by Brett Harrison

I am one of more than 45 million people who use food stamps, at least according to an article published in the Huffington Post last year.

I access my food stamps by an Access card, which looks very much like a credit card and is both more convenient and less embarrassing than the old food stamps, which looked very much like paper money from a small Caribbean nation.

My food stamps come out once a month on the date that corresponds with the last number in my account. You can access your balance from a phone, but when I don’t have cell phone minutes, one store in my area lets you check your balance on a cash register. Two weeks ago I checked my balance at said store and found my food stamp balance was the usual amount I get at the beginning of each month, but my cash balance was fairly big.

Cash balance?

To us, “in the system,” this means welfare. There was only one problem. I didn’t have welfare. But there was something even stranger than the fact I suddenly had a cash balance. Said balance was $3 million and counting.

Houston . . . we have a problem.

First thing I did was keep my mouth shut and shop for food. Nobody had to know what was going on. And I darn sure was only going to use my food stamps until I knew more about “the balance.”

Anybody who knows me knows that I have an overactive imagination. So you can imagine what was going through my writer’s mind as I walked back from the store with a shopping cart full of groceries. By the time I had finished the three-block walk back to my apartment, I had already spent half of the money in my head. In fact, on that first day I thought I had “just” a million because after I saw all those zeroes, my brain kinda short-circuited.

And anybody who knows me would also not be surprised that I asked somebody about it the first chance I got. So I approached a nice older gentleman who lives on my block whom I’ve talked to from time to time. I knew he had worked for the government at one time and was a veteran. So I figured he’d know what to do. He did. He said to get in touch with the welfare people ASAP and to not spend the money, further noting that the latter action could bring me a mess of trouble.

I agreed. It’s also worth noting that when I mentioned to him later I might try to write about my experience, he suggested not mentioning his name, or there may not be a “me” to write about anything. He said this tongue-in-cheek, but there is an old saying about “Much truth in wine and jest.” So let’s just call him Mr. Neighbor and leave it at that.

Not having minutes on my cell phone, being 17 blocks from the local welfare office and me without carfare, I had a problem. The problem was solved later that day when I went with my computer to a local bookstore with free WiFi and emailed the State Welfare Office about the discrepancy. Now all I had to do was wait.

I’ve never been one for self-control. In fact, I rarely have any food stamps left after the first two weeks, and when I do get large amounts of money, I usually spend it like it’s going out of style. But my ESP told me this was a whole other ball of wax. The consequences would be far direr than a bare cupboard or an empty wallet. We’re talking Trouble with a capital “T.”

In fact, though I have yet to read it, I’m told that the Inquirer recently ran a piece about a woman who had the same thing happen to her account, and she decided to spend as much as she could before the surplus was spotted. She was arrested. I imagine the charge was something like “Grand Stupidity.”

In addition, one of the cashiers at Aldi told me that one of her customers found an extra $5 million in her account. And she, from what I gather, had every intention of reporting it.

I finally heard back from the welfare office a whole week later. Their response was short and sweet. I’m not going to repeat it verbatim because I don’t have the email in front of me, but in essence it said, “Sorry we haven’t gotten back to you. You need to call us.”

I thought this response to be strange since I told them I wasn’t able to call. As it happened, my cell phone minutes came in that day, and I had already talked for three of the four hours allotted. Remember that self-control issue I said I had? You thought I was exaggerating; didn’t you?

The email sounded urgent, so I tried to call. But I couldn’t get through. I tried to call my local welfare office and was greeted by a somewhat rude receptionist who refused to let me talk to anybody. She sort of interrogated me and said something to the effect, “They contacted you, so you need to call them.” Of course they only contacted me because I contacted them.

So I ignored her and tried to call the 800 number a bunch of times until 4:45, which is when they close. No luck. And, ironically, I was now out of minutes again. Talk about frustration.

After thinking of it for a couple days I decided to email back the welfare office. I told them I understood that it was a delicate matter but that I thought I made it clear to them that I didn’t have a phone when I called them.

I described what happened when I tried to call on Friday. I also told them that although I did what any good citizen would do, I felt I should get some nominal reward and a nice thank you letter. After all, my email could have clued them onto it in the first place. I have the feeling that even if it did, they weren’t going to tell me.

It is now four days after I emailed them. Because I don’t have Internet access at home, I have to walk at least three blocks or more to check my emails, and I haven’t been able to because of health reasons.

I wonder if I even got a response from them, but even if I did I doubt it contains the words “reward” or “Thank you.” On the other hand, stranger things have happened.

After all, I do have an over-active imagination.