Some who have joined this line in the “Salad Bowl of America,” wrapped in blankets and hooded sweatshirts, are farm workers and their children. Many speak Spanish. Perhaps a few are "undocumented," not that it matters to anyone getting the vaccinations – or to anyone giving them.
After waiting more than four hours the lucky ones receive their free shots from the Monterey County Health Department, while the rest are told to come back in a few weeks.
This gathering has none of the characteristics of a queue for concert tickets or a movie. The stoic faces stretching back as far as the eye can see look very much like those in old photos of 1930s bread lines. The people are polite, patient, determined.
One man in a weathered straw cowboy hat tells of waiting at a clinic for half a day a few weeks earlier to obtain seasonal flu shots for his four young kids. Now, he fears that if he were to be stricken with the more severe swine flu he might miss so much work that his family would go hungry.
A nurse and her Spanish-speaking interpreter walk along the line questioning each prospective recipient. The criteria on this day state that only pregnant women, young people 2 to 24, and adults under 65 with serious lung disease are eligible. The man in the cowboy hat is informed that he doesn't qualify, but he happily accepts four red coupons so his kids can be vaccinated.
One woman arrives at 8:15 a.m. after driving 25 miles from Marina just to hold a place for her pregnant daughter, who is driving 30 miles up from Soledad. The pregnant woman's partner is a cop, so he received an H1N1 vaccination at work, but his unmarried companion was deemed ineligible.
A tall, overweight black man, wearing an Oakland Raiders knit cap, tells the nurse about his chronic emphysema. And his age? He's 67. The nurse says she is sorry, but no one over 65 will be inoculated this day.
"Jimmy, you could have just told her you're 64," says his pal. "They're not checking ID, man, it's an honor system."
"No," replies the guy in the Raiders cap as he shuffles toward the parking lot. "I can't do that."
Workers in black vests with the words Health Department on the back in large yellow letters have set up a display next to the sidewalk to give demonstrations in proper hand-washing technique. Children and parents are told they should wash for at least 30 seconds, making certain to scrub their nails and spaces between fingers. Every kid is given a bar of Palmolive soap as a gift.
This all reminds me of a time in 1954 when I was in elementary school and the nation was in the midst of a polio epidemic. Hopes of curbing the outbreak rested on a vaccine developed by Dr. Jonas Salk. Our school in Westchester County, N.Y., was selected to take part in the test – half of us getting the real vaccine, the other half getting a placebo. There was little protest or even discussion; we just lined up for the shots and felt a sense of honor about what we were doing, and what government was doing for us.
Not many miles from the free clinic in Salinas, local pediatricians are giving H1N1 shots for $30 to their private patients and, in some cases, their well-connected parents. There are no lines, no need to stand in the cold before dawn.
And in Washington, Congress continues its acrimonious debate over how to fix the nation's health care system. Perhaps the unfortunate timing of the flu pandemic will help bring into focus the fact that health care shouldn't be a special privilege for Americans who want it and are willing to stand in line for many hours to get it.
When the youngsters finally get their H1N1 shots some scream and cry, while most of the parents just smile. Each kid is given a paper sticker to wear on his chest. It has a heart with the words, "A mi me quieren."
Somebody loves me.
© Peter Funt. This column first appeared in The Monterey Herald.