“Does anyone know what time it is?” the person in front of me asked as we huddled together under the tent’s awning to stay out of the rain.
“Yeah, it’s 11 o’clock,” the person behind me answered, glancing at his cellphone and then sliding it back into his jeans.
It was a routine conversation, made unusual only by the fact that the guy with the phone was standing in line for a free cellphone subsidized by a government program and offered to low-income individuals.
I had written about the program before, and its problems with fraud, waste and abuse. That’s why I decided to stop when I saw the sign offering “FREE CELL PHONES” outside the Montgomery County Job Center.
The rules were simple: Try to get a free phone. Don’t lie.
So I waited in line, as the sagging awning collected puddles and the man working the booth repeatedly handed people his walking cane to push up on the tent and knock off the water weighing it down.
Business was steady. As each person walked up, they handed the man their food stamp card and some form of ID. He typed the information into a computer. A woman next to him handed out the phones when the man gave the go-ahead.
One woman answered her personal cellphone as she was handed a free Life Wireless phone.
Two other men chatted as they waited. One older gentleman complained that someone had stolen his last cellphone, and his umbrella.
His friend quietly explained they could sell the Life Wireless phones and use the money to get a nicer subsidized phone from Cricket. That one has a camera, but it costs $5 up front, his friend said.
Finally, I got to the front of the line. I handed over my driver’s license and told the man I’d like a free phone.
“I need your food stamp card,” he said.
“I don’t have one.”
“Do you have a Medicaid card?”
He told me I needed some kind of documentation. Maybe my income would qualify me, he said, suggesting I come back with a pay stub. I told him I have a family member on disability, which is true, and I would like to pick up a phone for her. Bring her back, he advised, and we’ll get her one.
So I was turned away, as I should have been. I was the only one I saw not get a phone.
As I put away my ID, the man whose umbrella had been stolen worked up the nerve to walk out of the tent into the rain. A stranger still in line handed him an umbrella.
“Here, take it,” she said. “You said yours was stolen.”
He resisted at first and then accepted it, thanking her profusely for the unsolicited act of kindness.