So there we were in the checkout line. Two or three bodies in front of me, a very large lady with more than her share of children clinging to her, was laying out her items. Her bounty consisted of a few dozen loaves of very white bread, considerably less than Jesus and company dispensed at Tabgha, but quite a few more than were allowed in the express line.

There were candy bars, a large six pack of Pepsi-Cola, a few bags of caramel popcorn, assorted chips and snack cakes. She paid her money and handed over a packet of food stamps. A woman directly in front of me groused in a hoarse whisper, “I thought they couldn’t buy junk food with those.” She waited for my reply. I had little desire to get into it here, with my two little frozen dinners melting in my hand.

The little kid in me wanted some of that caramel popcorn and a cold Pepsi. I fell silent.

I had heard that the Maine Legislature is considering a bill to prevent poor folks on food stamps from using them to buy fun food. You know, Pepsi and Milky Ways, Fritos and Twinkies. Yes, they’re bad for you. Yes, they’re fun to eat, and no matter how many bills they pass or laws they make, a stalk of asparagus will never be as much fun as a Hershey bar.

So after studying the various comments from the right and left in Augusta, I’m leaning toward thinking that such a measure is, as the Jesuits say, beyond the pale. I would ask of the politicos in Augusta, how many of that suited tribe have ever been really poor, or just broke, down on it, empty pocketed?

There is something sad in that milieu, it’s a state of mind like a rented room with yellow, paper shades and one dirty window.

I know there are offenders, and beer and cigarettes should always be cut, but come on, being down at the bottom isn’t as much fun as it appears, and sometimes, a Hostess cupcake can bring you up faster at the end of the month than a carrot, when loose change is all there is.

Of course, I tend to view the world through the prism of age and that, for me, covers a lot of time and acreage and a penchant for the poor.

To be a boy on the street at the end of the Great Depression, and fatherless into World War II, was to view a slide show of hard times for many, for those for whom rain is a natural condition. The Devine family tree was trembling on a weak branch moneywise, but some of my pals were much lower. Their fathers had lost jobs, some had died in the war. We walked the summer streets with no jingling in our pockets. Food was on our home tables, of course. Vegetables were plentiful and cheap, and nobody on the block went to bed hungry. But when you’re 10 and 11, there is little glamour in a baked potato, luster in a glob of spinach, joy in a bowl of soup.

It may be of no serious relevance to this piece, but suddenly I remember vividly, a Catholic school tour of the famous Forest Park Zoo and Art Museum, near the end of the war. The sisters dragged us through the hot day. When we passed a lemonade stand and complained of thirst, they took us to the free water fountain.

They herded us quickly past a parked ice cream truck, where we watched a clutch of boys and girls in summer shorts, lapping cones. They were from a different neighborhood, far, far across town.

Sister Rosanna had to call “Jimmy G.” three times as we moved on, and he stood there watching them. His daddy had died in the war, and his mother sold tickets at the Melba Theatre. They were poor, no other word for it. I’ll never forget the look on his face, squinting into the sun. Never. I remember his name, but it’s not for print. He grew up to be a neighborhood Democratic alderman and might still be alive, but I’ll bet he never forgot that cone. Never.

Yes, vegetables are better for you. Spinach, as Father Keating said, may put hair on your chest and make your bones strong. But they cost more than a cupcake or a candy bar, often, a lot more. And there’s the rub.

I’m just thinking. Now that she who has always been the major breadwinner in our lives is retiring, I’m having nightmares about food stamps. Is pinot noir considered junk food?

J.P. Devine is a Waterville writer.

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