regardless of which arm you use to donate. So, I was deferred. There goes the $45 I was counting on. I had got paid from work that week, so I had some money, but of course the paycheck is never enough to pay all the bills waiting on it, and that $45 would have really helped. The deferment occurred of course after I had gone through an extra long process because there was a new software system installed that week. And even though I did the extra 60 screening questions, and met with the nurse to verify my medications and medical history earlier in the week, all the info didn’t take, and I had to do that all over again, just to be told I can’t donate. I spent the money that I did not earn on the things I needed out of what was left of my paycheck, and headed home.
On my next day off, I went to donate. I woke early at my regular for-work wake up time, so I fed myself and the animals and took the bus the opposite direction I usually take it for work, and headed to the center. I confused the bus driver, she said I was going in the wrong direction, joking with me. At least that helped to finish breaking the tension that had built between us the past few weeks due to me having to pay my fare in almost all pennies one day, and on another day not realizing I didn’t quite have enough for my fare until I was already on the bus and trying to pay. She had an extra fifteen cents in her emergency change tray which she gave me that day. But she’s not a super-friendly driver, and my bus stop is annoying to her because of the broke curbing at the stop, and the broke-ass clientele who ride downtown in the morning after getting free breakfast at the soup kitchen around the corner.
So, I again I spend my last $1.75 in change that I had to get on the bus to go and donate. Well, actually I had $1.85 in my account, but there was no way for me to access that money, as the Circle K down the street stopped giving cash back on purchases. I can never build up change in a change jar. I always wind up needing it for bus fare or one can of cat food or something. I get annoyed at the advice of ‘just put $5 a paycheck away into savings; you’d be surprised how it adds up!’ Uh, no. That’s really not feasible when you are marginal financially. I always need that damn $5 for bare essentials. If I have to choose between having toilet paper and having $5 in a savings account, TP is always going to win.
I get to the donation center, and glad to see it wasn’t too busy. I get up to the kiosk to answer my questions, and after I log in, I get an error message that says it can’t access my questions. So, I go to the front desk and ask what’s up. They look me up and see that because of that damn bruise, I had to see the nurse for her to check it before I donated, as I was still labeled in deferred status. And with the new system, only the nurse can approve a person who was deferred for any reason. It used to be a supervisor or manager could clear you for a bruise, but no longer.
So I take a seat in the waiting area and I wait. And I wait. And I wait. Remember I have a transfer that only lasts two hours, and if I get told by the nurse I am still deferred, OR if she clears me but I go back to get screened and my vitals are off and I get deferred, then I get no donation payment. And if all this doesn’t occur before my transfer runs out, I’m shit outta luck for getting home. That means I would have to walk the four miles home in the rain, and I didn’t have good walking shoes on. And four miles is a bit over my current physical conditioning.
As I’m waiting, one person who sat down after me, gets called back by the nurse. He’s in there a long ass time. Finally he comes out, about a half hour later and the nurse calls another person who sat down after me. I go up to the front desk and make sure I am on the list at this point. I’m getting worried about my timing. I sit and wait some more, until I had been waiting a full hour, and I had been in the center for an hour and fifteen minutes at this point. I’m getting concerned about my timing and being able to get back home. Plus, I am over tired, as working a data management heavy job with a brain injury will do to a person. I really needed to stay home and rest, but like I said, I had no money and really needed this $25 because the cats needed food, and I needed bus fare. I was getting upset and stressed at this point, as it’s harder to handle unexpected stressors with a brain injury, especially when you are tired. I explained I would have to leave soon if the nurse doesn’t see me and say ‘yes the bruise is gone’ because my bus transfer would expire and I would have no other way home. They said they would get me in next.
Finally the nurse calls me, clears me, and I am now free to do the screening questions at the kiosk. Then I wait to get called back to the vitals screening. All is good until the very end, and the tech doing the vitals screening couldn’t close me out and send me to donate, because there was still a hold on me as deferred. And only the nurse can clear the deferment. So I go back to sit and wait again. Fortunately they checked on me quickly, as a second nurse had come on shift, and I was cleared to donate. Understandably, they are still working out the kinks in a new software system, but that was a helluva lot of nonsense to go through for $25. And yes, somewhere in all that I did cry from frustration and stress a little, letting some tears roll down my cheeks as I waited for the nurse and tried to keep myself together.
After I am through, I head next door to the Dollar General feeling flush. I still have about $5 of my $32 per month allotment of food stamp money on my EBT card, and I now have $25! My time is tight to catch the next bus home, so I don’t wander much. I head through the food section to see if they carry any plain yogurt as I really need some probiotics in me. Nope. I find a small jar of minced garlic and a small bottle of sirichca for under $2 each. Spices are a luxury and also important when you are eating simple food and trying to eat healthy on a tight budget. I grab a few other essentials and I treat myself to a small bottle of sweet tea and a little dollar bag of chocolate covered coconut candies. Then I pick out a bag of cat food, the least-expensive-best-quality option, and a few packs of a different dog food to let the newly adopted picky eater dog try, and head to check out.
The cashier rings up my purchase, and as I swipe my EBT card to pay for the food items, I let her know I want $10 cash back. But she explains to me that the system won’t allow cash back on a purchase that has EBT as part of payment. I am feeling stressed for time to catch the bus, and now I again don’t have bus fare home. The line had backed up behind me at this point. I finished out that purchase with my plasma debit card. I purchase another item separately that I had forgotten, but by that time, I didn’t have enough money left on my plasma debit card to buy the item and get $10 back plus pay the $1 fee for cash back. The cashier said she could void the transaction out and I could start over, ringing things separately, but I would have to get to the end of the line. I was exasperated and tired and close to tears again. Fair enough, though. I said something to the effect of ‘well I don’t want to hold everyone up. I guess I’ll do that. I’m just trying to get bus fare home, and I’m going to miss that next bus.’ The cashier was sympathetic to my plight. She understood. She gets paid minimum wage to cashier at the dollar store.
Then the woman standing next to me inline said, ‘how much is bus fare?’.I told her, and she gave the cashier a five, who made change for her, so she could give me the busfare. So sweet of her! I know she didn’t have much to spare either. No one who shops at Dollar General for essentials, does. I thanked everyone for the kindness, grabbed my bags and made a beeline outta there before I broke down in tears, and so I could try and catch the next bus. If I waited another 30 minutes for the bus after that, it would be almost another hour and half before I got home. On my day off. When I should be resting. And taking care of household chores. And giving my animals love. And taking the dogs for a walk to the green space under the highway where they can run. And maybe even working on an art project.
Well, the bus was late of course. And I was so tired of waiting at that point. But it finally came, and I made it home. Tired and so very glad to be back home. Shortly after I got home, my landlordess came over with her girlfriend to check out a small leak that had developed at the end of the severe rain storm the night before. Since they had a ladder, we took care of a few ladder-needing things around the house. After they left, finally, I could rest. It was almost three o’clock. I took a long nap and called it day.
It’s not always that complicated. A lot of times it’s a simple process with not much waiting. And really the time on the donation chair in the air conditioning, watching tv can be relaxing. You can put your headphones on and dial into a certain radio station to get the audio for the tv. Since I don’t have tv service at home, as it’s too expensive, it’s kind of a treat. Especially when they have Law and Order on, or like the last time, a WNBA game.
The folks who donate are mostly in the same boat as I am in. Mostly poor, a mix of all races, and ages, political opinions, and walks of life. The manager of the nearby McDonalds comes in to donate after her shift. So do the guys at the tire store up the street. So do some of the staff of the donation center. So do folks in scrubs coming from their CNA jobs, and so do clean cut white collar looking white folks.
There are regulars that donate on the same days, and regular phlebotomists with whom I’ve become friendly. It’s a whole thing. If you don’t donate for awhile an come back, the phlebotomists ask after you. Several still ask after my ex, as we always would come into to donate together, when we were still together.
Sometimes there are interesting conversations that sprout up in the queue. Recently, there was a political discussion that sprouted up, with folks on opposing sides of issues, including men who had served that were on all sides of the political spectrum. It was actually the best political discussion I had been a part of, because everyone just freely said their piece, and no one jumped down the throat of anyone else, or got nasty and mean, like often happens online. The reality is, those of us donating plasma regularly as part of our income are all in the same boat, regardless of political opinion or affiliation. No sense in getting too upset about it. Everyone felt the same about what the ‘higher ups’ or the government would actually do for us everyday people: absolutely nothing.
That’s just how it is when you are poor. There’s no one coming down their golden elevator to lend you a hand, or twenty bucks. And there are no bootstraps strong enough or spectacular enough that will even get those golden elevator doors to open for you. So, you do what you gotta do to survive. And let all that other stuff slide. And get along with other everyday people, other working class and poor people, as kindly and respectfully as you can. And help someone in need if you can. If you want to know what an average American really is like, hang with us poor folks where we are at. What’s real is what is happening in the streets, happening in the dollar stores, happening in the plasma donation centers, happening on the crumbling retention wall along the vacant corner lot where folks sip on their 99cent beers from the corner store. That’s where real Americans are. That’s where real American values can be seen in action. The glorious joy of life and liberty when all you have is but a little. The relentless pursuit of happiness, despite circumstance, or income level, or social status. And the relentless fight against the underlying shame that comes with the lesser-than-human social status of poverty.
I’m not saying poverty is noble. It’s a survival game. And if you don’t live, you don’t know it, and you just don’t get it. We put on a the best face we can, and hide the detailed struggle we face on the daily from those who don’t live it. It’s costs to be poor. And it’s getting more expensive every day.