Christian with an E

Kmart is Your Savings Place


Kmart is Your Savings Place

By the definition of our capitalist utopia my family were poor. We were on welfare and received Food Stamps, WIC Coupons and enormous blocks of free government cheese. My mom used to take the cheese, chop it into chunks and sell it to the neighbors to pay our electric bill. Personally, I thought the cheese was chalky and disgusting but it sold like it was an expensive and expertly aged cheddar.

When I was twelve I had to get glasses. Being on welfare meant you were on Medicaid or what I remember as Title 19. I made my appointment at Pearl Vision and got on the city bus to Lindale Mall in Cedar Rapids.  I was so excited by the displays of stylish frames and couldn’t wait to pick out a cool pair, but my ecstatic heart dropped as the optician made a wide sweep with his arm towards the displays of glasses and exclaimed “You can choose whatever you want,” and then proceeded to pull out a tiny wood drawer with four pairs of glasses displayed on red velvet. These were the welfare glasses, two men’s pairs and two women’s pairs. It was as if they had purposely picked the ugliest designs just to remind you that you were on poor. Actually, everything felt that way.

I never remember being unhappy as a kid and I guess technically there was a lot to be down about, but my mom had an unfailing sense of humor and managed to keep things upbeat. I was only really sad or rather confused and hurt when it came to interactions with more affluent adults. I knew they were putting my family down, but I could never understand why. Adults like to think kids are clueless, but what you don’t understand as a child you feel and I could feel their animosity. I knew my family were better and I became bent on success.

Being cash strapped meant being more creative. I owe my entire career to my mother’s once independent spirit. She kept us in a stable home, clean, clothed and fed on a very meager allowance and with great flourish. When our washing machine broke down she found a vintage electric ringer washer in a neighbors’ alley and brought it home. It was an enormous pain to use. We had to hook it up to the kitchen sink and once the clothes were done washing, ring the soap out of each piece by running it through two rolling cylinders that would suck or ring the water out then refill the washing tub with clean water, run it through a rinse cycle and again through the ringers. It was not worth the work, but my mother did everything like it was performance art. She lived in a fantastic world full of extremely contrasting real and imagined complexities.

On special days my mom, brother and I would take the bus to Woolworth’s in downtown Cedar Rapids and eat a donut at the lunch counter. Once we were older and Woolworth’s had shut down we began going to Kmart to take pictures in the photo booth to send to my dad where he was living in Fort Madison.  


I loved Kmart. My mom would buy me cheap sundresses with matching bloomers and every spring my brother and I would get to pick out a new pair of shoes from the vast array of Trax brand tennies.  In elementary school my favorite Kmart outfit was a dark blue Gitano sweatshirt that said GO across the chest in large neon yellow letters and a pair of two tone, stone washed jeans that came with a red, ribbed rubber belt that I called my Michael Jackson belt because I thought it looked Thriller-esque. In sixth grade I bought a Mickey and Minnie in Paris sweatshirt and fake pink Converse high tops with money from my grandma. I wore it to school and the next day a girl in my class came in with the exact same look. I remember being only slightly upset that she copied my outfit. The last real item of clothing I bought at Kmart were a pair of Rustler brand jeans. They were dark blue and cut with a yoke and no back pockets. They fit like a glove and I felt very proud of my purchase. The only problem was they had a tag on the outside that said Rustler and there was no way to rip it off because it was top stitched directly onto the seams. I knew this tag was like a ticking time bomb and that if any of the popular kids at my junior high saw it I would be endlessly antagonized, so I wore they jeans once and then hid them. I wasn’t quite ready to take on the cruelty of not fifing in with the crowd.