(Written June 22nd, posted late due to continuing browser issues.)
Another cloudy, windy, slightly warm day in New York City… The
oppressive heat, the Summer-Of-Sam heat that cracks open every fire
hydrant and makes the whole city nuts, hasn’t hit yet, thang god.
When I was in high school I convinced myself that the weather
sympathized with me and was playing to my mood, trying to charm me. It
usually did what I wanted — torrential rain on my birthday in a hot
season, whatever. I was convinced this was a sign I was Lucky. (This was
in high school, mind you, not even elementary school.)
There were many things which backed up this assumption. Where you find
me commenting on my luck in old writing journals, I pointed to success in
my romantic endeavors and access I had just then to a horse, which was a
lifelong dream… certainly my mood was buoyed by the attention of an
English teacher who was very encouraging about my poetry. Now I look back
on this with my Hampshire goggles on, and I think I was Privileged, or
maybe just Spoiled.
Today was maybe the first day I have walked from the subway stop to
work and not been acutely aware I was in a depressed neighborhood. Usually
something sticks out — mostly people who are out of place for nine thirty
in the morning. Grown men who are just sitting, not going anywhere. Kids
who ought to be in school who are lugging shopping bags for their mothers.
Or sometimes I’m caught by the pong of organic goo festering on the
sidewalk near the school, where a pile of cafeteria trash has recently
been. Today, though, I might have been on Fifth Avenue; people all around
me were flowing naturally down the street, and the decay of the buildings
seemed to be fading into the background.
The hardest part of working at a welfare organization is seeing the
constant stream of people coming in and out. I only get bits of their
lives, unlike the counsellors across the hall, who hear all the medical
problems and the family trouble. They sometimes talk about the things our
clients say. “This is like prison,” one woman spat at a co-worker of mine.
The counsellor works hard to line up opportunities, so she was was deeply
offended. The client, I guess, was frustrated with the nature of the work
she was being pressed into, maybe also the rules of workfare.
I thought about that for a while. The middle and upper classes have our
Organization Man, our Man in the Grey Flannel Suit to read,
and a whole literature on Taylorism and de-skilling if we get around to
it, too. We make movies like Fight Club and Office Work.
There is a certain kind of middle or upper class parent who tells his
college-bound child Follow your heart, Go ahead and take a liberal arts
major, Major in writing if it’s what you love. We know that we do not want
to take Soul-Crushing Desk Jobs.
Are we the same people who elect representatives who created workfare
as it stands, this system which jerry-rigs a solution to under-educating
poor kids in public schools? Did we vote for the conscription of former
welfare mothers into jobs we think starve the soul?
I do not wear a grey flannel suit, but my bosses would like me to.
The workplace culture of my office dictates that as employees in a
welfare-to-work organization, we are setting an example of what it looks
like to be a successful employee for the tired-looking women who come
Most mornings, I can’t do this. I was the one who decided in high
school that I was going to wear four different plaids on a given day if I
felt like it. I took enough shit in junior high for not wearing socks that
matched my outfit. The dictates of fashion simply aren’t important to me.
Worrying about them leads to low self esteem and wastes of resources which
could be better spent elsewhere. There’s a double standard, too; men don’t
have to work as hard to look like they fit in. I’d rather be creative with
what I wear. To this day I still wear pairs of socks which don’t match.
It may sound ridiculous, but this is the hardest part for me about
working where I work. I see the women coming down the hall, and there is
something subtly mismatched in their colors or lines. I identify with
them. They are there to learn how to write a resume, how to make a good
impression when they interview, how to properly format a letter in Word. I
know how to format HTML properly, but I have yet to feel confident that I
know how to impress at a job interview. Lately I wonder if anyone will
ever consider me a good employee. Of course, if I fall my luck, or
whatever it is, is waiting to catch me…