My job was weird, dull, crazy, mostly pointless, and sometimes ugly, but that hardly mattered.
[I was a caseworker with the Warren County office of the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare.]
Getting out of the city mattered. My time in Chicago had been an almost yearlong spasm of dirt and dysfunction redeemed only by the art museum and the university library.
Now, I could drink beer and smoke weed by campfires, go for daylong hikes on weekends, and buy acrylic paint by the pint, stretchers by the dozen, and canvas in twenty-yard rolls.
[I painted five to seven hours daily.]
My understanding of color was honing itself to a razor’s edge. Shapes were evolving through long sequences of incremental change, taking on new meanings while retaining traces of old ones, until their psychological resonance became deeply layered and nuanced. Whatever the outward, critical, objective value of my work, it was clearly taking me into psychological and intellectual realms I had previously been transported to only through the works of chemically-enhanced friends and famous others.
[Making art seemed like enough, at least as long as I didn’t slack off and lose my momentum. Painting was a revelation in slow motion. I lived for it. I lived in it. Happiness, in any conventional sense, was not a particularly relevant factor; I didn’t allow it to be. First, I needed to redeem myself, to myself.]
A committee was appointed to simplify Pennsylvania’s application process for welfare, Medicaid, and food stamps. Until then, the application form had filled both sides of a single sheet of paper, with space for changes, notes, and new signatures at each quarterly, six month, or annual eligibility review, depending on the type of case. With the new, “simplified” process, a six-page application form had to be completed from scratch, in the client’s presence, with each regular eligibility review. It was a painstaking process that could be downright harrowing if the client was coughing and hacking with the flu, hadn’t bathed in months, if there were chickens scurrying and fluttering around the kitchen catching and eating cockroaches, and/or the house was littered with dog shit and rotting garbage.
[Kitchens were best for interviews because they tended to have hard chairs. Sitting on stuffed furniture was often inadvisable.]
The first time I had to complete one of the new forms on a home visit was with an unwashed, dull-eyed young couple from a family for whom the Great Depression had never ended. It took forty-five minutes to complete the form, meticulously asking even those questions I already knew the answers to. They both squirmed and fidgeted constantly throughout the interview. Finally, as they signed the completed application, the woman said, “We went to the doctor yesterday. He said we have scabies.”
I drove home, stuffed all my clothes in the washer, and took a very hot shower. For weeks afterward, an itch would trigger a momentary spasm of panic and revulsion.
January 26, 1977: Snow.
TK shuffles by in his polyester leisure suit.
Distraught clients on the phone—a blizzard is coming and they haven’t enough fuel oil and no money—shivering people and freezing pipes. Agway won’t deliver without money up front. I give them a bullshit mini-speech about an emergency program that is (theoretically) going to be implemented soon, etcetera. They know I’m just trying to get them off the phone as painlessly as possible.
I made phone calls, even though I didn’t have much hope. I argued with Agway, even though it was pure pretense. My “Sorry, I tried” phone call was well rehearsed and smoothly delivered.
The blizzard rolled in and everything shut down, including the welfare office. By two-thirty, I was home stretching canvases and getting high.
Evening painting was halted by a welcome interruption—Terry, alone and radiant. An hour of small rambling talk and a cascade of kisses flowed from the studio to the bedroom.
I rose from warm afterglow to dress and walk her home and get high with her husband.
I realize that I’m a real asshole.
Back home, I began and finished a three-foot square canvas filled with bright yellows and iridescent gold and titled it “Terry’s Light.”
And wrote these words in the wee hours.
The day’s first interview was a young single mother who had fled from a town forty miles away to escape her abusive boyfriend. She said the car was in her name, but her boyfriend had been the main person who drove it. Since she fled abruptly with few possessions, she hadn’t looked in her trunk until she arrived in Warren. There was something in the trunk that worried her, though she wasn’t sure what it was. She asked if I would take a look at it, so after the interview I accompanied her to her car. The worrisome item was a bazooka. I brought her back to the office and called the police.
January 31, 1977: I still have people freezing and fuel suppliers behaving like archetypal capitalist pigs.
Still no fuel oil for the L family. A neighbor gave them a couple of five-gallon cans. Mounds of bureaucratic shit. Busy signals, tape-recorded messages, and, “I’m sorry, but I don’t have the authority to… ,” and “Mr. L applied for a credit card and was rejected.” Goddamned corporate motherfuckers—but I stay cool, think of five o’clock, walking home, river ducks, painting, smoke, Terry’s touch… .
At four-fifty, I make one last phone call and I’ve got the L family a hundred gallons of fuel oil.
I made a home visit to review Medicaid and food stamp eligibility. The house was incredibly filthy. An old woman bedridden after several strokes, joints swollen with arthritis, twitched one arm up and down, gasping for breath and mumbling in an Eastern European language. Her dim daughter had the woodstove so stoked that the heat and stench were stifling. I felt numb.
February 1, 1977: The morning staff meeting was filled with verbal flatulence about the “energy crisis.” Token efforts proposed with deep sincerity while carefully dodging away from the simple, ancient moral imperative of keeping everyone, the whole fucking tribe, warm and fed through the winter. We, of course, as the Department of Public Welfare, lack the power to do it, though if we had that power (money) we could actually do it pretty easily. Keep everyone warm and fed. Take care of the sick and wounded. Civilization 101.
I went to lunch with TK. First we took a short drive to smoke a joint—he had to move his car to avoid a parking ticket, anyway—then we went to a bar two blocks from the office. TK washed down his Elavil with a gin and tonic and ordered another round. I ordered a Wild Turkey and a cheeseburger.
Not long after we returned to the office, I finished a phone call with a difficult client and glanced toward TK’s desk. He was facedown, snoring softly, with a lit cigarette in each hand. I extinguished his cigarettes and tapped his shoulder.
“Are you okay, man?”
“Yeah, I just didn’t sleep well last night.”
February 21, 1977: Sketch and paint.
Books, tea, and bagels.
Secretly half-waiting for Terry’s hoped-for door tap.
Happy, blue-skied windows.
And the door tap comes… .
She is so different from me—so young, such a different life…why does she feel so right, good, and fated in my arms? What can we be to each other?
The family had lived for generations in an old farmhouse without inside plumbing. Sometime in the 1950s the privy filled up. No one in the household was sufficiently sober or competent to build a new one.
The house had the typical floor plan of an old farmhouse. Off to one side of the front door there was a parlor that in older times would have been the room with nice furniture where one entertained the preacher on Sunday afternoon. The parlor was empty and unused, so they cut a hole in the floor and shat into the basement for twenty years. The case narrative warned caseworkers not to visit during the summer.
February 22, 1977: Night truck growl.
A strand of Terry’s hair on my desk.
Crescent moon through broken clouds.
And the late writing of this against the coming sleep. (Time slides stealthily.)
The apartment was threadbare, but tidy, which was a pleasant surprise because the young, single mother I was there to interview came from a family of notorious dirt and dysfunction. She was washing dishes as I asked questions and took notes. A puppy scampered into the room and pissed on the floor. She wiped up the urine with the dishcloth and went back to washing dishes with it.
March 1, 1977: Most nights, I paint later than I intend to—often oversleep, hurry to the office, and yawn through the workday morning. For a while, I thought I was simply disorganized, but lately I’ve realized that it is often in defenseless moments of fatigue that ideas and images break loose from the depths and float to the surface. The mental second wind I get after struggling to stay awake is a time of special clarity—often the best time to begin a new painting. Though I pay a price for that clarity, not only in tired mornings, but also in emotional fragility, for now, living without it seems like it would be a lot harder than paying its price.
Robert was a fellow caseworker whose quick, sarcastic wit sometimes sparkled darkly, but his attitude was beyond bad.
[He once signed a letter informing a client that they would be prosecuted for welfare fraud, “Love, Bobbie.”]
Robert’s knee-jerk loathing of authority was rendered aggressive by a heavy dose of short man’s syndrome, and led him into constant antagonism with management. He staged confrontations on the flimsiest pretexts and openly bragged of his intention to drive the director out of his job.
[The director carried his own heavy array of quirks and dysfunctions and commanded little respect from his staff, but like me and most, he was just trying to navigate through his workdays with a minimum of headaches and enough leftover energy for a life. Though, at times, he was carelessly unfair in small ways, if you treated your colleagues with a modicum of respect, and your work was good enough to slide through an audit relatively unscathed, you would be subject to little scrutiny and could steal small nuggets of freedom for whatever freedom meant to you.]
Part of the problem with Robert was that, in his first months on the job, he had behaved more cautiously, and the director, whom he now bitterly referred to as a “dictator,” had allowed him to stay long enough to gain permanent civil service status, instead of firing him while he was still on probation. And then Robert got elected union steward, because the only other candidate was TK, who tended to get drunk on lunch hour, largely because childhood tragedy had chewed his psyche ragged. Now, firing Robert would require far worse transgressions than simply being an argumentative pain in the ass.
[Caseworkers had regularly scheduled field days for conducting case reviews in the clients’ homes. We took applications and reviewed ongoing eligibility for welfare, food stamps and Medicaid.]
In mid-morning on my field day, en route to Terry’s apartment in the state car, I passed the director en route to the office from his home.
[He was coming to work two hours late.]
We waved to each other as we passed in front of Robert’s house, where Robert’s car was conspicuously parked in the driveway. It was his field day too.
Terry was alone and her year-old daughter was napping soundly. Our hunger for each other was fresh and urgent, but shedding our clothes and going to bed was way too risky, especially with the constant flow of people through three apartments with overlapping circles of friends and drug deals. We sat on the couch and smoked a joint. Talk flowed into touches, touches into kisses, and the rising fervor of kisses into unbuttoning and unbuckling. I was on the verge of helplessness in the flood of sensation, when the door opened.
[I hate it when that happens.]
A mutual friend walked in, halted in startled embarrassment, turned, and exited.
[There were no repercussions—the friend kept his silence.]
When I returned to the office, the director asked to speak with me in private. He asked if I had seen Robert’s car parked in his driveway, and I said that I had, indeed, seen it there.
“Would you be willing to testify to that in a hearing?”
“If I am asked, I will speak the truth.”
[The problem with stealing field time using your own car was that you had to turn in mileage reimbursement reports, and that put you in the position of stealing money unless you could fit your personal agenda into artificial spaces built into a genuine field day schedule. With the state car, you had to be sure the miles driven were not flagrantly out of line with the documentable work done, but this left plenty of latitude, because we often had to track clients down to boondock addresses with poor directions.]
My personal agendas were mostly pretty simple (a nice secluded place in the woods to pull over, get high, write, read, and draw), until Terry came into my life.
[When her husband, Lynn, was laid off, I took their application for Medicaid and arranged for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania to pay for the birth of their child.]
Terry’s apartment was on a dead-end street within my geographically assigned caseload, so the time I stole to be with her involved no stolen money. This wasn’t merely an ethical distinction—it was a serious legal issue as well. An hour hanging out with a sketchbook, a trout stream, or a lover was goofing off. Not going out at all and then covering one’s tracks with a false mileage expense report was fraud.
[Using small portions of one’s field time for personal matters, like paying a bill, going to the post office, picking up a prescription, or cashing a check, etcetera, was a widespread practice and widely regarded as a compensatory perk for the ugliness and squalor we frequently had to wade into. But I also have to admit that I regularly stretched that slack to its elastic limits and beyond.]
Though I had recurring, well-earned spasms of guilt with regard to Terry’s husband, who was an honest man, a generous friend, and my primary source of marijuana, I did my job well and got good performance evaluations. Could I have been a better caseworker if I had given the job all of its allotted (and paid) hours? Theoretically, I suppose, but if I had played by the rules, my performance could also very well have been worse. The pressures exerted by my stolen time were a harsher taskmaster than any supervisor, and the strange slack I granted myself had more to do with survival than greed, ego, or lust. One could rationally argue that stealing time was in essence stealing money, but the simple fact remains that I did my job, not excellently, but somewhat more than adequately.
[There’s little value in retrospectively finessing my ethics in this regard, because I neither rationalized nor agonized it at the time. I was getting by and I was making art. Getting by is a fulltime job when you have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and chronic depression. I was desperately in love, even though I would have preferred not to be.]
Robert was fired. The rest of the staff was relieved to see him and the stressed out, combative atmosphere he generated gone. The firing was appealed and upheld. I testified at the appeal hearing.
The hypocrisy of testifying that Robert had abused field time when I had witnessed it while not only abusing field time myself, but doing so to carry on an affair with an eighteen-year old, married former client didn’t trouble me.
[Robert was an asshole.]
I hadn’t felt so much in a very long time. I had almost forgotten I could. In moments granted by chance, we were drawn into each other’s arms by a force as natural and irresistible as wind or the flow of water. Often, we only had time for a tender meeting of eyes and perhaps a kiss. In younger days such occasions might have been so awash in sexual frustration as to dampen my ardor, but now I gratefully received them as undeserved blessings.
One of my clients committed suicide. I liked him and knew he was going to do it. He was trapped in terminal medical misery and had a right to his choice. To say that my colleagues would have found this morally and professionally ambiguous is rather an understatement—it could have gotten me officially disciplined, if not fired. So I didn’t talk about it. I carried some guilt, but intervening would have been such a cruel betrayal—his life was painfully and irremediably shrunken, and he trusted me.
March 15, 1977: Library books overdue in Jamestown—calling garages about van repairs.
Thoughts of woodland light, leaves, and softness.
Victoria’s diagnosis has been changed to schizophrenia. I’m not surprised, but it’s sad.
Mark time, chalk up minutes, wait.
Coffee break walk in bright sun.
In late afternoon, the dullness thickens and the background murmur becomes more abstract. Rich’s radio muzak—tiny dancer—murmur. (Out, I want out of here!)
Phone calls—scribble notes and adorn them with doodles.
“Blue jean baby, LA lady…”
Call the hospital billing office. The collections clerk isn’t in. I’ll call back.
Scribble. Check my calendar. What appointments do I have scheduled tomorrow?
“…hold me closer tiny dancer…”
Telephone. “Will my medical card cover support stockings? The pharmacy wouldn’t do it.”
“Yes, that’s covered. Go back and tell them prior authorization is no longer required. Tell them to call me if they have a problem.”
Hang up the phone and re-enter ambient reality. The muzak has taken a turn for the worse. Fucking Donnie Osmond—this is torture!
Painting and pushups tonight.
New changes in employment regulations render enforcement practically impossible. Other caseworkers bitch about it. I nod in seeming agreement and respond with noncommittal, cynical sarcasms. I’m secretly pleased because I’ve never hassled people about it anyway. I don’t care if they want to work or not. If someone really wants to work and there’s anything I can do to facilitate that, I’m happy to oblige, but I have better things to do than make people run around to offices and interviews with beer on their breath. Not getting hired is easy. I fill out the forms and keep quiet. What most people call ambition mostly seems like another form of sloth to me.
Road kills melting out of the snow banks.
The interior of the client’s house was literally a foot deep in garbage. Narrow, trodden-down pathways wended through every room. In the living room a vacuum cleaner stood, half buried. It was plugged in.
On a cold, wet spring evening, I took a break from painting to walk four blocks in drizzling rain to Lynn and Terry’s apartment.
[I was strangely addicted to the ache of my longing.]
Lynn’s father, Clair, stopped by. He politely ignored the heavy scent of freshly smoked marijuana. I was a few years older than the others and had professional experience sufficiently parallel to Clair’s (state government bureaucracy) to give us a degree of common ground that he was surprised to find among his son’s hippie friends. The sly humor and slightly cruel ironies of his conversation displayed a level of verbal sophistication that was too rare in my life in small town Pennsylvania. In the background, I also knew that he had been a rather worse than merely inadequate father to Lynn, whose psychic wounds from his father’s multiple stormy marriages were more visible than he was willing to admit to himself.
When I rose from my chair to leave (the studio beckoned), Clair said he needed to be on his way as well and offered me a ride home, which I gratefully accepted. When we pulled up in front of my apartment, Clair told me how very much he had enjoyed our conversation and fished heavy-handedly for an invitation. He was making a more than obvious pass at me. I begged off with gentle excuses.
The world’s strangeness seemed a deep and sad companion as I painted far into the night.