National

‘But what happens if they run out?’

Johnny Rivero, on his first time standing in a food line
Johnny Rivero waits on a food line for the first time in Tampa in May. He, his wife, and his daughter lost their jobs the same week in March because of the coronavirus pandemic. (Family Photo)

I’ve never done anything like this. I don’t really know how it works. I’ve been standing in line for a few hours now, and it’s barely starting to move. I’m not complaining. It’s a blessing to be here. I’ll wait all day if I have to, because this virus has left me with no other choice, but what happens if they run out of food?

About this series
Voices from the Pandemic is an oral history of covid-19 and those affected.

They told us to be here this morning at 10, so I got here at 8. That’s what they teach you in the military: “Be punctual. Take personal responsibility.” I haven’t been able to sleep much lately anyway with the way my mind keeps running, so I thought I’d beat the crowds. But the parking lot was full, and now people are lining up around the block. I saw a video on the news about traffic jams to get a handout at a stadium or a fairground, but this is just your basic little church. It’s probably one of a hundred food pantries that are open every week around Tampa, and I bet they’ve got three or four hundred people waiting.

It sounds like they’re giving us some instructions. I think they’re starting to call people up. Hold on. I better ask somebody — “Excuse me, sir? I couldn’t hear. Did they say anything? Do they have enough?”

Okay. They’re telling us we’ll all walk away with food. They’re saying to be patient, because I think this is double or triple their normal crowd. A lot of people in line are first-timers like me. Some of us have been praying together. A lady up front in a wheelchair has been crying about the heat. There’s another guy who’s kind of barking at his kids, but mostly it’s calm. Everyone is six feet apart. A few people brought chairs to sit on, and some are carrying empty shopping bags. Was I supposed to bring something? I didn’t know how to prepare. Do they want you to show ID or tell them why you’re in need?

I tried my best to avoid this. It’s not that I’m ashamed of it — not really. I’ve been on the giving end plenty in my life. I’m not stealing, and my family needs to eat. But I’ve lived 57 years without asking for a handout, and it doesn’t feel natural to start doing it now. I waited and waited. I prayed. I looked up directions to come here the last two weeks and then told myself we didn’t need it. I’m stubborn, and I keep giving myself these little pep talks. “You’ve lost jobs before. You can always find another.” “We don’t need a house phone.” “We’ll pay that bill later.” “Turn off the AC and put on a fan.” I’ve lived in some off-the-grid-type places, and I’m used to managing without savings, but there’s no faking it when you don’t have enough food to eat. That’s basic need. That’s survival.

I don’t mean to sound dramatic. Nobody’s been starving. I don’t want to make it out to be worse than it is. We still have canned beans at the house, rice, a few leftovers in the fridge. We have spaghetti to feed my 3-year-old grandbaby, but even she’s starting to get tired of spaghetti. I don’t know. Maybe I could have waited it out another week or two, but what good does that do? This pandemic is never-ending.

We were steady until the end of March, and then it all fell apart. My whole family got laid off the same week. My wife worked at Party City, and they were ordered to close. They’re trying to reopen soon, but with only a quarter of their staff. My daughter does marketing, and nobody’s selling or buying, so that went away. I worked at a college, and now the campus is closed and their classes went online. I was doing building maintenance for $12-an-hour. It wasn’t much but it was good for me. I could use my hands, do something useful, and drive over to spring training after work to see my Yankees. And then, wham. We went from a three-income household to nothing.

Volunteers for Feeding Tampa Bay and other groups distribute food to the needy at Hillsborough Community College in Tampa on May 9. (Chris O'Meara/AP)

The only place I’ve seen hiring is Amazon. I can’t do that. I did 20 years in the Coast Guard, and my body is falling apart. I’ve got bad arthritis, and I’m worried about getting sick. I have six relatives in the same apartment in New York, and they’ve all gotten this. It’s ugly. I wear my mask everywhere. I try to stay inside. My wife and I have been hoping to get unemployment, but the website shuts down and there’s no way to get through on the phone. Sometimes, you call the number and they tell you the average wait time is like six or seven hours. Then after you’ve been pressing the phone to your ear all day you might finally get through to talk to a robot, who transfers you back to a real person, who tells you to print some paperwork off the website that isn’t working, and that’s usually about the time the call accidentally disconnects. We’ve been waiting to get food stamps. We’ve been waiting for another stimulus. Yesterday, I waited almost two hours for my free medicines at the VA. I’m telling myself the system’s overwhelmed and this is the time to be patient, but I can’t make any more excuses to my bank account. It’s hold for this, wait for that. We had a little savings but now that’s gone. I tried selling off some of my Yankee memorabilia, but anybody who might be interested is also laid off. What can I do to come up with a few dollars?

A few people are walking back out of the pantry area now. They’re carrying bags and boxes. This must be the 7 a.m. crowd. I see cauliflower, canned soup, lots of potatoes. The line is moving again. I’ve been here all morning but I’m getting close. They’re telling the people in front of me to wait and they’ll bring out their food.

I’ve been taking a few pictures in line to document this whole thing. It sounds weird, but it’s what I like to do. My wife told me: “Maybe now you finally have time to put together your book.” I have thousands of pictures. I was stationed all over the country. I did missions to the South Pole and hurricane cleanup in Puerto Rico. I volunteer at the VA with Spanish and Latino residents in the nursing home, and we like to sit and share stories. You start getting older, and your memories and experiences are what you have left. This is a story. That’s how I’m choosing to look at it. This is a new experience that I’m living through, and it’s humbled me.

I’m tired of listening to people blame and complain and put this on the president. He’s our commander in chief, and we’re fighting this virus. We should be uniting and supporting, but we’re tearing each other down. I don’t understand it. We’re lucky to live in this country. The bottom can fall out of your life, and there are people ready to help you out and give you something.

I’m at the front. They’re coming toward me with a full cart, and it’s got three bags and one box. “Wow. Thank you. Thank you. God Bless.”

This is a lot. I’ve got plantains, blueberries, lettuce, fish fillets and fresh yellow peaches. There’s enough bread for me to share with the neighbors. They even gave me a mango and a big pineapple. They just hand you the food and it’s yours to take to the car — no guilt, no questions. They thanked me for coming. Can you believe that?

It’s such a relief. It’s more than I could have hoped for. We can probably make this last for three or four days, and they say I can always come back again next week.

eli.saslow@washpost.com

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