How the extent of cost of living crisis hit home at St Albans' CEX store
- Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto
To the lady with the dreadlocks and the blue-eyed daughter in her buggy - I wish I could have done more to help you.
It was Monday morning at 9.55am and there was a queue forming outside that well-known St Albans shop which buys small electrical items and DVDs for cash.
CEX in French Row was bustling with hopeful people with carrier bags full of things they wanted to sell.
I felt a bit awkward as I shuffled into the store clutching my cracked - only slightly - iPhone (complete with charger and plug no less!).
I wondered whether to catch your eye and say 'hi' so I struck up a conversation about what difficult times we are living in when we have to sell our possessions first thing on a Monday morning.
I could see the pain and sadness in your eyes. The slight feeling of shame which we both seemed to share. That 'maybe my life could have worked out a bit better' feeling reflected in both of our body language.
You looked at me warmly and explained: "I just thought - if I don't get anything for this lot, I won't be able to get out of the car park."
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I desperately wanted to help but not in a condescending way. Just in a human way. I had no cash on me whatsoever.
The couple in front of us seemed to be just swapping some consoles for controllers. It doesn't have an air of pain about it. They seem excited.
Another very thin man took out an Xbox from a bag for life and announced that he has an account there and will already be logged on their system.
I was reminded of the time I walked three miles in the rain to university without a single drink or scrap of food inside me. I was going to the welfare office to see if I could sort out some sort of crisis loan to see me through until grant day. I can still remember the curly-haired woman taking out her lunchbox and handing me a cheese sandwich. She made me a cup of tea.
Just as in my situation 20-plus years ago at university - neither of us - Dreadlock Lady nor me need feel embarrassed or ashamed. All anybody selling their stuff is trying to do is provide for themselves. It is a business transaction, right? I will give you my iPad if you give me £80.
But the thing is - once, that thing was important enough to you to buy. For your kids, for yourself... It has gathered dust in your home and now is potentially your only hope of feeding yourself and your family. And getting out of the car park. Maybe paying for gas or electricity. Or more than likely all of the aforementioned.
I am spurring you on as the man calls you and your little girl over. You have a big smile and I know we could become friends. But I don't want to seem weird. I hear the man tell you that "it takes quite a lot off the value" because you don't have a required wire.
I think that probably if the thing was being bought and didn't come with said wire they would knock a few quid off. Capitalism eh? It is tiring.
Anyway, eventually I am next to you and it seems as if you are getting a relatively okay amount of cash. Your little girl smiles at me and I tell her she has beautiful eyes. She has no idea of the struggles of life. She is just happily sitting in her pushchair.
This stuff is so much bigger than a quick trip to what is essentially a pawn broker. It taps into all my bitterness and anger and sense of injustice. All the "This is St Albans!! That doesn't happen here" conversations I have had with so many people who think "We live in a bubble here" and the like.
I remember when I was homeless and a family I had known for years from church prayed for me that Jesus would help and then suggested I try a night-shelter as they drove back in their Mercedes to their eight-bedroom house.
I do not know your circumstances, Dreadlock Lady. But... I hear the love you have for your child. I feel the strength in your heart and I totally relate to your laughing off the car park situation in a throwaway comment. I see you. I just want you to know.
I do not say this in a trite way. All of those cheese-sandwich-university-type moments have given me the sense of reality I live in. The PE teacher in Stevenage who towed me to Halfords, paid for my oil and put it in my car. The pound I found down the side of the sofa that enabled me to live on cheese toasties for a week (There's a lot of cheese going on in this...ironic?!). The friend who said she didn't want to lend me money for my phone bill because she didn't want me to get in debt so she just gave me the money instead.
The dude at the till calls me over, takes one look at the crack in my phone and suggests I take it somewhere that might buy it for parts.
My plan to heroically thrust some cash into your hand for the car park in honour of Cheese Sandwich Woman has just been horribly crushed. See - nobody wants to be patronised but most people could do with a bit of help now and then. And where is the help? I can't see it. But I want you to know, I see you. I really bloody hope it gets better.
If you want to share your heating vs eating encounters with us please email firstname.lastname@example.org
For practical support with the cost of living crisis, call Citizens Advice on 01727 811118 or visit citizensadvicestalbans.org.uk