Going Hungry at the Most Prestigious MFA in America

Katie Prout on Class, Work, and Making Ends Meet in Iowa

By  Katie Prout

In a month, I’ll be 30, and the Iowa undergrads I’m watching walk through the alley on their journey from the Kum & Go gas station at the end of my block are very unbothered by President Trump threatening to burn North Korea to ash. They’re each holding a thirty-rack of Bud Light and making incomprehensible conversation while they kick up gravel and broken glass. I hear laughter, calls, hi’s from where I sit on my back porch. I eat weird chocolate cups from the food bank and fart from the protein bars I’ve been living off, and I watch them walk. The cups have made me thirsty, but I don’t want to go inside just yet; I’ve only just sat down after my trip.

The walk to the food bank is precisely one mile from my doorstep, and normally I listen to podcasts or call a friend, but I spent all of today crumpling up little paper balls at work while listening to Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast on tape, and I thought it would be good for me to clear my ears. My ears cleared, but my brain clouded, and as I walked, I sweated. A man working in his front garden waved at me and said hello as I walked by, sweat running down my chin, my backpack’s chest strap clipped like a seatbelt, as though saving me from an accident with myself. I said hi back.

Today, I took my favorite way there: Johnson Street to Bowery to Dodge, then down Page Street, passing the basketball court and the weird grassy little corner park and onto—I can’t remember that next turn’s name, but soon enough I was on Kirkwood and then down Gilbert Court. I crossed shimmering train tracks to get there, and an electrical box that’s spray-painted with the words loner sale, all sad lowercase. There are a couple businesses at the mouth of this street, and then as you get towards the dead end, a Salvation Army on your left and a used clothes and furniture store on your right. Just past the used store is the crisis center that houses the food bank.

Today, I passed a woman climbing into a truck with what looked like a full canned Thanksgiving meal on a paper plate. In the parking lot, a man pushed a cart around in circles and yelled North Korea! Well, isn’t that just great! I felt his eyes focus on me while he walked his cart forward: I heard it rattle against the hot August asphalt. I can’t believe it, he said to me through the humid air. The words rose up like heat, his body a mirage. My backpack’s chest strap clipped like a seatbelt, as though saving me from an accident with others. They better watch out. Here we go again.

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*

In a month, I’ll be 30. I thought that by now I’d have a savings account, I thought by now I’d be safer than my parents were at my age, when they had me and my four brothers and my sister. Pretty monotonous, huh, Brian said to me on my way out the door of work today. Now you know what it’s like to work in a factory. Brian is my boss, and I work part-time for a small company that overcharges customers to underpay proofreaders who edit their work. My dad worked in a plastics factory until I was five. He took the night shift, and I used to beg my mom to let me stay up and wait for him at the door. One morning, I woke up to a box of baby ducks in our dining room. My dad had found them all alone at the end of his shift, huddled and dew-damp, so he turned around, walked back into work, pulled some cardboard out of the industrial-sized garbage, and gently filled it with a half-dozen ducklings he picked up with his sore hands. I remembered that as I walked home from work today.

I don’t know if I have the ambition to be a writer, or the drive, but I do know I don’t want to be stuck doing jobs like this with a boss like Brian forever. When I got home from work, I wondered what I could wear to the food bank that would make me feel okay. If I wear this necklace, will I look like I don’t belong there? If I keep this shirt with glue smears on, will it look like I do? And to whom? The last time I was there, two mothers spoke to each other in Spanish, hands on their pregnant stomachs, while their children played with the waiting room toys. The mothers’ shirts were crisp and the braids of the little girls gleamed.

“I tried to see if I could read what he did for a living in the way he moved in his clothes, if the foodbank represented a rough patch for him or if it was a regular staple.”

The man with the cart was still talking loudly about North Korea and bombs. I turned my back to him and headed towards the food bank, but his words bounced off my spine. It’s Tuesday, which means the bank is open till 7 pm, something I learned while double-checking the time on my work computer, minimizing the screen every time Brian walked by. Today, I prepared and mailed 150 envelopes, each containing one very small notepad and one crumpled piece of paper. Thank you for your business! said the 140 notes I printed, cut, and stamped with his signature. The notepads are gift packages for our customers, people who are looking to have their resumes proofread and their letters of intent corrected. It was usually boring things the first year I worked here, but after the election Brian opened a partner business translating and editing immigration documents at elevated prices. Clients think the translators are in-house; Brian considers the house to be the internet, and obtains our talent from Upworks, from Craigslist, from places both parties could meet each other without having to pay this middle-aged middle man. Last week a letter came in from a husband asking his wife not to leave him. I shouldn’t have been friends with her behind your back, it said. You are my whole world and without you I am lost. Two days ago on the original side of the business, I proofread a scanned copy of two English sentences handwritten on lined paper. The first sentence was It all begins with a tumor.

The crumpled up paper is so that the post office will accept the stamp Brian has paid for. Otherwise, they tell us the package isn’t thick enough for the class of mail and send it back. In the envelopes, we used to give out two pens each. Some of the customers call in and ask why there was some garbage in their packages: others call in to thank us for their notepad. Right now, Brian is only having me mail thank-yous to the original business, not those in need of translation, and I do it. I feel badly for all the paper gone to waste, but I haven’t recycled since I cut my hand rinsing a chickpea can in June. It was the day after Trump pulled out of the Paris Climate Accord. You’re such a good bleeder! said the nurse in urgent care, a robust Iowan woman who lived on a farm a few towns over and smelled like flowers. She gave me four stitches, which I later took out myself.

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A van was parked alongside the foodbank, and I walked between it and the food bank’s brick wall to get to the door. The van’s doors were open, and it was full of women waiting. Inside the foodbank vestibule was a woman with a grocery cart. This meant she was picking up food for a family. I receive a basket. Every time I go to pick up food, I have to fill out a sheet at the front desk and answer a couple quick questions. The questions are always the same, and my household is always one. The woman with a cart was on her cell phone while keeping an eye out for her ride. As I filled out the sheet, the man with the cart came in behind me. North Korea, he said again. He was a large man, white, with a striped short-sleeved button-up and a soft, clean-shaven face. His glasses made his eyes small. I thought he looked like a rural pastor. The man didn’t shout; he was conversational, like he was talking directly to someone the rest of us couldn’t see. Can you even believe it? Here we go. I nodded and was finally inside, the real inside.

The waiting room was as empty as I’ve ever seen it, but still and hot. I wanted watermelon. The man who had signed in before me could have been any age. I tried to see if I could read what he did for a living in the way he moved in his clothes, if the foodbank represented a rough patch for him or if it was a regular staple. His clothes were worn but his glasses young and hip, causing me to double-check his thick hair, curly and gray. He could be 40 or 60. He could work outdoors.

*

Earlier, in A Moveable Feast, I listened to Hemingway describe the campaign Ezra Pound undertook to raise money to allow his friend T.S. Eliot to write full-time. This campaign included founding a new magazine just so the profits of its sales could go to him. Eliot worked at a bank, an actor-as-Hemingway read with disgust into my sweating ears. Hemingway said both he and Pound agreed that the best way to be a writer is to live poorly and simply and work as little as possible on anything that isn’t writing itself. As I cut clean pieces of paper in half and scrunched them up into balls, I thought about writing notes on them before. This way, I could practice my craft, and when the bewildered customers open their crinkled gifts, something beyond paper would be waiting for them. When I was little, I wrote letters to myself and stuffed them into small cracks and crevices in our house, looking forward with delight to the day when I was older and could re-discover those missives. But I never could wait until I was older to dig them back out. I couldn’t forget they existed.

As I stuffed and listened in the office, I felt bad about my work ethic. I don’t write every day, and I don’t protect my time at all costs. I wondered if I shouldn’t go to the food bank tonight. I thought about all the hours, the days, of not writing, and the shame of it built, but I need to eat, I don’t have a Hadley, which was the name of Hemingway’s second wife, and I don’t have her fortune either, which is how Hemingway was supported during his young years in Paris. In addition to my work with Brian, I’m an instructor at the university where I attend the best nonfiction writing program in the country, and I make approximately $18,000 a year before taxes. When I was denied a second teaching assistantship at the university this summer for the upcoming school year even though I already had signed a contract with the offering department, my director explained that it was in the school’s best interests to look after my best interests, and my best interest was to make sure that I had time write my thesis. Most graduate students are lucky if they get one, it was explained. After, a program-wide email was sent out explaining why the university generally doesn’t allow us to get other university jobs, and encouraging us not to look for any jobs outside of our instructing ones at all.

“My dad worked in a plastics factory until I was five. He took the night shift, and I used to beg my mom to let me stay up and wait for him at the door.”

So while making a little extra money to pay bills and just have a more comfortable cushion is certainly attractive, I promise from the center of my heart that these three years that you’re spending in Iowa are precious. Indeed, they are far more valuable than any amount of money that a part-time job will offer. Embrace this time, my director wrote, for it is in fact more valuable than money.

In fact, in fact. The fact was, called into my director’s office, I was told that should I take my signed contract to the student union, he would find it difficult to write me a letter of recommendation in the future. It’s very good for you to learn how to do much on a small budget. The facts are that, like Eliot, I have friends who have supported me. When I got into the writing program, I cried out of joy and then again out of fear—I had no savings, I lived paycheck-to-paycheck in Chicago. A friend lent the money for my first month’s deposit on my new Iowan apartment. Other friends bought my drinks when they came to visit, Venmo-ed me money for my textbooks, ordered me groceries from two states away. This is my final August here, and I just started going to the food bank: because I am poor and Hemingway instructs us to write what is true, because I didn’t want to front, and because I didn’t want to worry these friends or further tax their love. I wanted to take care of myself.

*

In the food bank waiting room, I sat and texted and felt weird about it, but then remembered that poor people also have cell phones. My name was called. The man who signed me in greeted me at the door with a ticket and my basket. His name-tag said CAL. My ticket was blue and said “2,” which meant that I had two foodbank dollars I could spend at my first stop—two shelves and one freezer full of nutritious, higher calorie food, as well as household cleaning goods. Last time I spent my “2” on dental floss and organic whole milk from Kalona, a wholesome town near me; this time, I got a half gallon of whole milk donated from the Trader Joe’s that just opened up and a dozen eggs, which I checked to make sure they weren’t broken. Just like my mom raised me, I joked with Cal, who didn’t joke back as he took my ticket.

I went through the lines and got more zucchini, more of these weird delicious roasted chickpea snacks my Iowan friends love to eat when they come over and which I never tell them I got for free. The foodbank looked a bit picked over at this time of day, but even as I thought that, old ladies started hustling over with containers of green beans and squash as yellow as baby ducks. I got some bagged granola clumps with berries and chocolate. I will pour chocolate milk over them for a happy breakfast.

In seventh grade, a friend of mine forgot her lunch one day and asked me to swipe my card for her. At the beginning of the year, the rules of the free lunch program had been very specifically explained to me by the school worker who gave me my card: I was entitled to one sandwich, one milk, one side per day, and no more. In line, I tried to tell my friend I couldn’t do it. It’s okay, she told me, I’ll just pay you back. I felt sick as I put double everything on my tray, my friend at my side. The lunch cashier ran my card and frowned. You have to put these back, she said. I mumbled something about my friend needing food too. You have free lunch, the cashier said. You have to put these back. My friend looked up as the cashier’s words shrank me in my skin.

There was a separate account for students who’d forgotten their lunch; my friend had to get in a different line and go through that. When we met back at the lunch table, I begged her not to tell anyone, and I didn’t cry. At the food bank, it’s different: I still hope I don’t run into any of my students or peers volunteering there, but the other customers talk in normal tones about the food we’re about to get for free. They’re not afraid of being overheard. These are really good, a lady said to me last time, pointing at some organic yogurt, You should try one. People take their time, chatting as they browse in one of the two aisles the food bank has set up to make the crisis center feel more like a grocery store and therefore more like a choice.

Today, as I turned to get in the checkout line, a man appeared just at the edge of my line of vision with his arm outstretched. I turned to him: it was the man with the trendy glasses, whose age I was trying to guess out in the waiting room. He was holding something. You should have this, he said. It’s the last one, and I’ve had it before. It’s pretty good. My hand closed around whatever he was offering before I even knew what it was. I opened my palm: inside was a white packet containing two organic dark chocolate peanut-butter cups. I have a rich and complicated sweet tooth, but lately I haven’t been able to indulge. Thank you, I said, but he was already gone.

*

The last time Trump said terrifying things about North Korea, my brother John was deployed on a Navy aircraft carrier on its way back to San Diego. After Trump said those things, the ship’s direction abruptly reversed. Trump sent my brother and his ship to the Korean Peninsula, where he and it bobbed for a month. My mom and my sister-in-law and I all panicked and refreshed the news; John was just hoping for a new kind of cereal to be served. I remember that now, coming in from the back porch, listening to the news while unpacking my food bank haul.

Military recruiters swarm the town in Michigan I grew up in the way our house used to swarm with carpenter ants each spring. When John no longer knew for certain what he was doing in college and could no longer afford to find out, he dropped out and went to boot camp. As my brother Mike did, except to construction. As my sister Molly did, except to the Coast Guard. Graduating from undergrad at the height of the Great Recession, I almost became a cop. In the moment, it didn’t matter that police work was at odds with my politics. It was a paycheck, a clear way through my twenties to a life that might allow me to support myself and maybe even our parents.

I didn’t become a cop, of course. I saved up just enough money from working as a coordinator at the town homeless shelter to quit and go farm for free in Ireland. When I came back, I worked under the table as a nanny while I began to write. I want to tell Brian I know what a factory is the same way I want my program director to see me walking home from the foodbank some time, sweating and heavy. I’ve got a chip on my shoulder, and it’s weighing me down.

A man in my program with a wealthy background wrote an essay in which he explained to his peers, his readers, us, me, what bankruptcy is, as if my parents didn’t lose their house the year I graduated from college even though my college was paid for by government scholarship and my own loans; as if my mother and I didn’t clean the shit-speckled toilets of our neighbors in an effort to pay back the money they’d loaned us to try and keep that from happening; as if I didn’t once watch my brothers Steve, John, and Mike answer our door to a bill collector who wanted to come inside, him overdressed for July in his suit jacket and his mean good shoes that kept trying to sneak their hard black toes on to the wood of our kitchen floor, my brothers with their pit hair and milky chests out as they stood in descending order like three nearly naked stairs, their boxers rising and falling as they breathed shoulder-to-shoulder, ages fifteen, thirteen, and twelve. Our mom’s not home, they told him, and you need to go.

I want to be myself in Iowa, but I’m in between selves, betraying one even as I fail to fully inhabit the other. I’m losing my way of speaking, saying I’m well when I mean I’m good, saying asphalt instead of ashphalt. I’m losing my spelling. My first year here, my director told me I try too hard when I write anyways instead of anyway, towards instead of toward, which is how I learned that I’m supposed to drop the s. Sometimes my brothers tease me when I talk now, but I hear them trying it out for themselves. In another conversation, my brother Mike says, You’re about to have done two colleges. That’s two more than me. We mean it when we both laugh.

This summer at a friend’s house, a young man in another graduate program ate the bread I made with foodbank zucchinis as he said he thought health insurance should be up to the states and what isn’t covered should be subsidized by charity. He seemed too young for me to talk to, so I didn’t say that church fundraisers had attempted and failed to cover my brother’s medical bills and then my father’s. Instead, I sank into the backrub of a friend I trust, who has similar money anxiety to me, who, when my laptop broke last year, gave me the extra she had because an ex-boyfriend had stolen it for her. It’s the laptop I’m writing on now, as I sit on my back porch. Squeaky wheel, buzzkill, biting the hand: all I want to say is yes, I am grateful to be here, but that doesn’t mean I’m not hungry.

Food unpacked and put away, I sit on my back porch. Curled bits of the cup have fallen onto my keyboard, where they look like hair. I lick the chocolate off my laptop. The boys with the beer are gone now, and the temperature is cooler. I hear the sound of cicadas, or maybe it’s the high hum of the wires that streak the sky above my head. The sunset to the west is as bright as a nuclear bomb. If I knew someday I’d have enough money to keep me and my family safe, I would look at these fading cirrus clouds without bracing for an explosion. If I knew I wouldn’t live like this forever, tomorrow at work—before crumpling it up—I’d take that paper and write love notes, fortunes.

Katie Prout
Katie Prout
Katie Prout received her BA from Kalamazoo College and her MFA from the University of Iowa’s Nonfiction Writing Program. Her writing has appeared in Longreads, Lit Hub, and other publications, and in 2017, her micro chapbook Liner Notes was published with Ghost City Press. She is currently at work on a book about her family’s history with addiction, football, and ghosts.





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