Once a month the eagle flies.
Somewhere a computer spills out thousands of retirement and welfare [WORD ILLEGIBLE] which make their way into a man's sack. Delivery day, and, [WORD ILLEGIBLE] the tempo and the look of the change.
[WORD ILLEGIBLE] choke post offices, banks, [WORD ILLEGIBLE] unions, liquor stores and grocery stores. A special world opens - as the cycle begins.
The First is known as Mother's day - from the post office to the Montana Terrace housing project to the welfare complaints desk. Even "The First" is a special expression, signaling a certain mood, a cycle, and a pageant. And the First is not a Washington or inner-city phenomenon; it is acted out in every community every month. Only the faces change.
The mailmen gird for anything - from the flip greeting, "I'm more happy to see you than my daddy," to the swift sock in the jaw, if the check isn't there. The police beef up their foot and car patrols, knowing street robberies will increase, anticipating a fatal quarrel over money somewhere.
Waiting, and then moving through the pageant, are the Northeast couple, both retired from the government, who receive $1,000 on the First, and the welfare mother who supports four people on $314. Their lives, and the lives of the bureaucrats, the salesmen, and the clerks, all cross on the First.
As this November opened - gray, rainy days - the cycle repeated itself. The pageant of Mother's Day started and ended.
Mostly the drama touches the welfare recipient. Michelle Jeter, 21, a tall, attractive woman, with two children - a 3-year-old and a six-month old - has lived through 12 First-of-the-Months now.
She faces the First with mild nervousness, but even more a silent resignation. Michelle Jeter is not her real name because one way to survive the month, and the cutting edges of human contact, is to remain anonymous.
Jeter dropped out of high school in the 11th grade, has had periodic jobs as a cleaning woman, and was married briefly. She speaks matter-of-factly about her life. And though she has disdain for people who aim for a life of welfare, she doesn't think she can survive any other way right now. "Sometimes you can't help yourself. If I worked I would spend all my money for a babysiter," she explains. By the second of the month, after she has paid her rent and bought groceries, she has $81 for the rest of the month.
As she goes through the Firsts routine, she doesn't say much, even in reaction to the putdowns of her lifestyle or the blank faces she encounters.
She doesn't think people listen to people: "You can't say anything. They know you need the money and you have to go along with what happens, what's said." Hers is only one life touched by the pageant of the First of the Month. But it provides a change that's so brief, so fleeting, she finds it difficult to pinpoint its effect. It does, she admits, allowing herself a rare giggle, break the monotony.
The postman begins the human cycle. He delivers the checks and sees the first emotions.
This First, Henry McFadden, Jr. delivers the check to Michelle Jeter, who lives in an area the post office considers troublesome, 14th Street. The 14th Street of the myth, the 14th Street of the riots, the 14th Street of slow rehabilitation, the 14th Street where a female letter carrier had her teeth knocked out last year.
Sorting his checks since 6 a.m. McFadden, 31, sturdy around the shoulders but gentle in the face, has been very quiet, seemingly immune to the lighthearted conversations around him. "It's a special day, the mail is heavier but I follow my normal pattern. Some people I only see on the First because this is the only mail they get," says McFadden, as he drives his jeep down 14th Street.
Barely two feet down from his starting point, 12th and Euclid Streets, a woman shouts from her porch, "How long before you will be on my side of the street?"
He acknowledges the suspense, the desperation. "You realize that in a way these people are depending entirely on you. You hate to disappoint them," he says.
When he gets to Clifton Street, Michelle Jeter is waiting on the sidewalk. "My check has been lost twice since last May. I'm very nervous," she says, as she follows McFadden up the walk of her brown brick building and into the small lobby.
As soon as she sees her name through the window of the gold envelope, as well as the blue and white envelope with the food stamp allocation, her anxiety fades. Even her grip on her son's hand relaxes slightly.
The check, she says unhesitantly, is everything. "I really worry about it not being ther," she adds unnecessarily. Her usually even, heavy voice gets shrill as she describes a time when the postman's hands were empty. "I had just had my baby. And I had just moved. I had to move out of my other apartment because they were going to build some townhouses," she recalls. "I went down to the welfare office and told the lady the check was missing.She didn't want to listen, she was very nasty. She told me I was sitting around on my can. Then she yelled at me for having a 9-day-old baby out in the street."
Because she had nothing, no other sources, Jeter accepted what she considered insults. She was directed to an office to get a bag of food. "I couldn't get in. The building looked all boarded up and I thought it was closed. So I went back to the welfare office, and the same lady told me that the window was broken, and to go back. I did, received the food, but I never got the check." She looks at the envelope now safely in her hands, and adds, "I never want to go through that again."
Her mind eased somewhat, Jeter sets off for the next encounter, the credit union. Dressed in boots, a blue car coat and a gray skirt, Jeter walks past the rowhouses and apartment buildings to 14th Street, and then down to W Street.
About 30 people are standing outside the storefront credit unio. It is beginning to drizzle. A half hour passes before the security guard signals her inside.
She walks to the second line; the elderly and handicapped automatically walk to the lines near the benches. The small size of the room and the number of people gives an image of closeness. But not of community; hardly anyone speaks. Jeter speaks to a lady with a baby and then glances over the list of rules and prices - check cashing, 50 cents; money order fee, 40 cents; stamped envelopes, 15 cents.
"People don't say that much to one another. A lot of them are just scared that someone might cut in the line. It's not a friendly place," says Jeter. But she knows the dead silence is also an indication that the people in line know they will stand in line again.
Unexpected things can happen however. Once Shirley Grasty, the director, had to walk into that crowded room with its faded pink ceiling and announce. "We have just run out of money." With seven years of experience in the First cycle. Grasty knew "people would be disgusted but there wouldn't be any trouble."
Jeter is only of 800 people who came to the credit union on the First. Half the customers for the entire she gets to the window, the clerk asks her if this is her picture on the I.D. card and then wordlessly cashes the check, takes back $52 for food stamps and proceses a $124 money order for Jeter's rent.
"It's all business," Jeter observes. A few blocks away a liquor store owner is watching the same part of the pageant - check cashing - being played in his tiny store. "I'm not the neighborhood philanthropist or do-gooder. The banks are very conservative. You have to have a good I.D., a bank account with a certain balance or you can't get a check cashed. Now these people don't want an account, they are not thrifty or they wouldn't be on welfare."
But welfare is quickly losing its image as only the haven of the outcasts. With rising unemployment and cutbacks in industry, a different type of person is being forced onto welfare.
As a political issue, welfare is undesirable, and no matter what national reforms are designed, the cycle of check dependence will remain the same for some people. "I for one just can'th help myself right now," says Jeter again.
It's late afternoon on the next day when Jeter goes to the grocery store. She doesn't like the crowds in the nearest Safeway, cringes at the whispers of "those welfare people," and prefers a suburban shopping center.
But this day her ride is only to the Safeway on Park Road. To make sure that she and her children have food at the end of the month, she spends only one book of her food stamps.
"Finally here it is: I don't care how much it costs," says one woman, reaching for a $1.79 can of household cleaner. Jeter glances in that direction but heads directly for the baby food and diapers, buying two cases of Similac, 24 jars of baby food and three cases of Pampers.
Behind his glass window, David Harcey, the manager, is good-naturedly answering questions about prices. He prepares for the First by staggering the hours of the part-time employees and increasing the displays of staples, like sugar, salt, baby food and canned vegetable.
"I would estimate as much as 27 per cent more business the first week of the month for most of the inner-city stores," says Harvey. "Around here at the end of the month a few the old people borrow a dollar or two. So at the First everyone's happy, including me."
As she counts her purchases, including chicken parts, TV dinners, juice and canned milk. Jeter says she likes Harvey. "I think he's trying. He's friendly."
That night Jeter has a TV dinner of chicken, mashed potatoes and green peas.
This First of te Monthe passed very smoothly for Michelle Jeter.She didn't have to join the row of faces at the welfare set as they wait for a casesworker.
She doesn't encounter some of the recurrent cruelties. At places like So Others Might Eat (SOME) a shelter for the homeless and destitute, it is reported that relatives lure the men home for the evening, get them to sign their checks, and leave them again to the abandoned buildings and the wind.
Jeter has set aside her money for the phone bill, for the wash, and hopes that she doesn't have to buy clotheing this month. Usually, for herself and the children, she shops at Morton's on F Street. "If I run short of money I have to borrow," she says. "And that starts another process of borrowing, paying back."
During the month she keeps to herself, walking over to the playground at 16th and Euclid occasionally, but rarely visiting friends.
"I don't say that much to the neighbors. Everyone keeps to themselves. If you make conversation, they might try to break into your house. You don't trust people. And right now I have to raise my kids the best way I know how and I can't go anywhere else."
By the third, the momentum tapers off. The crush at the banks, credit unions and liquor stores disppears. The elderly have enough soap, toothpaste, cold medicine and tissues to last until the next First. Very few people are waiting for the postman. And the computer has started dating next month's green checks.