The last time Dennis Gallian took his wife, Gwen, out to dinner was six months ago.
"McDonald's," said Gwen. "It was all we had money for."
Three days a week, Dennis -- 57, Vietnam vet -- works in a North Georgia factory. He wants five days of work, so on his off days, he sells his blood plasma for barely $50. He uses it to buy a few groceries.
"And diapers," he said. "For my grandson."
In his hand he tightly clutches his electricity bill, which is $222.82 and overdue. It's creased and wrinkled, like it's been folded and unfolded a thousand times, each time the Gallians either praying or cursing or both: How do we pay this month?
Last Monday, they woke up at 4:30 a.m. to line up outside the glass doors of the Metropolitan Ministries on McCallie Avenue. Others had gotten in line much earlier.
"Three-thirty,'' said Richard Jackson, 34 and "disabled.''
Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, the un- and underemployed make their way to MetMin for one reason: help. To pay the rent. Buy food. Find work. Eyeglasses, veterans care, job training. To just make it through the month.
"You know that whole teach-a-man-to-fish philosophy? I hate that," said Executive Director Rebecca Whelchel. "You see someone drowning? You don't stand on the shore and teach them to swim.''
I spent Monday morning at MetMin. Before I left my home, I complained because we were out of bread for breakfast toast. It's not that we couldn't afford bread. We just forgot to buy some. Just. Forgot.
The memory of that complaint burned in my mind all morning.
Gwen, after a series of strokes, owes at least two hospitals. No medical insurance.
"We're running out of stuff to pawn," said Dennis.
They've already pawned more than they can remember: TV, camcorder, the title to his pick-up truck.
"My wedding band,'' said Gwen.
Imagine. Selling your wedding band for rent.
"They may be living without water or electricity and can only pay either the medicine or rent. They have to make heinous, 'Sophie's Choice'-like decisions," said Whelchel.
How do we -- the rest of us -- make decisions about how to spend our money? As people? As a city and county?
Chattanooga's social services budget -- after initially receiving even less -- will receive $830,000 out of the $209 million budget. A proposed firing range for law enforcement will cost $1 million. The road up Aetna Mountain is expected to cost $9 million -- and be funded by taxpayers.
Why does a road receive nine times more money than the entire social services budget?
It's apples and oranges, I know. Lawyers, bank loans, bonds and terms like "tax increment financing'' make it seem complicated.
But MetMin saw more than 7,000 people last year. Whelchel estimates nearly half of her clients are new, which means our city's poverty crisis is only getting worse.
And for the Gallians -- whose story represents those of thousands of others -- the complication is how to keep the lights on. How to sell more plasma. What to pawn next.
"This is the Chattanooga people don't know about,'' said Whelchel.
For me to criticize the city budget, I must also criticize my own budget. Each month, the last line item: contributions, donations, money to help groups that help others.
For shortchanging social services, the city is wrong. But so am I. It can be as complicated -- or as simple -- as you wish to make it.
That dinner at McDonald's?
Gwen remembers not finishing her dinner that night. She made a simple decision.
Gave her meal away. To her grandson.
David Cook is the award-winning city columnist for the Times Free Press, working in the same building where he began his post-college career as a sportswriter for the Chattanooga Free Press. Cook, who graduated from Red Bank High, holds a master's degree in Peace and Justice Studies from Prescott College and an English degree from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. For 12 years, he was a teacher at the middle, high school and university ...