When I was in my twenties a good day was when I had $10 in my pocket. With $10 I could buy enough food for four or five days and a pack of cigarettes which would last two days… two and a half if I saved the butts and had some rolling papers.
Most of the places I’ve lived had a shared fridge, which basically meant having no fridge at all because even the good rooming houses are rarely filled with people you should trust with your 1.89L jug of lemonade. So I’ve mostly relied on canned and packaged foods. I did most of my $10-shopping at stores like Giant Tiger, where I could buy two or three packages of soft cookies for $1.99; Ichiban ramen noodles for $0.19 a pack; canned brown beans for $0.79; tomato soup for $0.49… not for the taste but because it went with the noodles or on its own.
Spaghetti was a staple for a long time. Mostly plain, or with butter and occasionally Parmesan cheese. It was hard to cook anything though… I can remember the Teflon on my two small pots and one pan peeling away so I’d have to pick little black flakes out of my food.
For most of my adult life I’ve never owned a set of pots and pans… I still don’t. I have pieces from three different sets as hand-me-downs. Two years ago I bought my first set of dishes and my first complete set of cutlery because I had invited people over for dinner… but mostly because I was in the right section of the store, with enough money the moment it occurred to me “I don’t have four matching plates.”
Cooking in a rooming house is awkward. Say you’ve had a great day and you’ve got some meat to cook, maybe a little onion and some mushrooms and some corn. And there you are being all Mr. Happy Chef while your six Rooming House cohorts sit in their rooms, smelling your food while they stare at whatever is leftover from the crap they managed to score at the Food Bank last week.
Tuna was my meat of choice for most of the nineties. Very cheap and versatile food, great in sandwiches with some chopped onion but also great as a beef substitute in spaghetti. From about 1990 until 1992 my friends Ken and Karl and I would get together a couple of times a month and share whatever food we had. Mostly boxed macaroni, spaghetti sauce or soup, tuna and some chopped vegetables. My favourite was macaroni, cream of mushroom soup (with 1/4 the water), a can of tuna and some seaweed.
Bread was most of my diet from 1990 until 1997. I always thought it was a treat to have, with my baked beans, two or three slices of bread with butter. I was never that big on putting chopped up hot dogs into my beans, but I’d do it sometimes just because the beans alone would be getting boring. Bread was also something I didn’t have to refrigerate, and I could get truck loads of it from the food bank. The problem with Food Bank Bread, however, is it’s already stale by the time it gets to the food bank.
The first few times I went to a food bank I’d come away with ten or twelve loaves of bread thinking “holy darkferret, what a great deal! I’m set for the month!”, then four days later I’d have eight loaves of garden mulch. I’ve always thought it weird that a slice of bread doesn’t go bad all at once, why the mould pops up in dots and spots. The entire slice is made up of the same material, and made on the same day… someone in one of my first rooming houses taught me how to fix stale bread with a little water.
Something else I learned was how to cook a grilled cheese sandwich without a pan… it’s the same way to toast bread without a toaster. Just take a metal clothes hanger, fold it in half, and put the thing on directly on the element. Your bread fits in between the folds. There’s a scene in The Blues Brothers where they’re in Elwood’s apartment and he starts to cook Jake something to eat… same thing.
I can remember not having a pot for awhile and trying to cook baked beans in the can by just removing the top and placing the can on the stove element… not a good idea at all.
It’s funny … a $10 bill would keep me safe for a few days, maybe even a week, but a $20 bill was a ticket to a Chinese Buffet or just a load of junk food. When we were living near the Russian embassy in Ottawa, my roommate and I would occasionally walk to the Chinese Restaurant near the corner of Rideau and Cobourg Streets. Mostly on cheque day. From what I remember the lunch buffet was $6 or $8 bucks. We’d bring books to read…
A $20 bill to me, back then, was like a bucket of water to a dehydrated man. I’d start looking beyond my immediate need and into Want. I’d subtract what I thought it’d take for me to last another week and think the remainder was some kind of bonus… then I’d end up leaving a McDonald’s full of regret and remembering why it was I hate fast food.
A juice jug was also something I never owned until recently… weird. Instead I’d cut the top off a plastic 2L pop bottle*, throw in the juice crystals, water and have at it… again, I’d rarely put it in the fridge. There are times today when I wish I could find a cup that big. I did have a bar-fridge in one rooming house, which meant I had to cut the 2L pop bottle back to 1/2 a Litre so it’d fit in there but I can slam back that much liquid without taking a breath.
*It’s easier to get the crystals/powder in the bottle with the top off.
The only milk I drank for most of the nineties was chocolate. When I was working I’d go through a 1L jug a day, but for the seven years I wasn’t working I’d average a 500mL carton a week. I didn’t drink a lot of pop… it was cheap, but only in the 2L bottles and I never had a safe place to keep them cold. When I was walking someplace I’d usually try to drink Gatorade because I was deluded into thinking it was healthy. The only way it makes sense for a person to be drinking “sports drinks” and eating “health bars” is if you’re training to be in the Olympics. Otherwise you might as well drink sugar and eat cooking lard.
From 1990 until the fall of 1993 I relied pretty heavily on my girlfriend and her parents for support. They had me over once a week for dinner… I think that was the last time I was at a dinner where someone said Grace. A couple of times a month they’d slip me a bag of groceries or some leftovers and a six-pack of pop, mostly Grape Crush.
There is very little more pathetic than having your girlfriend watch as her parents stuff food into your arms because, you know, you can’t afford to feed yourself. My girlfriend and I had an argument once, one of those “pretty much we’re breaking up” ones — most of our fights were about me not working — and I stormed out of her house… she and her parents lived in a suburb of Ottawa called Blackburn Hamlet, I lived downtown, roughly 15km away. I had to go back and ask her for bus fare.
When we finally broke up for good she had just finished her bachelors at the University of Ottawa and was leaving to continue her education somewhere in Southern Ontario. I can’t remember exactly what she said, but I think it went something like “dude… you’re not showing me a future, you don’t even own a pot. Even though you have a massive penis I need something more than Sega, pool and you leaching off my parents. I need to grow up and you don’t seem to want to do that. See ya.”
Or something like that.
After she left I moved into the YMCA and tried to start eating healthy. From what I can remember that was the first time I actually went from thinking about how much I needed to get healthier, to actually doing something. I started eating salads and making sure I had meat once a week… like stuff that didn’t come in a tube, this was when I discovered pre-cooked $5 chickens. I had free access to their gym, so I was using the weights and playing basketball… I dropped from 246lbs to 220lbs.
That lasted about three months. It was just like going on the Lithium for the first time… two months later I felt great so why take pills? Only sick people take pills, and I’m not sick anymore. Only with the food it was “hey… I’m almost at my optimum weight, why should I diet anymore? Only fat people diet”.
And it was back to my Giant Tiger diet of $1 packages of forty trans fat cookies for supper, four cigarettes for breakfast and a couple of hot dogs for lunch.
Today, four days after another woman broke up with me because all I can offer her is dinner and a movie once a week, I’m feeling like I need to do something… to get to the grocery store and buy healthy food, to walk, to ride a bike, to start writing for money again…
What I’m going to do… what I’m going to do starting today is walk someplace, and when I turn around to come home I’m going to take a picture and post it here, maybe on my About Page.
And I’m going to find a way to start eating healthy again, like I was last spring and summer. I think that’d be a good start.
I’m thinking of you Gabriel…eating healthy is just a habit…once you’re in it it’s hard to break…I really feel crap when I put it in my body now.
oh Gabe…you’ve come so far. You have so much more to offer than dinner and a movie. (and shit, I’m married and I don’t get that!)
I’m determined to get healthy this spring too-not thinner-healthy. But it’s for me.
You deserve someone who is there for you, and not looking for easy. Easy is boring anyway.
And the GT BOUTIQUE!!! WOOT!
You are eating poorly?! You, the man who bitched at me (via email) almost one year ago for not drinking enough water, amongst other poor eating habits I had?
For shame. Get it together. If I were there I would hit you on the back of the head like a proper greek woman would. And I would probably need to clean your apartment (not that I clean, but I mean, that’s what a greek woman would do). Is your apartment clean? If not, clean it…and other stuff.
I was thinking my next post would be about the state of my apartments over the years… but when I think about seeing it in print I start thinking about what people reading it would think and then I want to stop thinking. I think you commented on PatAnon’s post about making your bed… yeah, I’ve got stories.
The food thing went to hell around October… I got into a funk and stopped walking to the grocery store, relying almost entirely on the convenience store and local restaurants for food. Then the snows came and walking to the grocery store, which is about a mile’s walk along a busy two-lane highway, became impossible.
I actually dropped all the sugar and aspartame about two months ago now. I’ve discovered Soda Water… mostly with lemon or lime, but now I’ve discovered adding it to orange juice is just off the fucking hook…
It’s nice to see your chocolate foot here.
I am thinking about taking a picture of my bed, in it’s current unmade state and posting it on my blog. Then maybe everyone would feel better about not making their beds.
Hm, maybe…if I get the energy.
…with me it’s not so much a matter of making sure the sheet is tucked in or the duvet covers the bed as it is about having a sheet available. I think I will make it a post. When you can’t afford a Litre of milk it’s hard to justify spending money on laundry, so from 1990 until… 2000(?) I owned, maybe, two sheets but I never used them.
When I moved back here, after my collapse, I came with one sheet. I didn’t change it until it fell apart… PatAnon’s got a cool post going and I didn’t want to be the buzzkill and drop my housekeeping skills on her and her readers. But it would be an interesting topic to explore…
I really really want to thank you again for your generosity, G. You gave me gifts and they mean the world to me. It’s getting warm but I’m keeping the toque handy for the early spring chill.
Things are tight for us right now but I am still planning to send you something from Cajun Country.
Clare, anytime you need a top-up on the syrup just let me know. That photo of you wearing the toque was awesome and totally worth the postage.
Gabriel, this post captures the day to day reality of living in poverty better than anything I’ve ever read in my life.
It feels weird to say thanks considering the circumstances of the content, but thanks Zoom.
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Just clicked over here from knitnut’s blog and really like your stuff. I’ve been there, living on next to nothing. Like you, I had phases of healthy and not healthy eating. Beans and rice are the best bets for me. Chickpeas, kidney beans, whatever. Get them dry at Bulk Barn, soak overnight, fresh water, cook up a big pot. They freeze really well and are the cheapest protein you can get. Good luck getting your health back on track!