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The Toybox

people for the conservation of limited amounts of indignation


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whee! took leave from work!
children of dune - leto 1
seperis
The only time that I'm really tempted to quit smoking--other than watching the lung cancer specials on Discovery Health--is summer.

It's weird, actually I was born and raised here. My body is *adapted* to temperatures above ninety. I don't even sweat at below one hundred anymore unless there's physical activity, which only happens when I see the trampoline and think I'm actually ten and could pull off that somersault if I really, really, *really* try. Which isn't often.

But outside, while I smoke between nine-fifty and ten-fifteen--my nicotine window of sanity, if you will. It's *hot*. It's freakishly hot. But it's not unbearable by any means. But--and it hit me halfway through a chat with Dan about experimenting with pavement and fried eggs--this is what people call *small talk*.

And wow, so *that's* what people mean.

It's rote. I can easily think about porn while mouthing temperature-related obscenities and never notice. It's *common ground*. I have, in fact, finally come to the place in my life where I can carry on a normal conversation and not panic halfway through wondering if I've said something that has no reference point in the conversation whatsoever. I can do this with *groups* of people. Legions, even.

Cool.



Work

I've been given the honor of blitzing--that means, fourteen interviews a day, two per hour, with the four o'clock hour off to finish cases. If you've read here enough, you know this is also called *suicide*. But creative suicide--I volunteered for it. My current schedule is eight a day total, or thirty-four a week. Monday and Tuesday, I'll see and finish a total of twenty-eight cases. This is how we cope with the hiring freeze and the way people are quitting right and left.

I have two types of clients--those that really like me, to the point of asking for me specifically, either because they've interviewed with me before or because my reputation has been bandied about during dinner conversation, and those that hate me, for the same reason.

I learned, pretty fast, that turnover in the state offices mean that most clients not only never see the same caseworker twice, they also don't see *experienced* caseworkers twice. It's hard to build a reputation of any kind when your tenure is a year. At least, not a good one. I also learned, though this isn't particularly new information, that those that receive beneifts are, for the most part, a community unto themselves. They've been doing this for generations. They are broken up by ethnic groups, but for the most part, interviewing one person in one of these means that for good or bad, your name is known throughout. My most treasured memory is calling a client to tell her about her benefits, and talking to *three other clients I interviewed* that were over at her house for lunch. I'd interviewed them all in the last two week period. Very cool.

They know me, even when they don't. During interviews, we talk about my son, their kids, absent fathers, no child support, the problems with daycare, transportation issues, and the rising cost of housing in Austin. They tell me about the ex that beat them, that left them, that keeps coming back, that's in jail, the abusive mother, the abusive girlfriend, strung-out and missing daughters, battles with alcohol, the way they can't get medical care for themselves, lost jobs, bad bosses, and what they like for dinner. I know less about my best friend. They aren't tragic. They're--resigned. That's the right word.

Somehow, I find that the most painful to deal with. The hysterics, the crying, the temper tantrums, the anger--it's uncomfortable, but also fascinating, because there's something in them that's still fighting. It hurts, because it burns out eventually--you can only keep up that amount of rage for so long before you give up--but it's still there. They want more. And they'll burn out themselves trying to get to it. God help you if you get in their way. Some of them get out. Most don't. It's very random, not something predictible.

There's always talk about people who manipulate the system to get what they don't, theoretically, deserve, and if there's one subject that liberals and conservatives come down together on is the entire whether they deserve it issue. No matter the politics of the public figures in question, the most powerful fights are always waged over making sure that people *don't* get what they don't deserve, what they don't need. And some Democrats start sounding like Pat Buchanan after a few hours of that. It's like talking about the weather. It's the equivalent of a discussion of ninety-four degrees outside. They're used to it, and they don't really believe what they're saying, but they say it anyway.

It's kind of bullshit.

When this job end, I'm going to walk away from this and forget a lot of it. If I have my way, most of it. And one day, I might even start saying those things, though I know better. And one day, I may even start believing it. It's easy to talk about the choices that lead them there, how it all comes down to how well a sixteen year old girl is really capable of seeing the future when she has sex for the first time with the first useless asshole that tells her she's pretty. It's harder to wonder if you can possibly call it a choice when it's all they know. I've said that my job is a world of women in the fact that my coworkers are mostly women, but it applies to my clients as well.

Most of my women will never own a new car, their own house, have a good paying job, have a stable relationship with a man worth the effort of breathing the same air they do, never move outside the community of family and friends that live the same way and have for the length of their lives, their mothers' lives, their grandmothers'. They won't hold public office, shop at the Arboreteum, own a computer, vote in elections, worry about such luxuries as the environment, equal rights, organic versus genetically engineered vegetables, be able to choose a life based off a philosophy instead of necessity of survival.


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It's so fascinating to me (and hi! I know we don't talk much but...) when you write about your work because that's the community I grew up in. I mean I was in the northeast (Bridgeport, CT) rather than the south/west but the community of poverty is the same. My best friends from my neighborhood and grammar school receive state benefits - and need them. Need more than that. And no one ever expected more from them but babies at a young age and dead-end jobs. They'll never leave Bridgeport and it's such a painful prospect for me to think about because, to me, we're just the same.

I got out though, but I get the discomfiting impression that my opportunity to do so was based on two things:
1) My mother came from a relatively middle class background - or at least her adoptive father did, my grandmother was much more working class immigrant stock - so the expectations of the upwardly mobile middle class were thrust upon me. There was never any question that I would go to college. No matter what I had to do, the financial aid I had to get, I was going to college because that's what you did. My mother was a single parent and a teacher with a pitifully low salary that struggled with (and eventually died from) chronic disease - these are the reasons we lived where we did and how we did.
2) I'm white. That's fucked up to have to point out but it's just true. I can "pass" as upper-middle/middle class because I look the part.

Anyway you just got me thinking about one of my many obsessions - class transition and how weird it is to be the one who left. Because you feel this responsibility to "represent" for the people who DIDN'T get out, because if you're well-dressed and college educated - people assume you "started" "that way". But you're always acutely aware that thinking about such things as the environment, equal rights, organic versus genetically engineered vegetables is a luxury afforded those who don't have to worry about day to day survival.

Anyway you just got me thinking about one of my many obsessions - class transition and how weird it is to be the one who left. Because you feel this responsibility to "represent" for the people who DIDN'T get out, because if you're well-dressed and college educated - people assume you "started" "that way". But you're always acutely aware that thinking about such things as the environment, equal rights, organic versus genetically engineered vegetables is a luxury afforded those who don't have to worry about day to day survival.

Thank you for posting!

I wish I had something interesting to say to this--your post reminds me vividly that my family has been only a step away from needing public benefits, but just *barely* by our fingernails. There's not a feeling of 'but for the grace of God go I', but a 'one bad month and that is me'. But yes, the expectation of what I'm supposed to do with my life is very powerful. My family straight through doesn't just want me to do something with my life--it's an expectation that I will not ever be able to escape, is as much a part of me as my eye color. I keep wondering what i'd be without that drive that was written into me from birth.

Thank you again for posting. You are making me *think* again, not just react. *hugs*

I'm sorry it took me so long to get back to you on this! I'm a bad bad LJer...

You're welcome! Thank you for being a person in your position who retains their heart and humanity and understanding that just because people are needy doesn't mean they are undeserving or somehow at fault.

here's not a feeling of 'but for the grace of God go I', but a 'one bad month and that is me'.

*nods* Yes. Exactly that. And no matter how much farther I get into the realms of financial stability, I'll always be afraid of falling into that "bad month" again.

I keep wondering what i'd be without that drive that was written into me from birth.

Me too. I mean I know I'm intelligent and have always done well academically. But without my family's expectations would I have known enough to "Make College Happen" with financial aid and such or would I have just shrugged and gone "oh well, I'm not one of those rich kids who can throw money away on college"? It really does make a difference.

Our whole Social Services system is just so very very fucked up. I don't understand how our government thinks it can be successful when they overwork, undertrain, and underpay by an insane amount - especially when it's a really stressful job to begin with.

One day you'll be free and you call tell me stories about your fun times and I can tell you stories about my fun times in CPS, and then we can both cry.

I'm around on and off all day if you want to come on and say hi. If not, then I'll talk to you tonight!

*hugs you and breathes* I am finding my zen in porn. Lots of porn.

I'm a big fan of zen in porn. Link me?

I'm wearing Quietude from BPAL. Maybe I'll find some Quietude...

That was beautifully and passionately put.

I grew up in the Black Belt in Alabama, rural poverty rather than urban poverty. When I was a girl, farmers still hired people to pick cotton. They would come from the fields nearby to buy lunch at my daddy's store. Bologna, crackers, slices of hoop cheese. Cookies from the glass Tom's brand jar. Oatmeal cookies and the rectangular coconut cookies. Cold cokes and RC colas. Grape Nehi. The heat was unbelievable. I can still see the face of the little boy whose nose was *so* runny. I wish now I'd given him a tissue. I was probably about 10 then. It was in the year or so just before the voting rights march from Selma to Montgomery.

The poverty was unbelievable and created a strange culture. Women shared employed men - a man might have children with several women. To put it another way, each woman may have children with several men. When a man received his paycheck, he went to one of his 'homes' and shared his paycheck with the woman. The next week, he went somewhere else. The houses were wooden and broken down. There was usually no air conditioning or telephone. There might not be plumbing. There was a lot of domestic violence and drinking.

The lady who cleaned our house and watched me and my sister was over 60 years old and had two husbands concurrently. They would all three come to our store, one husband driving with Ruby beside him, the other husband sitting in the back. I asked Ruby why she had two husbands, and I'll never forget the answer. "Lige, he works in the fields, and Jack, he helps me around the house, and we just gets along." You could see through the cracks in the walls and floors of her plain, unpainted wood house sitting on brick pilings, but it was also cleaner and neater than my house has ever been. Her dirt yard was swept clean. (She would have been embarrassed by grass in her yard.)

The illiteracy is unbelievable, even to this day. That area has a new congressman, Artur Davis, who is working to improve conditions with grants and what-not. One of the best hopes for the region is the new Alabama Reading Initiative, which is improving literacy rates where it is implemented in a phenomenal fashion. Of course, it takes money ... and trained teachers.

I drove through the area where I grew up a few years ago, and almost did not recognize it. It was like a third world country, a jungle, with the johnson grass higher than your head on each side of the road, and very few inhabited houses to be seen. Strange. The whole area was cultivated when I was growing up, and there was a neat house at least every half mile or so between the small communities.

It's so easy to say that people can do this or that. When you don't have transportation, clothes, skills, and you have minor children and no day care - well, it is not so easy. Particularly when it is all you know, as you said so well.

Sorry - didn't mean to reminisce all over your journal - you just got me to looking back.

I have comments for you! *does the happy dance of accomplishment* I am SO very sorry it took this long. I feel so bad that I kind of went overboard and added like 20 pages worth of comments. Please let me know if they don't come through.

Good luck forgetting this. I have read, and heard, things in my work that will be waking me up at 3:00 in the morning for the rest of my life.

At least when you go, you will go knowing you made a difference to each of those people you interviewed -- and believe me, you've made a difference just by caring whether they can get benefits, even if you can't give them to them. Compassion always counts.

Like a couple of the other commenters, this brings back memories of GovJob for me. I used to say that I always talked to people on the worst day of their life, but for some people that was just every day, period. I got the angry/resigned mix too--the people who were mad, you tried to focus the rage, and the people who were resigned, you spent half your time convincing that they should try again with whatever system had just kicked them in the head. But you couldn't give them too much hope, because if whatever you were trying didn't work they'd get kicked in the head again and it would be a million times worse.

I sort of bounced around on the edges of some of this stuff as a kid after my parents split up. But like mona1347 says about her mother, my mom was fixed in her expectation that her kids would go to college, damn it. And she was not to be denied.

*hugs you*

I think I should say how much I respect you for doing a job like that. I don't think I could take the emotional pressure and I'm filled with awe for people (like you) who do it.

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