Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Combustible Chapter 6 - Salt and Bananas

Salt and Bananas

Jaime was trying to do the math in her head. She was out of salt and really wanted one bunch of bananas. But with the 40 dollars she had in her pocket she wasn't sure if she could swing it. It was Monday, just three days after payday and the two $20.00 bills were all she had left after rent, utilities, lunches, the babysitter, and a "new" pair of shoes, bought from the Goodwill off of Pat Booker Road. At least they were "new" to her. With four days till her next pay check, Jaime, standing in line at the HEB Grocery in San Antonio, was weighing her options. The facts and figures ran through her head much more quickly than I can describe them to you:

"Gas tank = 3/4 full
Diapers stocked.
Baby food in the cart = $10.95 + 8% sales tax (why do they tax food anyway?)
Bananas = $1.19
Salt = $.89

That's about $14.00 and I still haven't bought formula, FHP, and eggs for the kids for breakfast this weekend, and then there's the supply fee due for the preschool, and the extra $10.00 for picking the kids up late from the after school babysitter...I just don't have enough."

The single Mom had been here before, deciding what to put back on the shelf if she wanted to do what was right, but what is right? She didn't rent movies; she didn't eat out; she didn't go on dates; she didn't buy lunch at work. She had no pets - not even a gold fish. She turned off her cable back when things got really tight. She's driving around with a tail light out and the front end of the car shakes a little when she brakes. There's a leaky faucet in the bathtub which is making her water bill higher than usual. She cut her own hair and tried her best, without products she couldn't afford, to style it in as fashionable an appearance as she could, both to hide the uneven lines produced as she tried to cut the back holding a hand mirror and staring into the bathroom mirror looking over her shoulder, and to keep from getting into trouble with her appearance at her office job, where she made very little money to copy, type, file, answer phones, plan travel for the executives, and look pretty. Right now her bob-cut red hair hang limp around her worried face as she thought to herself:

"Maybe if I put half the baby food back and get some marked down hamburger. I don't guess I really need the bananas either. I really need to wash my hair and I am almost out of shampoo. Half the baby food will get me through till Thursday night, then I'll have to come here again for the rest once I get may paycheck cashed. Ah! Getting the check cashed costs me 1%. One percent of $432 is four dollars, thirty two cents. The kids have been invited to a birthday party, we're not going to be able to go - can't get a present."

She stayed in line and rolled the reality of things through her mind over and over again, as she shuffled forward as each shopper paid and moved on with their lives.

"If I leave the line to put this stuff back now, people are going to get pissed and then I'll have to stand in line again, and that will make me late picking up the kids."

She teared up in frustration. It was then she decided her kids would not go without food, nor was she going to feed them weeks old hamburger for dinner. She pulled out her check book the moment she decided her best course of action.

Now readers, this is November 2002, a time when it was still possible to participate in the activity known as "floating a check"  - a procedure, no longer possible at most establishments in this, our present day.

She felt guilty doing it. But somehow she rationalized it by distinguish between what was "right" and what was "legal". Sometime the two are mutually exclusive.

It was Monday, one week into the pay period and with just the two badly worn twenties in her purse, she wrote a check for $47.23 which, should, unless something happened between now and then, get her through till next payday - four long days away. She did this knowing that even if she deposited those twenties in the bank tomorrow morning (the banks were now all closed) she would be overdrawn by $7.23, which would result in a $25.00 overdraft fee. As the check was accepted, stamped, and stuck under the tray in the register drawer, she felt no relief. She knew she would be back again tomorrow, or perhaps she would try a different store. On Tuesday morning, after dropping the kids off at eight o'clock, she swung by the customer service desk of a Kroger's down the road from the HEB she wrote the hot check at the night before. She cashed another check for $48.00. She held that cash sacred throughout the morning at work and then during her 30 minute lunch break, she skipped her brown bag lunch, leaving it in the office fridge, and stopped by her bank. She signed the deposit slip at the desk situated in the middle of the luxurious-glass-clad building, walked gingerly to the first open teller she could find, guiltily deposited the cash. The teller gave an almost inaudible "hummph" as she pulled up Jaime's account, and no doubt, saw her balance of almost zero, logged the deposit, printed the receipt and slid it across the marble counter top, "Have a nice day" she said not without some amount of sarcasm. The same pattern would be repeated for Jaime on Wednesday, Write a Check, Cash a Check, Deposit Cash, Suffer the humility, Get...Through...The...Week... Then Thursday again and then again on Friday as she did not get her paper paycheck until 5pm every other Friday. Then Saturday morning she would need to be at the bank at 9AM to make the final deposit - her actual paycheck. If everything went right; no paper work went astray, no data entry errors were made, and if she remembered the sequence she needed to maintain she would start the pay period off, $48.00 in the hole.

If anything were to go wrong; if she couldn't make it to the bank at lunch; if the store would not cash her check because she went to the well once too often, if she forgot, for some reason, any of the steps in the sequence, she would find that she not only owed the $47.23 for the original check, but $48.00 for each subsequent check, plus the over draft fees. Let us calculate the hole Jaime had dug herself.

$47.23 + ($48.00 x 3 for the days leading up to pay day_ = $191.23, if all of the checks bounced because of a mistake add $25.00 per check x 4 checks = $100.00 in penalties for a grand total "debt" of $291.23. That's some mighty expensive baby food, bananas, salt, eggs, etc. But what else could she do? The grocers were not about to let her borrow the food with a promise to pay on Friday. Besides, the "I'll gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today" did not work for Wimpy in the Popeye comic strips. No, she did what was "right" by doing what was "illegal" and somehow she was able to justify it that way. But the justification fell far short of alleviating the tension this caused her in her life. Tension which, by the way, caused her body to perspire, her muscles to contract, her pulse to quicken - the constant state of worry depleted her body of calcium, potassium, salt, fluids. The stress, which in short durations primed the body, made it more efficient, more prepared, those enzymes and proteins, and sugars and salts, and adrenaline, is a thing of beauty when kicked into gear during short periods when they are needed. But to maintain that stress too long, depletes the body's reserves.

And now, to the importance of the salt and bananas in this sad tale. Sodium Chloride, ordinary table salt, is vital to the functioning of the human body. As is the potassium, found in the banana. Jaime's cells, those that operate the contractions that enable her muscles to leverage her bones into motion, help her walk; those cells in her brain that function so as to allow her to plan complex sequences to float checks and worry about the next bill to come in the mail, while performing the functions of her job, are dependent on the sodium chloride and potassium in her body to function. This, then, is that magnificent creation, mentioned several times already in this story - the Sodium Potassium Pump.

The transfer of the sodium and potassium across the cell membrane as it is repeated causes a minute electrical charge, or more correctly, a difference in electron potential across the cell membrane. The pump is constantly opening channels and "swapping" three positively charged sodium ions with two positively charged potassium ions in and out of the cell. This causes the electrical potential of the cell to vacillate between a positive charge and a slightly more positive charge. The resulting electrical current flow is the basis for all of life. There is little known, for instance, about the sino-atrial node depicted in diagrams for the human heart. This SA node is commonly referred to as the "natural pacemaker" of the heart. Science has endeavored to explain, where it is located and how it functions. All we know, even at this late date in our human history, is it functions on the theory of the sodium potassium pump. If this exchange is interrupted, the potential for the natural pacemaker of the heart to cease functioning, is increased. And, according to the hero of our story, all of this is simply an observation from inside the machine. And, without some outside influence or without the ability to view the workings of the machine from the "outside" the glue that holds the machine together may never be completely know. As it stands at this point in our narrative, and even in our present day, humans (a part of the natural world) "seeing" what holds that atom together and atoms together, to form cells, and cells together to form organs, and the sodium potassium pump together, to give those cells and organs function, would be like a speedometer observing the operation of the automobile, writing a paper on how it functions, and explaining how the automobile came to be. This is an impossibility. It is also the most primary question for all of human philosophical thought, religion, and science. Philosophers struggle with the question of why. Science struggles with the question of how. And religion struggles with the questions who. In this sense, Donny was philosopher, scientist, and priest. As he worked his way home from the office after four or five more minutes of staring at the framed needle work over his door - "In Him All Things Consist" - the question of the sodium-potassium pump once again, began to dominate his thoughts. A small seed of a purpose was sprouting and reaching for the sunshine of reality that had been eclipsed by the sudden darkness into which he was thrust. It was his musings of all of these things, a renewed spark of desire to continue his search, and perhaps the thought that maybe the answer was still out there, that caused him to skip his afternoon stop at the coffee shop and his pitched battle with flimsy straws. Halfway over the Charlestown Bridge, he stopped. Looked to his right at the US Constitution, the oldest active war ship in the naval fleet, docked there - the first time he had done so in over a year. And like a young child, he marvelled at the crisp black and white paint, the rigging upon which sailors clung with buckets of whitewash and tar. The flags adorning the masts and the decks, the noise of the city. His heart leapt with joy and excitement as he looked down between his feet through the grating to the water below. His heart raced, his face became flushed, his pulse quickened, his breath grew short. A smile appeared across his face causing his scraggly beard to bunch up on his cheeks, exposing two rows of imperfect, coffee stained teeth. He felt alive, his humor resurfaced,

"My little pumps are working full steam ahead now..." he said to himself. He then continued his walk, where before it was a lethargic slog of one foot in front of the other, it was now a brisk, energetic stride taken by a man who had been recalled to life.

This was the importance of salt and bananas.

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