"I hear and I forget; I see and I remember; I write and I understand." - Chinese proverb

Wednesday, November 14, 2012


For ten and a half years, from 1983 to 1994, I worked as a municipal social worker.  I fell into this job; I had not the slightest inclination toward this sort of career and, in fact, could probably have used a little social work myself.  (I was 28 years old, had a 2-year college degree in Liberal Arts and lived with my parents.)  This was not a big city but rather a small town, the one I'd grown up in.  If you think this meant there wouldn't be much real action going on, think again: I saw it, heard it, and very probably smelled it, all of it.   (And on the top floor, alone, without a panic button.)

The job description, basically, was to administer the General Assistance program "in accordance with state mandates."  It's all done by the state now, in fact, but back then if you needed money you came to see me.  If you met the eligibility guidelines I slipped a voucher to the Town Treasurer who would cut a weekly check, either temporarily -- if you had minor children and were pending State Aid, or were disabled and pending Social Security -- or ongoing, if you had no other source of income and agreed to participate in the town Workfare Program.  This was the dry stuff, I'll admit, and required reams of paperwork and keeping a yearly ledger by hand -- I'm lucky I had an adding machine that took tape, never mind a computer.

This wasn't all, though.  There was another aspect of the job, and that was to be a referral service for -- and often a liaison between -- the client who needed help and the agency or person who'd be able to supply it.  There was some guidance for this, of course...conferences, information dissemination, and Info-Line.  (Thank you, whoever invented Info-Line.)  Over the years I'd built up my "Anonymous Angels" too -- townspeople who wanted to help in some way but remain unnamed; I could call them when soon-to-be new parents had need of a crib, or when there wasn't going to be a Christmas this year for a big family, or when someone deserving needed their oil tank filled.  There was no telling who would walk through my door next, or what they'd need; one day it might be a wig for a woman with cancer, the next a grieving father who did not know where to turn for help with his murdered daughter's funeral expenses, the next day finding a lawyer for a 15-year-old boy who wanted to be legally emancipated from his parents.  This was not Happy Valley.  

It was a job that made me feel important, gratified and at times at my wit's end.  And usually, people moved on...I might never know what happened, or how they made out, or what became of them, but it was a learning experience for both (or all) of us.  That much is a given.  And as time went by I realized: with the exception of a few repetitious ne'er-do-wells who felt they were entitled to damn near everything, these people were on the other side of the desk could easily have been me -- and my mantra became: there but for the grace of God go I.

One day a couple a bit older than me came into my office, shaky, wide-eyed and with an air of desperation.  "It's our son," they said.  "He has nowhere to go and we can't take him because we can't help him.  He's 20-[something] and he needs treatment for substance abuse.  No one wants him.  He has no insurance.  We are afraid he is going to die."   Not on my watch, I said.  And I got on the phone.

They were quite right; none of the inpatient treatment programs in the surrounding areas wanted him.  "We have no beds available," they said, or "Sorry, but without a guarantee of payment..."  I looked into the eyes of these parents.  I got back on the phone.  I begged.  I pleaded.  I stopped just short of offering to pay for the treatment myself, which of course I could not do.  I took it as my challenge and my mission -- to find help for this kid, a kid who, sadly, would probably slip right back into the self-destructive behavior anyway, but he was going to have at least a chance.  I tapped hospitals and treatment centers in a gradually widening circle.  We were so discouraged.  I knew the State Hospital would take him for a detox but after that he'd be pretty much on his own again...and he needed more.  He needed an ongoing program, and by Jesus, I was going to find him one, and then -- a facility said okay.

I wrote down the information for the parents and they literally ran out the door with it.

Weeks went by; maybe a few months, I don't quite remember.  Every day something new came down the pike, another challenge, some new law to learn or case to be researched, more goddamn paperwork, and worst of all, the politics.  This was a municipal position, and non-union; we were subject to new and often unpleasant treatment by new employers every two years, and if they didn't like us or didn't like the job we were doing, it was one, two, three you're out.  Election time was nearing.   The atmosphere at Town Hall began to shift and change.  We could no longer operate as a well-greased cog; we had to watch our backs.

One day, a striking young man in a leather jacket strode into my office, holding a single red rose.  He was smiling broadly.  I could only begin to imagine what this was all about.

"Hi," he said.  "I'm Tyler Smith."  (Not his real name, of course.) It was the substance-abuse case, of all people, and the kid standing in front of me looked a little the worse for wear, but happy nonetheless.  "I know what you did for me," he said, "And I just want to say thank you."  Thank you!?  In the midst of all the slings and arrows came a beating heart, a big smile, and a sign of hope.  I hugged him, and wished him all the luck in the world.

Out with one administration and in with another and the workplace became needlessly miserable for not just me, but a number of others.  We were told to keep hand-written logs of everything we did each day, from opening the mail in the morning to locking our desks at night.  We had Staff Meetings every week which accomplished nothing and took up precious time, since each of us had our own separate tasks which until now had simply fallen into place as they should have without interference.  This new atmosphere did not bode well.  There were rumors.  There were whispers and closed doors.  There were ongoing "Executive Session" (strictly private) meetings by the powers-that-be.  Our hours were slashed, especially mine, and after I turned in my daily log I was told not to get involved with helping people any more -- just do the assistance applications and distribute the checks.  Helping people wasn't in my Job Description.

I was completely bewildered.  How do you do this, I thought...when they come to you and look you in the eye and ask you, how do you say you can't when you know you probably can?  Do you just turn your back?  What do you say, that your hours have been slashed so you just don't have the time to help them?   I realized my days were numbered now and the way I felt about the job's evolution and the suddenly shifty eyes and shadowy offices, that was okay by me.

Years went by as years do, and I found happiness as a library technician until chronic Lyme Disease kicked my ass so hard it effectively disabled me.  I worked as long as I could, with double vision, weak arms and numb legs, but finally, I had to stop and apply for help, first from the state and then from Social Security.  This wasn't easy, and was made more difficult by the sometimes harsh and haughty demeanor of the person I had to apply to -- at times it was an old colleague, for one reason or another, and there was a collective sigh and rolling of the eyes at that.  But I had no choice.

Yesterday I was shuffling around the grocery store, tired, sweaty, and in a hurry.  A guy with a carriage passed me by the ice cream section and from the corner of my eye I saw him stop, turn around and look in my direction.  It didn't register that he had stopped to look back at me.  "Um," he said quietly, "Excuse me, but are you...Linda?"  I didn't recognize him, but because people do confuse my first name (it's the Linda Blair/Exorcist thing I guess) I corrected him, figuring maybe he knows me from somewhere, maybe he's someone's brother or husband or son or... "I'm Laurie," I said.   "You worked at the Town Hall?" he said.  "I did," I answered, and I felt a flicker of familiarity -- I have seen this guy somewhere before.  "You helped me a lot when you worked there," he said.  I was still puzzled and then he smiled and said "I'm TYLER?!!"

Oh my God, I thought, and "Oh my God," I said, "Tyler."  Of course he politely asked "How are you?  How have you been?"  I haven't been all that great, but what do you say, really -- "I'm good," I said, and then I realized I was good, seeing his handsome, healthy grown-up face.  "And you?"  Funny, even as I asked, his smile broadened until it outshone the fluorescent lights overhead and I suddenly knew what he was going to say.  "I'm doing really well," he said.   I hoped he was telling the truth.   "That was a long time ago, Tyler," I said, "That was in the late 1990s."  His smile widened.  "Yes," he said.  "I'm 42 years old now, and I've been clean and sober for 19 years."

That stopped me in my tracks.  I shook my head; I didn't know what to say, and I had to just hug him again.  "I'm an operating engineer now," he said with obvious pride.  I wanted to ask more questions, to know if he was living in the area, if he'd ever gotten married and/or had kids, but he began to push the cart down the aisle again.  So I wouldn't get to know everything, but that was okay.  He had told me the most important thing.  You remember the old "Mary Tyler Moore" show?  Remember how she's walking in the city and she suddenly takes off her hat and throws it up in the air?  I would have done that, I think, if I'd been wearing one.  I smiled all the way home.

For the last four years that I'd worked there, I'd have to say that the job at Town Hall had been the worst job I'd ever had. 

Yesterday I think it became the best.

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