UmBiPMaD Stories: Food Banks, Roaches & Potato Soup

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If Hell is so Evil, why does it punish the Wicked?
Just A Question I’ve Asked.

“…it’s just the ability to reason that wears so thin / Living and dying and the stories that are true / The secret to a good life is knowing when you’re through.”
“Time Bomb” Rancid, 1995 ‘…And Out Come The Wolves’.

‘What do I think he’d say? I think he’d say “Son, it’s time to give up like I did, now get out there and put a bullet in your brain”. That’s what I think he’d say.’

UmBiPMaD: Unmedicated BiPolar Manic Depressive Stories
It’s an acronym I came up with in 1992, back when I didn’t understand bipolar and manic depression meant the same thing. I’m going to start writing a little more about this period in my life. These will be stories, experiences, from my unmedicated days… some will be funny, some won’t. I wrote this one a few months ago and it kind of got lost in the shuffle.

During my early unmedicated years, just after I had moved to Ottawa, there were a few months during which I survived with no money at all. Usually when I received a welfare cheque the money would last five to ten days, after which I would usually have enough groceries (re: pasta and butter) to keep me going until a little later on. But there was just enough weirdness in my live so that on one particular occasion I received my monthly cheque two days early and had completely spent it even before the month even started. I had paid my rent and bought a small gift for my girlfriend and, taa-daa, it was gone.

I had, to this point, been using Food Banks only very occasionally. The problem with using Food Banks is getting the food home. It costs money to take a bus, and I don’t think at that point in my life (1991) I had ever paid for a cab. So if I went to a Food Bank I had to carry everything home. That meant walking through downtown carrying about thirty pounds of food using only second-hand plastic grocery bags. In the summer that also meant sweating like a mule, with about six thinning plastic bags in each hand — the little handle rings digging deep into your fingers and palms. Every step was another prayer that none of them would break because there were no backups. There were a few occasions when I had to hide food behind a building so I could go find a grocery store and beg for some fresh bags (some of those bastards actually asked to be paid for them).

It’s a little easier in the winter because you can wear gloves, so there’s no crippling pain from those fucking plastic handle-thingees digging into your skin. But the sidewalks… the ice, the snow buildup. Suddenly you have to worry about slipping and falling and really, really hurting yourself (no hands to protect yourself). And after the fall you get to sort through what food you take home and what you leave there because at that point there is no fucking way you are just walking away and leaving all of it laying in a snow bank while you search for more bags. Not with a back three inches out of alignment and a chipped elbow.

The non-seasonal hardest part is the embarrassment. It’s summer and here you are, dressed up in your least offensive t-shirt, your once proudly spiked hair now pasted to your forehead, sweating your way through crowds of air-conditioned business people, university students and your basic downtown crowd, carrying twenty plastic bags — none of them from the same store — of badly packed assortments of day-old donuts, crusty bread, ready-to-mould veggies and cans of crap no one would ever buy (you ever see someone carrying eight assorted cans of baked beans down the street in a transparent bag from a women’s clothing store who wasn’t just coming back from a Food Bank?). It can be easy, once in a while, to stare back defiantly (“Yeah, that’s right, keep staring and I’ll jam this flaccid browning-from-age carrot straight into your fucking colon!”). But not nearly all of the time. Most of the time you just don’t want to be seen. So most of the time you find excuses not to go.

So this particularly peculiar month I had no food and no money. I knew my girlfriend’s family were good for a couple of meals, and mom would leave a bag of groceries at the door if I asked. So this was when I learned how to cheat the Food Banks out of extra food. The first way was easy, I have legal ID in two names: my mother’s maiden name which I had been using since we had escaped my father, and my fathers name which is still on my birth certificate and SIN card (but not much longer).

My roommate came up with the other way. Tell them you’ve got a kid.

K. (not his real initial) and I were roommates for about half a year. Give or take a few months. It was the basement of an old five storey building. Two bedrooms, lots of space. We were on the Eastern edge of Sandy Hill, which is the University of Ottawa student ghetto and where most of the embassy’s in Canada are located. K. supplied most of the furniture. I had been on my own for about four years or so and had accumulated a single mattress with boxspring, a sleeping bag and pillow, two garbage bags of clothes and an unused dresser my mom had supplied. The furniture in the ‘common room’ consisted of one blown out couch, a long coffee table, a cushy chair I could pretty much dissapear into and K.’s really, really large stereo. We had also converted an old Commodore 64 monitor into a television… I had… borrowed? a VCR from the public library so we usually had something to watch. K. was also one of the first people in Ottawa/Canada to get hooked up to the Internet, but he kept his computer/porn machine in his bedroom and I had no clue what a BBS was.

K. and I also had about three frigging gazllion other roommates, they were all named “Mr. Roach”. K. used to smash them against the wall and leave them there “as warnings to the other ones.” It was funny the first ninety times. Then it got weird. I’d let them frolic — pretend to ignore them, until my hatred violently erupted and I’d kill every fucking one I saw for two or three days. I was relentless, if I saw one I’d chase it straight to the wall, then I’d grab whatever spraycan was nearest and spray half the contents into the tiny hole, then I’d fill the tiny hole with a tissue or something. But they always came back. Yes, I would yell at them. Did you know if you put two roaches in an upside-down glass and leave them there for a month they won’t eat each other? I do. Did you know if your girlfriend wakes up in the night with two of them in her hair she’ll never come back? I do… but this didn’t surprise me.

So it was K. who taught me when you go to a Food Bank always tell them you have a kid. Surprise, they give you more food, an extra dessert option and powdered milk. By the end of this particular month we had run out of food and Food Banks within walking distance. The only thing left to eat for the four days before the new, shiny $450CDN cheques arrived was two five-pound bags of potatoes and, roughly, fifty packets of dried Lipton Onion Soup mix. Lipton Onion Soup mix is easily the most frequently handed out food at Food Banks. There’s always room in your Women’s Apparel see-through bag for another five packages of Lipton Onion Soup, so you take them.

So. Onion soup mix, lots of potatoes, a few onions… Homemade Soup! I chunked about four pounds of potatoes and boiled them, then used the potato water to boil up the Onion Soup, added whatever spices we had and threw in six shredded onions. Everything goes back into one pot and let simmer. It was actually quite delicious. Hot, hearty soup. Then, an hour later, my ass started exploding. For the next five days we reeked of gas. Our clothes reeked, we only had two tiny windows and neither opened so the apartment reeked, our upstairs neighbour actually complained to the landlord that we were burning rats or something. We couldn’t go anywhere we smelled so bad, and the only thing we had to eat was the fucking soup.

Because, if we did go someplace — like our girlfriend’s parents’ place — we couldn’t dare use their bathroom, because every half-hour or so we would be running for a toilet and it smelled at least ten times as bad as the gas. It was a lingering smell too. We burned incense, potpourri, sprayed cans of Lysol… I even tried walking around with a little lemon-lime shaving cream under my nose. But nothing worked. Two weeks. From start to finish it took two weeks to get that horrible smell out of our apartment.

The Longest Walk To And From A Food Bank: Stratford. When I was living with my brother he was working at a hotel, so he ate at work. Our apartment was downtown, the Food Bank was somewhere completely different. So if I wanted to eat… there and back was, roughly, twelve miles. The food was wonderful, and the people at the Church handing it out were just so frigging nice… but I had to carry it all back. I had two large gym bags (basically the equivalent of one large hockey bag) filled with cans, plus another three or four plastic bags, to carry back. Once I carried back four large, very heavy cans of pineapple specifically because I thought my brother, the baker, could bake a cake or something. Next day he looks in the cupboard, sees all the pineapple and says “holy fuck, what’s with the pineapple? Damn I hate the shit.” I almost killed him.

The Best Food Bank I’ve Used: the one in Guelph. Two boxes of excellent canned goods, lots of pasta and sauce, fresh-ish bread and at least two desserts. They’ll even sort your food to meet your dietary requirements. I had to carry the boxes back, but it was less than two miles, and it was a fairly industrial area so no judging eyes. And there was a nice park to sit in and rest halfway home.




About Gabriel...

...diagnosed with manic depression when I was nineteen, for the next 14-years I lived without treatment or a recovery plan. I've been homeless, one time I graduated college, I've won awards for reporting on Internet privacy issues, and a weekly humour column. In 2002 I finally hit bottom and found help. It's now 2022, and I have an 8-year old son, and a 12-year old son... I’m usually about six feet tall, and I'm pretty sure I screwed up my book deal. I mostly blog at
This entry was posted in Bipolar, crazy people with no pants, Food Banks, Lithium, Living With Depression, Living With Manic Depression, Manic Depression, Memories, Ottawa, Poetry, Politics, Poverty, Punk, UmBiPMaD Stories. Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to UmBiPMaD Stories: Food Banks, Roaches & Potato Soup

  1. Lorelei Rome says:

    Nearly Free Food Advice:
    Many upscale bars offer free buffets every weeknight from 5-7 p.m. The bars in hotels with suites are particularly good. It’s a complicated business thing. They want to draw in white-collars as they leave work and offer the registered quests a place to woo clients.
    Dress in business attire. You can pick up a white oxford button-down shirt, dark slacks, and a pair of dark dress shoes (not tennis shoes) from a thrift store or garage sale. This is a classic business costume so it’s easy to find and doesn’t go out of style. The bars are dark so any small stains on the slacks won’t be noticed, but make sure the shirt is clean and doesn’t wrinkle. Tuck in your shirt and wear a belt.
    You must order some kind of drink. If you say you’re a designated-driver, you’ll get free soda or coffee. Tip the waitress anyway. She is your best ally. Don’t get drinks from the bartender. The waitresses are more sympathetic and even if they suspect, they won’t tattle as long as you tip them. One designated-driver free soda with a three-dollar tip will get you a belly full of shrimp, cold cuts, egg rolls, stuffed mushrooms, crab cakes, and other assorted finger foods.
    Bonus: Talk to the businessmen in the bar. I’ve gotten two great jobs this way.

  2. Gabriel... says:

    Strip clubs. I had a friend who would go to strip clubs for their ‘free’ buffet… there was a two drinks minimum. I think it would have been $15 for all the roast beef and salmon he could eat.
    Personally, for a treat, my roommate and I would go out to a Chinese Buffet for lunch ($6.50 per) and bring books. So we could eat away the afternoon while enjoying a little Elmore Leonard.
    Back ‘then-when’ I had a slight hair styling problem so getting into a business anything was next to impossible. I had this weird mohawk-shaved thing going on. But, yeah, there’re all kinds of things to do when there’s no cash lying around. The bunch of us would have twice-weekly suppers where everyone brought whatever they could. Goulash. I have about a zillion canned-tuna recipes. I don’t eat tuna much anymore… I find it’s really bland since they took out the dolphins.

  3. Gabriel... says:

    Once you get into the Shelter System you’re pretty much fucked. Social assistance in Ontario will only give you your rent plus a set amount. So when I was living on Osgoode Ave. I was receiving close to $580/month but, a few rooming houses later, I was receiving about $250. The rent at the cheap place was subsidized and based on my income, such as it was, so my rent was only $94/month. Which was great, until it came time to put together first and last months rent for the next place.

    So once you get into a shelter your income from SA — if you can get one — is ridiculously small so getting out of the shelter and into a rooming house or apartment is virtually impossible without a whole lotta luck. There are some NGO agencies that can help, and a few governmental ones, but you gotta know where to go and most of those Shelter People do not know or are just too fucked up to find help. And, you’re right, you have to get into one first.

    The first time I remember understanding what a Food Bank was I think I was twenty. I held out for a year, maybe a few months, but the Shepherd’s Of Good Hope helped keep me alive for a few years after that.

    I just found out a little while ago that — after the divorce back in 1979 — mom used them a couple of times. It didn’t really surprise me… single mom, two large kids, new city, crap job, absolutely no support from ex-husband. After you start using them you realize pretty quickly that a lot more people use them than you thought…

  4. Also shelters? Depending upon where you live. And sometimes the waiting lines can be long so long you might not get in. They usually have a cut off.

    When I “lost everything” it never occurred to me to go to a food bank! I have no idea why…I just never thought of it. Instead I just ran up my credit and debt, debt, debt… It took me a long time to sort out all of the governmental forms of social assistance from the limited EI to “welfare” and even then it was so hard to obtain. Just for one thing they said my rent was too high so I countered, “What do you want me to do? Become homeless? You can’t claim it if you don’t have an address!”

    It didn’t matter anyway. As a single person it was such a mere pittance all it would have afforded me was a room in a “rooming house” at best and then pennies for food. Sorry, PA has her standards. Ring up the debt for a place to live–and keep the car. Forget the food if necessary.

    At least having the car I could lug stuff home–and it made searching for a job a lot easier.

  5. Gabriel... says:

    There have been times during and since that I’ve thought my situation while living in Ottawa was a luxury compared to what the single moms and hardcore homeless were going through. At the end of the day I only had myself to feed and I managed fine — relatively. I wasn’t addicted to anything so there were no habits to feed… although I did pile magazines every Wednesday for cigarettes at a convenience store on Rideau Street.

    It wasn’t like I lost everything to get into my situation either… about a month after I moved to Ottawa I was on Social Assistance as a way to top up my tiny-paying job, less than three months later I was living in a (very nice) rooming house and I had lost the little, tiny-paying, job I had working at a community radio station. I was riding the edge long before I fell off… I had no bank account, no credit cards, no credit, having quit high school twice I had no education… being fed by strangers quoting Jesus was not a big drop for me.

    I think, if I had been in the position you and PatAnon had been in it would have meant me fighting back in some way and, honestly, the fact you two fought back that hard against falling too far, is commendable. But extreme poverty (single mom with two large kids, no support from family or ex-husband… I’ve seen the journals, my mom had to save up for months to afford a $5 haircut) was nothing new to me and the food bank thing was just a logical step.

  6. puddlejumper says:

    I feel soooo lucky reading this.

    I have never had to go and get free food from any agencies other than the free milk and vitamins when I was pregnant.

    I spent several years though on benefits when I was a single mum.

    The worst time I had was when I tried to better myself and enrolled on a college course. Student funding and benefits are two different government departments. My single parent money stopped but my student funding was delayed for about six weeks.

    This meant I had to apply for a thing called a crisis loan where they lend you just enough to get by,a week at a time. Its a pittance and you need to repay it.

    I have NEVER felt so humiliated as I did sitting in the benefits office being asked why didn’t I borrow from a friend and being asked exactly how empty my food cupboards were. (like um…a bottle of ketchup and salt and pepper…I’d left it right to the edge before applying) and the worry that my kids would end up in care if they said no.

    I had to keep going back and sometimes the staff were sympathetic but sometimes you’d get one who looked at you like “some people shouldn’t be allowed to have kids”

    Plus I was trying to attend college and keep the childcare people sweet (coz I couldn’t pay them yet either). It was a nightmare.

    Those years have made me the biggest champion of charity shops, the public library and getting a really good night out on a fiver (buy and drink cheap cider, the strong stuff from the off-licence before you go out and drink water once you’re there).

    But hey. I’m feeling decidedly wealthy since reading your story.

  7. Mark says:

    Great writing.

  8. Gabriel... says:

    Thanks Mark… and thanks for coming back.

    PatAnon and Puddle: I’ve timeshifted my reply to some of your comments.

  9. thordora says:

    Is it wrong that I laughed so hard at the onion soup issue?

    I’ve been lucky that I’ve never been anywhere near that bad off. But you’ve reminded me that I should give to the food banks more often.And to never give onion soup. (who gives that? That’s bizarre!)

  10. Gabriel... says:

    It’s okay to laugh, it was funny… just not when I was visiting my girlfriend. The onion soup, in itself, isn’t a bad donation… but it should definitely come with a warning about spending a week eating nothing but said soup.

    If you’re looking for something to donate go with canned fruit like Peaches, Pears and Plums… the halved or quartered fruit are best, but the Fruit Cocktail (with those little cherries) is a decent substitute — manna… juice boxes are nice, but small, so crystals are best — especially the ones with “Added Vitamin C”. And Peanut Butter… mmmmnnn, and some jams. Not the expensive ones, just something to put on the PB when the PB starts to get boring. Yum.

  11. Gabriel... says:

    Oh… and tuna. Stuff you can put into more than one recipe is best, and tuna is great for sandwiches and casseroles or mixed with Kraft Dinner (Macaroni and Cheese)… YUM-MEE.

  12. Pingback: My Thanks To You On The First Anniversary Of Salted Lithium… YAY YOU. « …salted lithium.

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