The Italians have a phrase which, if you’ll pardon my probable murder of it, sounds like “L’acqua che non vuol bere”, or , “It’s the water you didn’t want to drink that you will drown in.”
I certainly did not wish to sip from the springs of state government.
I was late for my lunch with the ex-priest who had been enjoined by mutual friends to find me a job. Late for our follow-up meeting at his office. I wore faded jeans to both, and similar to the interview he set up with a district director of The Department of Social Services. This shabbiness seemed only to engender sympathy. They assumed my only other clothes were the black robes of ministry. My cold silence during those meetings was interpreted as charming meekness veiling the attractive emblems of energetic intelligence begging for the harness. I just could not lose for the winning.
I was also informed that state employment was considered highly desirable. Great benefits with the kind of stability that could see a man clear through his grandchildren and the replacement of both hips. Their eyes into mine sought some indication that I knew the value of what they were offering me. That I wanted this as much as the many thousands of applicants who would be turned away, and forced to work for paychecks elsewhere, perhaps on Broadway, or in Hollywood or in Amsterdam or Bangkok. Thank you, I said through the clenched fillings of my upper and lower teeth. Teeth that would now benefit from an excellent dental plan just because I had been fortunate enough to be offered this particleboard coffin of a job.
Actually, my first position was described as “temporary”. I was being hired under a Federal grant by the Small Business Administration to examine the coastal damage caused by a recent flood. I would be part of a team of state inspectors accompanied by the folks from FEMA. The entire project would be wrapped up by the end of October. Not to worry, said my new employers with gleaming smiles, for now that you have a foot in the door of government you’ll be first in line for something more permanent, and “something more permanent” always happens, winkety wink wink.
Not as long as I have one good foot left with which to slam that door in your faces, I thought, as I drove to the actual first workday of my first thirty years on earth.
As I entered the parking lot of the surly state office building that regarded me through the beady eyes of its sullen little windows, I decided to make the day a cheery one. This would be a lark. Soon, I’d be back in leisure, and with swell stories for my medical school room mates, them with their sagas of nymphomaniacal nurses and stunningly handsome Jewish doctors and frightening OBGYN rotations. They had been in the seminary with me, having left before ordination, so church stories were dull ones for them. They had wanted descriptions of the Puerto Rican racquetball players with whom I had shared my summer mornings, but when no off-court sex had transpired, they had lost interest in my heterojuans.
Accustomed to modifying the reality of any given moment of my life by selecting a role to perform, I put on a Mary Tyler Moore face as I briskly, winningly and confidently entered the building.
I remember the wide metal Venetian blinds. White, but heavily yellowed, crimped and bent in places where perhaps someone nearing retirement had expressed impotent rage, or had, over time, simply slumped to the floor, raising a withered arm and grazing the blinds in a failed effort to break his fall. I remember the bright overhead tubes of fluorescent light monitoring me through dusty metal diffusers. Why not open the blinds and turn those lights off, I wondered. Oh, yes, I thought. This place needs me. There’s a purpose to this, after all. The corn is green. This house will be clean. Just a spoon full of sugar. My name? Mrs. DeWinter, as in I’m Mrs. DeWinter now. As God is my witness I’ll never go hungry again. Vox clamantis in deserto. This is a good thing. Can you surrey? Can you picnic?” Who’s your daddy? Who isn’t your daddy? You’re gonna make it after all. Hail Ceasar, those about to die salute you. We’re movin on up! Fasten your seat belts. St. Brigitte deliver us to Beekman Place. Big girls don’t cry. Happy days. Are. Here. Again.”
Three of us were hired that day. A powdery Sweeney Toddular bird of a woman processes me in the personnel office. Without my having asked them to do so, the administrators of this agency let me know that they will keep my background a secret from the staff. I am grateful for this. I feel as if I’ve entered a witness protection program.
I am introduced to my two co-workers.
New role, new mask. The immediacy of your determination to bring new life into the dry desolation of the workplace is startling. Grim resolve is behind the cheerful countenance that hides your fear. But you’ve done this dance many times before: no one will take the lead from you.
It feels like you’re in the first seat at the top of the tallest rise on an old wooden roller coaster, and you face the stomach-wrenching realization that there’s no going back now. The jerking, inexorable pull of the tow chain has creaked to a pause; and it’s a fast bumpy ride ahead, full of head-snapping turns and lurching drops on a rough track. Slap on that smile and grab the rail. Here we go…
After the third paragraph I was picturing you as Audrey Hepburn in 'a nun's story'. The final scene, where she exchanges her habit for her old clothes and is cast out into the grey skies of Belgium.
ha! having toiled for 16 years in the public sector, i can entirely identify with your feelings. you've put it perfectly.
i still talk to some of those folk and the sense of relief, at escape from disaster, is profound.
there's nothing disastrous about the fact of it: decent pay, excellent benefits, security, good work.
but for a free spirit, a creative soul, it is disastrous to be confined within the 14 volumes of policy written to address a single interaction with a family. that several of my managers were, at various times, highly complimentary (mixed with a little fright) of my tendency to go for "creative solutions," does not make up for the fact of the stricture of those rules feeling like a prison.
ugh. but your outcome was good, yes? 30 fucking years. amazing. and now you are free. . . .
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