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Cinder Sam and Benderella

$1 specials: Hot dogs, buns, spaghetti sauce, peanut butter, frozen French fries

From Saturday's Globe and Mail

I'm dining alone in a basement, next to a rumbling furnace. My boys are both out. Sam, 12, is working on a science-fair project with his classmate Jordie. Ben, 15, is spending the evening with friends.

I am bereft. I can barely eat. It's not the solitude. It's not the furnace-room ambience. It's the menu: leftover spaghetti.

Sam comes home later, all happy. I ask what he had for dinner. “Boeuf bourguignon,” he says, smacking his lips.

I'm not happy he's had a good meal. I'm jealous.

I've been eating cheap carbs for 11 days now, and it's starting to get tedious.

We're in our new home, the basement of a tiny 1970s bungalow in Scarborough. My boys are living with me during our month on minimum wage, while I, a pretend single mom, work as a maid.

Sam understands this isn't a completely far-fetched scenario. “If Dad went and gambled all our money and lost it, and didn't take care of us,” he says, “we would have to live like this.” (In fact, my non-gambling husband is on standby to shuttle the kids back and forth to private school, music lessons and hockey games.)

We call our place The Hovel. It consists of a kitchen, bathroom and two bedrooms, with no living room. It's also illegal — an official at the Scarborough Zoning Information office told me this week that the property is zoned as a single-family home. But I didn't think about legal issues when I rented it for $750. I was desperate to find something affordable.

Our new home is on a quiet suburban street near a No Frills grocery store and a Wal-Mart, and just around the corner from a laundromat, a cheque-cashing outlet and an adult-video store. Sam has brought one Game Cube video game and Ben, his computer. During this month, they're not to use their magnetic-swipe cards at their cafeteria. Instead, they'll pack a lunch.

But Ben's happy because The Hovel has better Internet; it's free, along with utilities and basic cable. We also get unlimited use of the landlord's washer and dryer, which is good because my after-hour maid chores include laundering the day's rags.

So what if we have to flush the toilet three times and the walls tilt so the doors bang into our foreheads? The Hovel is cozy. Cozy, as in, Sam and I have become roommates, sharing a double bed. Ben refused to sleep with Sam and appropriated the room with the single bed.

Sometimes, though, The Hovel feels like a prison. We can't see out the tiny, high windows. And because it's dark by the time they get home, the boys don't go outside. Instead, they do push-ups on the dirty carpet.

In the 19th century, when Charles Dickens was 12, Sam's age, he went to work in a bootblack factory after his father was sent to debtors' prison. That experience informed his novels, especially Oliver Twist. In 1933, George Orwell described his ordeals as a dishwasher and vagrant, in Down and Out in Paris and London.

More recently, Barbara Ehrenreich described her low-wage existence in the United States in her 2001 bestseller Nickel and Dimed. Last June, Morgan Spurlock, of Super Size Me fame, did the same in his documentary series 30 Days.

But none of them brought children along. Kids change the equation. Nurturing offspring is an elemental part of motherhood, beginning with breastfeeding. Of all the humiliations inherent in poverty, there's no failure more resounding than being unable to feed your kids. “Nearly a quarter of food bank-using parents go hungry, so their children rarely or never go hungry,” says a 2005 study by Toronto's Daily Bread Food Bank

I worry that the boys and I won't make it through the month. Strange as it sounds, at first I don't know what I'm actually earning at the company I call Maid-It-Up Maids. I keep crunching the numbers. Now, it seems after paying rent, I'll net $8.75 per person per day.

If this were real life, I'd get a monthly federal Child Tax Benefit of $204.67 and a National Child Benefit Supplement of $268.66. Our daily per-capita budget would swell to $14.38 a day — but we'd still be $7,631.08 below Statistics Canada's “low-income cutoff line.”

I didn't factor these benefits in, because I considered them a tradeoff against all the other necessities I didn't pay for that month: clothes, transportation, school supplies, over-the-counter medicine, phone, laundry, toiletries, toilet paper, bikes, baseball bats, hockey sticks, maybe even a newspaper for myself now and then. (After our experiment ended, I took Sam to buy some clothes at Winners. We picked carefully through the racks, looking for the cheapest clothes. But two T-shirts, a shirt and a pair of ordinary jeans still cost $90.)

Other maids survive by living with family or friends. Maggie (not her real name) lives with her sister-in-law, who is on disability and has subsidized housing. Another maid lives with her boyfriend, and pays $85 a month for a subsidized apartment.

My older brother, who runs a restaurant in Montreal, scoffs and says I should stop whining and get a second job. But my hours are long and — wait, I have a second job. Each night, after the dishes are done, I write notes on my laptop until midnight.

The line between my real life and my undercover life begins to blur. One day when I'm trying to clean a client's microwave, the door swings open, smashing a glass. “Now you're initiated,” Maggie says as she sweeps up the shards.

I run upstairs to inform the client. She's very nice about it. Maid-It-Up will cover the cost.

That night, I have a nightmare. I've been fired. No one else will hire me. I can't feed my kids.

At first, life on minimum wage is an adventure. We visit No Frills like tourists, surprised you have to pay a nickel for bags, marvelling at the $1 specials (hot dogs, buns, spaghetti sauce, Jif peanut butter, six-packs of yogurt, hothouse tomatoes, frozen French fries, fresh broccoli, pop-top cans of chicken-noodle soup).

I've lived in the Third World, so I know how to transform the cheapest ingredients into stir-fries. I know rice and beans make a complete protein. The problem is, I don't have time.

Luckily, we find luscious Indian paratha breads in our neighbourhood. And driving through Scarborough, I spot the Jamaican Patty King factory. It sells a dozen spicy beef patties for $6.50. “Seconds” cost $4 a dozen. I buy the seconds. The kids love Jamaican patties, even slightly cracked ones.

At their school cafeteria, a single patty costs $1.25. Now, when Ben doesn't have time to pack a lunch, he goes hungry. Sam intercepts his friends on the way to the garbage can, the private-school version of dumpster diving.

One Thursday night, we head to Wal-Mart, where the embedded McDonald's offers two cheeseburgers for $1.79. We rarely eat at McDonald's, but if we did, we'd normally spend about $21 for three people. Now, I strain to figure out the best deal: two of the two-cheeseburger specials and one super-sized daily meal deal (alas, also two cheeseburgers — I was hoping for a little variety). We'll have to drink from the same cup, but with tax the bill comes to $9.39.

Afterward, we partake of what passes for entertainment among those who can't afford a night at the opera: Wal-Mart. There are DVD players for $29.99. Sam grabs a bag of chips for 88 cents. Ben paws through $2 mountain-biking DVDs. I splurge on a handheld blender for $7.88.

But the fun, touristy feelings end after a week. I crawl home at 7:30 p.m., my eyes puffy with fatigue. Luckily, my kids have become my sub-maids. Maggie's husband refuses to make dinner, even though he gets home before her, but I've been training the boys for years. Long before we moved into The Hovel, Sam's nickname was Cinder Sam; Ben's was Benderella. This past Christmas, Sam got a Swiffer. (Okay, he also got NHL 2006, a video game.)

On this night, Sam makes chicken and fusilli. Ben washes my rags. As we eat dinner, it occurs to me I've brought them along not just for journalistic reasons. They're easing my burden. They've also become my emotional anchor in the weariness and hopelessness that define poverty. When they're away in the evening, I can't wait for them to return. Sam gives me hugs when I'm really low. And in his ironic teen way, Ben does too, rolling his eyes and patting me gently on the back.

But they're not Superboys. Sam grows less rowdy at meals. Ben has trouble remembering things, and hasn't the energy to do homework. I forget to ask about it. In 10 days, I've lost six pounds. Ben figures we're anemic. Instead of eating steaks, racks of lamb, duck breasts, our dinner may now consist of two chicken thighs shared among three.

Every day, I vacuum thousands of square feet. My back aches. One day, I'm lugging our bucket of cleaning fluids through a factory workshop, the container banging into my shins. I must look pathetic, because Maggie whacks me on the shoulders and says, “Walk like you enjoy your job.”

The second week, I wake up twice in the night. My right arm is buzzing. I massage it; shake it. The tingling won't subside. For the next three nights, the buzzing wakes me up. It isn't painful, but it is unpleasant. It starts at my forearm, and runs to my fingertips. Oddly, the little finger is unaffected.

I'm not usually a drama queen, but I start wondering if I'm having a mini-stroke. I tell Sam that if I pass out, he should call 911 on my cellphone. (We haven't installed a land line.) Belatedly, I realize he doesn't actually know where we live.

Then, my arm starts tingling during the day. I could duck into a powder room, turn on the tap and phone a doctor, but I can't afford to take a day off to see one, so what's the point? That weekend, I call my cousin, Dr. John Chong, at home. He's famous for creating a sub-specialty, occupational medicine for musicians. Maybe he can tell me if I'm having a mini-stroke.

“Sounds like classic carpal tunnel syndrome,” he says.

He can't be sure until a technician tests me. Meanwhile, I must stop working as a maid and buy a wrist brace at Shoppers Drug Mart.

I ignore the maid advisory, but buy the brace. With tax, it costs $40.24, or more than a day's disposable income.

As Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter David K. Shipler writes in The Working Poor, poverty is a set of interlocking problems. By itself, it is not insoluble, providing people have friends and family, education, self-esteem and good physical and mental health.

I have all of that — okay, maybe I'm a bit nutty. But I have a future, a good job, a bank account and a supportive husband. I'm naturally thrifty. I buy discounted bus tickets in bulk. I cut my children's hair. I don't smoke or buy lottery tickets. When I drink, it only takes half a beer to get me drunk. Unlike my fellow maids, I also know my rights, or know how to find out what they are. I know low-income earners can fill out a form so that income isn't taxed at source. The other maids don't.

Yet I'm not Marie Antoinette, playing at being a shepherdess in the thatched cottages next to Versailles. You can't fake being a maid. Either the floor is washed or it's not. So even with all my advantages, knowing I'm working as a maid for a limited time, I do taste the low-wage life. There's only time for survival. I miss a parent-teacher meeting, Sam's hockey games and cello lessons, my band practices. I never see a movie, concert or play. Other people meet friends after work for drinks. When my day's over, I wash rags.

There is one thing I refuse to give up: my woodwind trio. On Sundays, my only day off, I return briefly to my real home — to my silk rugs and my potted orchid and the sun streaming through my windows. Knowing how busy I am, the clarinetist and oboist offered to cancel. But the two hours we play Handel and Mozart are a balm, even if my right hand buzzes when I play the flute.

I think of my fellow maids. Poverty is also the absence of beauty. What is it like, when there's nothing in your life to look forward to except Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?

For the boys, the daily contrast is sharp. Sam talks about plans for his Grade 7 annual dance, for instance, which will have a disc jockey, professional dancers, Mexican buffet, pinatas, party favours of disposable cameras (processing included), a slushy machine and a chocolate fountain. The ticket price: $40.

My weird moment comes at Upper Canada College, the elite boys school where senior-year tuition is $23,475. I had agreed to speak at a world affairs conference there before I became a maid. (I later asked that my honorarium go to the Daily Bread Food Bank, but I still stared wistfully at the $100 cheque: such easy money for a 45-minute yak, compared with half that for a day's scrubbing.)

Maid-It-Up allows us to take one weekday off every two weeks. I book the day off, and use the morning to clear up a burning question. Most maids at Maid-It-Up opt for a guaranteed $300 weekly salary as an alternative to an hourly wage because the money is guaranteed whether the work is available or not. But when it pays by the hour, Maid-It-Up pays only for cleaning time. Shouldn't maids who are paid by the hour also be compensated for travel time between homes?

According to Regulation 285, Section 6, of the Employment Standards Act, “travel time is considered to be work,” says a woman named Amber at the Ontario Ministry of Labour.

“From Coffee Time to the first house and all the houses in between, the employer must pay at least minimum wage during that time. They require you to all meet at the coffee shop. That should all be paid. After the last house, that may not have to be paid, depending on where you end up.”

And how is this enforced? “Any complaints must be submitted in writing,” she says.

I also am curious about what the Office of the Worker Adviser would advise someone with a buzzing arm to do. The OWA, which deals with non-unionized workers, is an independent agency of the Ministry of Labour and was formerly connected to the Workers' Compensation Board.

I get off to a friendly start with someone named Rhonda, until I tell her I'm a maid. Then, she wants to get rid of me. “The medical report is Form 8. The employer's report is Form 7. You file a report. That's Form 6. You request that from WSIB. The phone number is 416-344-1000,” she says briskly.

I scribble as fast as I can. “So the employer has to file a form?” I ask, to be sure.

Rhonda grows sarcastic. “ That's what I just told you,” she says. “Form 7. And your doctor is Form 8. Did you not write it down?”

Are you kidding? I'm a professional write-it-downer. Yet I wonder how my fellow maids would cope with Rhonda, who, to be fair, has another call waiting. I have one last question. If I ask my employer to file a form, won't his insurance premiums go up, and won't I end up getting fired? “I can't express an opinion on that,” she says crankily. “The choice is yours.”

I dress for UCC. It seems like ages since I've worn something nice: a dark wool pant suit, string of pearls, leather flats. I haven't had time for lunch, but I sense excess food will be in abundance at a rich school like UCC. I'm right.

I find the gymnasium where student delegates to this world affairs conference are dining. I get in line, and someone just hands me a heaping plate of lasagna and salad, no questions asked. If only food came that easily every day. I fold a napkin around two pink iced cookies to take back for Ben and Sam.

Later, in the auditorium, before launching into my speech on China's economy, I conduct a quick survey of the audience, teenagers who attend private and public schools from across Canada. How many of their families have cleaning women? About 95 per cent raise their hands. How many have cleaned a bathroom themselves? Most hands drop. I ask a young man whose hand is still up, “How do you clean a toilet?”

He looks sheepish. “I clean sinks,” he says, to general laughter.

Who knows the current minimum wage? A few guess wrong. Only one student correctly says it's $7.75.

“I have a minimum-wage job,” she explains. “I'm a cashier.”

Shopping carts are scarce at our No Frills. Ben snags one and we buy more $1 specials. He and Sam linger over the meat counter. When we're leaving, a desperate customer offers Ben $5 for the cart. He gives it to her for nothing.

Later Sam scolds him. “You should have taken it. We need the money.”

“I think she needed the $5 more than we did,” Ben says.

The next morning, I scarf toast with peanut butter and a leftover boiled egg, topped with mayonnaise. I'm trying to pack in the calories before another 11-hour day. Sam gets up, and looks sleepily into our fridge.

“Where is my egg?” he says.

I hang my head. I didn't know it was his. I ate it, I tell him, adding I'm such a bad mother.

“No,” he says. “You're a good mother.”

Sam is wrong. I fit the profile of food-bank users: a single mom, two kids, earning less than $10 an hour. But unlike the good parents, I eat my kid's food.

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