January to April, 1991
My father had assumed I would eventually find my way to law school, the only profession he thought acceptable for me. That I had no desire to go to law school and frankly couldn’t imagine myself as a lawyer didn’t enter into the equation. My dad thought that I was brilliant and would excel; I didn’t.
I did agree to take the LSAT; at the same time I saw an ad for a federal government employment test. Having spent thirteen years as a paralegal manager and then recruiter, I was ripe for a change. The 80’s had been good to me, but they were over as was my big hair. The part of my recruitment job that I had enjoyed the most was job coaching recent grads of the academy I worked for.
I could make people understand their strengths and weaknesses; I could see what they needed to change; I could even dramatically change their lives by honing in on their problems.
I took the LSAT for my dad with cursory preparation and did surprisingly well; I took the federal government test without any preparation and was convinced I had failed. Three weeks later I found out that I had passed and the offers for interviews began coming in.
The interview for Social Security was on the second work day after New Years. Some friends had visited for the holiday and my annual first Saturday after New Years party; otherwise known as Lucia’s surprise birthday party. It was to be my last dance until sunrise party, and I so wish that I had kept a guest book as way more than a hundred people came that night including the man who would become my brother-in-law, a large group of people I had met in the Hamptons that summer, a Hispanic dance troupe from Canada, and all my personal friends. Had I known that it was going to be the last party I would ever have on 63rd Street, and the last really big one I would have, I guess I would have memorized each detail.
The friends who were staying in my apartment seemed to want to settle in; I finally forced them to leave the morning of the interview. I literally filled out the application on the way to the interview, didn’t have time to Xerox it, and was fifteen minutes late.
I panicked; nobody cared. They told me to go into a room to take the test. People were sitting in the room sweating over the essay test that contained such questions as:
“What would you do if you were interviewing a woman who had a very noisy disruptive child.”
As everybody else was sitting working on the test I finished, and was called into my team interview. I was a professional interviewer; I had been interviewed and had interviewed countless times. A team interview was supposed to consist of four or five very serious looking people.
Walked into a room where two casually dressed guys greeted me. They looked over my test, nodded and began to tell me about the benefits. One benefit was supposed to be every other Friday off, if I worked a certain number of hours per week. Sounded great to me as the hours were much less than I was used to working.
When they finished with the long list of benefits, they asked if I had any questions. I was curious as to how they looked at the test. They laughed; it was just to see if you had any common sense. Had figured that one out when I first looked at, which is why it only took me a minute a question.
When I left they immediately began checking my references. A woman called the next day and asked if I wanted to be in the first external SSI training class in eight years; Reagan had tried dismantling the system; Bush One tried putting it back together. Yes I love the irony. External means hired from outside of Social Security.
My dad freaked. While he was in love with the idea of me working for Social Security, he thought that I should be working for SSA. I tried explaining that SSI consisted of more judgement calls, and fewer formulas. But he never liked me getting my hands dirty. I lived on East 63rd Street off Fifth; I came from the suburbs. While I wasn’t innocent; I wasn’t used to extreme poverty.
Training was in Jamaica. I’m from Long Island so I know the train station well. Jamaica turned out to be an interesting community in transition, and the people in my training class were wonderful. We were supposed to the best and the brightest new hires; we were indoctrinated with visions of future glory, and how we were going to move up the ladder from Claims Rep quickly.
Training was fun; even the tests where easy. A few of us were computer proficient; when we would have computer tests we would, uh, set it up for the people who were less proficient as there were only a few computers and they were in another room.
We were a close class who would explore Jamaica each lunch hour. One Thursday when I left, I was supposed to meet my dad for dinner at 40 Carats, a health food restaurant at Bloomingdale’s. The trains weren’t working. I didn’t have a cell then, and somehow reached my mom after a long wait for the public phone who reached my dad. Three hours later I arrived at Bloomingdale’s, to see a very old looking man, sitting on the Ralph Lauren covered bed outside of 40 Carats.
My dad had never looked very old to me before. It scared me; it scared me even more when he said he was just about to leave as my dad would climb mountains to see me.
The following Tuesday I called my parents when I arrived home. I could tell my mom was on the phone but she didn’t say anything.
“What’s the matter.”
Long long long long pause.
“Daddy had a minor stroke. Don’t come home.”
My mom was in more than a bit of denial. Despite her protests I went to the hospital the next evening, and stayed at my parents’s house. My sister was working for my dad then; she would drive me to the train station at 6AM as I had to be at work at 8:30. Though it was only a 20 minute train ride very few trains actually stopped at Jamaica that early. Found that very strange.
My training room didn’t have a telephone. They took tests on Thursday to see if his brain was functioning. The results were supposed to come on Friday which happened to be both Good Friday and the first night of Passover.
I wasn’t allowed to wait in the room that did have the telephone, but a manager agreed to get me when my sister called. Our father was brain dead. A friend from my training class had offered to drive me home; they wouldn’t let us leave until 3:30 PM.
On Sunday they began to talk to us about hooking him to machines. My mom wanted that. Fortunately the choice was taken away from us when he died that night.
I went back to work on Thursday when the managers called me into their office. I thought that they were going to express their condolences. Not. When I had first began working I had filled out a form that said I was willing to work in either Queens or Manhattan. They asked if I wanted to work in a bad area of The Bronx or what was said to be an even worse office, an infamous one in Upper Manhattan.
I asked if I could have the weekend to make my decision. No, they needed it by the next morning.
“Hey my dad just died; I’m really not capable of making this decision.”
“Oh, sorry, but we really need your answer.”
I understood that they were cogs, in a machine, but a little empathy would have gone a long long way.
I should have said that I wasn’t capable of making such a big decision then, and would take a leave, and begin again in a future training class. But I didn’t think of that; and I felt sorry for these men who were acting as if their careers were on the line.
I said that I would work in The Bronx. It was the first of many stupid decisions I would make.
Never ask a person who has just suffered a traumatic loss to make a potentially life altering decision. It’s really not fair.