Agency assigned me to a slum on the south side of Chicago. There among mind-staggering problems I encountered a small problem everyone faces in one way or another. People kept hitting me for handouts. Walking around the shabby streets in my white skin and blue suit made me appear wealthy. I was relatively rich.
Sometimes a group of black guys my own age standing outside the Record Shack gesturing and laughing would see me coming and spread out across the sidewalk. By the time I got there they were staring in stony silence—some jiving blankly to the music, some amused, a few with open hostility.
"Hey social worker, you got some loose change?"
"I wanna buy me some cigarettes, man."
"Gimme a quarter."
After while I realized they didn't want the money so much as they wanted to see how I'd react: scared that if I didn't give they'd kick my ass, or would I try to be cool and joke it off ("Money! man, I'm paid in food stamps,") or would I be professional and digging out my wallet distribute cards instructing them where to go for Adult Education classes (maybe then they would kick my ass, waiting creaky on the fourth-floor landing of some mine-shaft dark tenement). Or maybe I wouldn't say anything, just walk on by like the caseworker chicks did sometimes—downcast eyes, smiling the martyr's halfsmile—and they'd watch her hips swing into the distance discussing whether or not she was out here looking for it.
Sometimes some drunk would latch onto me, follow me down the street clutching at my elbow, stumbling, slobbering, explaining he was colored and I was white and what the hell did I know about it, and he was old and I was young and man when you're old everything hurts every minute. Telling me anything he could think of, all the memories and stories flooding into his head through the sluice of alcohol, but always amounting to the same tragedies and hard luck, the same line manufactured out of past realities: he needed winter clothes for his little baby, or money for carfare so he could get a job, or for his TB—here he'd cough up a hoker and lay it on the sidewalk green among pecking crowds of pigeons.
Or a few had a better approach: look man, I ain't gonna bullshit ya, I need it for a drink. Maybe they'd walk away if you shook your head no. But many were persistent believing if they Just bugged you long enough you'd pay to get rid of them. And if that didn't work they'd beg because if there's one thing a man can't stand it's another man begging him—particularly in public with everybody watching.
For lunch I'd usually go to McDonald's Hamburgers. It was a drive-in, all glass, tile and stainless steel gleaming under neon. I didn't have a car but there were benches where you could sit outside and eat your hamburger and fries. Across the street the city was moving mountains of tenements. Pardon this inconvenience, Another Improvement being made for a Greater Chicago, Richard J. Daley, Mayor, the signs said. Workmen drove muddy, yellow bulldozers over fields of rubble. Drills clacked their prophecies of new foundations while kids chased up and down the huge mounds of dirt around the excavation pits. Blocks behind the site, modern highrise housing projects rose up like walls. Usually a bunch of kids would come up and mooch dimes off me for cokes. After they bought them they'd stand around discussing the White Sox with me, munching the ice after the drink was gone.
When I was new to the job—my first few months—constantly getting hit for money used to bother me. First I tried the open-handed approach and gave something to whoever asked. Usually all they wanted was a quarter. But I guess the word got out because everybody on the street began asking me for money. Each day I was out there the same people would show up. The handouts began adding up. But what was worse I worried about being thought of as something no selfrespecting caseworker wants to be thought of as—a sucker.
So then I made myself judge. Decided I'd only give money to people who really looked like they needed it. To whoever needed it! This, of course, was symptomatic of getting so close to the madness of the slum that your actions become absurd. But my absurdity was accepted by the neighborhood as something to be expected. When I'd refuse to shell out they argued: "Look man, I know you gave something to Clyde Jones. How come you give to him and not me? Is he a better friend, man? His problems bigger than mine? Or howbout yesterday! Lucy Winters says you layed a half a buck on her. What she doin' that I ain't?"
I could have said, "Look man, it's my money to do what I want with." But somehow this seemed to lead down The Lord Giveth The Lord Taketh away path of Miss Trainer's lectures.
Miss Trainer had a repertoire of lectures painstakingly collected over many years of service. Each new worker got to hear the one about "and I'm sick and tired of hearing young people knocking The System in front of recipients when it's The System that puts clothes on their backs and YOURS too!"
I'd dismissed her as just another of the frustrated old bitches The System was full of, who'd been rewarded for years of mediocrity and compliance with supervisory positions. It wasn't until the day I heard her lecture in Intake that I realized the extent of her power. The lecture began with a command for silence—her throat cleared into a pinched Kleenex—while all around her unwed mothers shushed illegitimate children.
"I hope none of you down here can work because if you can you won't get a cent out of US. I have to work for my money; you don't think the taxpayers pay me for staying home and having babies, do you? Of course not. If you are found eligible for Public Aid you will be expected to cooperate with our many programs to rehabilitate you. After all, friends, Public Aid though a privilege of our great country is not charity. We don't want you to feel like you're receiving a dole—no one with any pride wants that—feel rather that we are making an investment in your future and through that in the future of democracy."
I needed another approach but there never seemed time enough to figure one out. It was a minor problem—one that didn't pertain to the majority of cases on my load. Most of the requests came from their friends and neighbors—cripples, old people, kids, addicts, con men—all those who had failed to qualify or had successfully avoided the welfare rolls. When my clients asked me for money it was usually as a loan which they insisted on paying back. They weren't interested in testing me. They needed the money, maybe for a pair of shoes for the kid who was starting Head Start or just for a pack of cigarettes at the end of the month when the money from their unbelievably small aid checks ran out.
There never seemed to be time to figure out an approach to anything. The office was a madhouse. My desk tottered beneath stacks of ragged case records I was always going to read.
Name: Julie McCall
Case #: ADC 1795502
Address: 3915 Cottage Grove
Birth Place: Greenwood, Mississippi
After clearing a space to write on I'd sit and try to concentrate on a letter to the mental health service worded strongly enough so that Julie McCall might be moved up a few ranks in the infinite line of people waiting for free therapy. I had to be careful not to word it too strongly so that when it passed under the bifocaled inspection of the arch-enemy, my supervisor, she didn't initiate proceedings to remove the children from the home. Such proceedings would never conclude. Their only effect was to divert energy away from dealing with the problem; their only purpose was to cover the supervisor in case something should happen. The telephones rang constantly like burglar alarms as if we were in a continual process of being robbed. Occasionally the hysterical voice of a caseworker could be heard above the din shouting into the phone that he had been ordered to hold the client's check because she had not shown up for housekeeping training.
Dear Mental Health Service,
I am writing in reply to your letter regarding ADC 1795502. A waiting period of six months before therapy is inconceivable given the current situation. Mrs. McCall undergoes weekly "epileptic fits" which have been diagnosed as possibly hysteric in nature. In recent interviews she has become increasingly despondent and has indicated powerful anxiety associated with past experiences. She was fucked frequently by her father between the ages of twelve and sixteen. Her two oldest children are reportedly his. Her husband, a man thirty years older than Mrs. McCall, is threatening desertion because he can no longer support her and the children plus his family of ten by a previous marriage. Unknown to Mrs. McCall her oldest son, Charles, a boy of twelve who is still in fourth grade, offered to blow the caseworker for a quarter during the last home visit. Due to rapid deterioration of the home
It was always at such a point that my phone would ring. Perhaps it would be Mrs. McCall herself calling as she did at least once a week to tell me she was going to kill herself and the kids.
"Don't Mrs. McCall."
"Why not? What we got to live for?"
"Things will get better.
"You crazy! I'm gonna turn the gas on and kill us all!"
"Please don't do it Mrs. McCall."
"I'm gonna do it this time for sure."
"But your children want to live."
"How do you know?"
"Anybody can see that…they're great kids. You've done your best raising them so far. They love you."
"They ain't happy—they just ain't sure how bad it is yet. I can't get 'em nothin. They lucky if they got enough to eat."
"But you give them love."
"Love?! What good's that without something to eat, some new clothes once in a while like other kids get?"
"You can't just give up."
"I sure can. My head hurts all the time, all I do is cry and worry about my kids—that they'll grow up like me. My head keeps hurtin. You my worker. You suppose to do somethin."
I tried to do something. I talked a friend of mine, a psychiatrist with a private practice, into giving her a half a hour of his time a week free. I paid the fifty cents carfare and two-fifty childcare that it cost for her to get there. This arrangement lasted about a month and then she stopped going to see him.
"What the hell happened, Bill, you were suppose to do something," I complained.
"I tried to," he said, "but going back to that environment screwed everything up. Analysis is for the middle class, man. What she needs to solve her problems is fifty bucks more a week."
"Why'd you stop going?" I asked Julie McCall.
"It was wastin the money," she said, "nothin but talk. Besides that man is crazy, he tole me not to feel so bad about what my daddy done to me."
Walking downstairs from her apartment I almost trip over Charles McCall sitting crouched on a stair beside the bannister. He's holding himself like he's got a stomach ache.
"What are you doing here, Charlie?"
"Listening. Look what I got." He holds up a new looking transistor radio. The earplug dangles from his ear.
"Nice…one of those Japanese ones?"
"You wanna know how I got it, right?"
We step out of the piss-damp hallway. The sun bounces into our eyes off windshields and windows.
"I didn't steal it, heh-heh, it's a present."
He stares up at me with his translucent twelve-yearold face, eyelids wizened by sunlight. He winks. "You dig? What kinda music you like?" He turns the little radio on full blast and won't talk anymore, strolling past other kids down the street, dangling earplug plugged back in.
ONCE after hours I went to a bar to hear Muddy Waters with a friend of mine who'd started out with the Agency but ended up working full-time for "the Movement." We'd both been drinking a lot all afternoon. It was hotter than hell at the end of August and we were drinking cold beers and at the point where after every beer you have to get up and piss. Muddy was great singing one blues after another, sweat beaded on his face, his sportshirt hanging out. All the instruments were electric and they kept blowing fuses so they had to turn the air conditioner off. The drummer worked before a microphone; the guy who played harp cupped it against a microphone and when he fanned it the cord lashed around so it looked like an instrument with a long black tail. They had the doors open at both ends of the bar to catch the draft. It wasn't very dark yet. The windows still held some orange. The bar was loud and packed with a few couples trying to dance pressed against the wall and dripping beer bottles being passed over the heads at the bar. Kids squirmed through the tunnel the bar stools made on the pretense of shining shoes. After getting back from a trip to the john I find this guy in my seat talking in Al's ear. Al's just sitting there smiling with his money spread out before him on the bar.
"Give me a buck, man. C'mon brother this is one of your own askin ya…don't be a cheap mother. We got to help each other. I'm thirsty too, man. Fifty cents?...okay, just buy me a beer."
Al says, "Don't bother me, man, I don't have time for that shit."
The guy shrugs and moves down the line.
I tried it in the district a few times and it worked pretty well on drunks. There was something cavalier about the "I don't have time for that shit" part that got them. But it obviously wasn't an all-around technique. The "Reversal" was even more limited—just as the guy has his timing down and is about to ask you for something you turn and face him eye to eye with your palm extended and say, "Hey friend, can you spare two bits?"
What I finally did arrive at was a common-sense approach. Somebody would hit me for money and I'd say, "Look man, I'd like to help you but do you have any idea how many times a day I get asked out here? If I started giving to everybody who asked me I'd have to be a millionaire."
That usually worked. It was much better than asking "Why should I?" because then they'd say "cause you got something extra and I ain’t got enough." It had the effect of depersonalizing the request, of lumping them in with a group which made it seem like the odds were against me.
But the best thing about it was that I believed it the most. There was the part about "I'd like to help you." That was true. I would. And yet it was realistic. I was making about $500 a month before taxes and the caseworkers were getting ready to go on strike. Who knew how long that might last. I had nothing saved. My rent was $85.00 a month. I ate my meals out. I was paying
$100 a month tuition, going to grad school full-time at night in order to stay out of the draft. Whatever was left disappeared, mostly on drinking. If I got hit for a quarter five times per day and was in the field three times a week and about forty-nine weeks a year—I was entertaining the thought of the Agency giving us so much per month to give to moochers just the way they reimbursed us for transportation expenses. I mentioned the idea to Joe Faigabank who was union treasurer.
"We can't ask them to do that," he said.
"Why not—don't you have to loan out money when you're out in order to do your job sometimes?"
"Yeah, but look, trace the idea out to its logical conclusion. If you can do that why can't you just go out there and start giving the money away? You give the caseworker a wad and he just walks around poor neighborhoods handing it out. Even the commies wouldn't support that."
"At least I'd know what the hell I'm suppose to be doing out there."
"You're suppose to be rehabilitating the disadvantaged by filling out forms in triplicate," Joe said.
"And looking for their boyfriend's shoes under the bed. Well, bring it up at the next meeting anyway, will you?"
Joe just stood there for a while punching staples in a random case record. When he figured enough time had elapsed to convince me he'd thought it over he said, "Okay, figure it out and write up some statistics."
"When do you think we're going out on strike?"
"They're going to discuss it at the next meeting," Joe said. "They gotta give us more bread man, I'm barely making it."
"Can you believe it's possible for an ADC mother with five kids to make it on $250.00, man?"
"Has to be something on the side. Boyfriends. That's the only way. The people who make up those budgets have Ph.D.'s in Home Economics."
"We ought to get the recipients out on strike with us."
"What? A hunger strike?"
The hell with it, I thought, if we don't strike I'm quitting. It had been a year and a half now that I'd been representing the bureaucracy, promising people aid they never got, jobs where there weren't any, medical care from butchers, sending them to psychologists who tried to help them accept their poverty, poking my nose in, spying-that's what the job basically was—the spying. But hell, I thought, at least I'm trying to do something. Then Bertha Williams called me up.
Actually she had called me up about a month before and asked me to drop over. She wanted some advice. She was a lovely, gentle woman whose husband deserted her five years ago, leaving her with four kids to support. She had worked in a factory stuffing jock straps in boxes until she was knocked down by a lift truck and her spine injured. Somehow the company screwed her out of getting any compensation. We were friends, or as Miss Trainer preferred saying, we had rapport. I had been very lucky in helping Mrs. Williams out of a jam she should never have been in during my first winter as a caseworker.
It had been a very bad winter with many spells of zero weather. Mrs. Willams made the mistake of moving from a condemned building. Her case record was lost and her aid checks undelivered. When she first contacted me her new landlord had given her a five-day eviction notice. She'd been surviving for two months on what she had been able to borrow from relatives and friends most of whom were little better off than she was. Her apartment had no furniture—some boxes and a mattress on the floor, a hot plate, but no refrigerator. She had been keeping her perishable foods on the windowsill, pulling them in at intervals so they wouldn't freeze, until someone got wise and stole them. I managed to talk the landlord into turning her heat back on and lifting the eviction notice. When I went to the office her case had been supposedly transferred from, I found her case record and checks among the myriad memoes that had accumulated on the desk of her previous worker. He had quit over a month before and still hadn't been replaced. I had a violent argument with my supervisor who took the position that since Mrs. Williams had managed to exist for two months without aid then apparently she didn't need it. She was overruled however and the Agency approved $15.00 for a refrigerator. Her landlord, astounded at receiving his back rent, got us a good deal on a "hot" Frigidaire.
Mrs. Williams trusted me. She wanted some advice on her ten-year-old son, Irwin. He had a hernia, she explained, and she wondered whether she should have corrective surgery performed now or wait until he was older. I told her that was strictly a medical decision which I couldn't make, but that I did know that scar tissue heals faster at a young age. We talked about the possible effects growing up with a hernia might have on the boy like affecting his interest in sports or his entrance into puberty. I advised her to discuss it with a doctor. When I returned to the office I wrote out a referral to County Hospital for Irwin and mailed it to Mrs. Williams.
At first I didn't recognize her voice.
"Who am I speaking to, please?"
"This is Mrs. Williams," Her voice was flat and hollow at the same time.
"How are you, Mrs. Williams? How did Irwin make out? Did he have his operation?'
"How's he doing?"
I had an impulse to hang up. The phones were ringing. "He's dead? How could he be dead from a hernia operation? It's not that serious.” For some reason I didn't believe her.
"He's dead," she said, "that's all I know. He died on the operating table."
"But how!—didn't they tell you how?"
"I guess they did. They said they had to cut a hole in his throat but that it d1dn"t work. I don't know; I didn't understand them."
"I'm sorry," I said.
"I'm calling to find out about the funeral," she said. "Are you all gonna pay for it?"
"Yes…tell the undertaker to call me and I'll make out the forms…I'm sorry, Mrs. Williams.
"Thanks," she said and hung up.
I listened to the phone buzz for a while and then dialed County Hospital. I asked for information about Irwin. They gave me the runaround until I started hollering about an investigation. I didn't tell them I was a caseworker. I said I was with the Mayor's Office. A doctor explained that the boy had a heart defect which had gone undetected and his heart failed during the operation. They did all they could—performed a tracheotomy and massaged his heart but he died. There was nothing anybody could do, he said. It was one of those things.
I hung up and my phone rang almost immediately. "This is Mrs. Williams again. I hate to bother you but on our budget for next month…do you have to take Irwin off right away. I could use his twenty-five dollars to buy us some clothes for the funeral."
"I'll leave him on," I said.
"Thanks," she said. "I appreciate it."
I WAS coming back from the funeral. It was early in spring and tiny blades of grass were pushing up from mud, through broken glass from beer bottles, among cracks in the sidewalk. Papers that had been buried in snow dried yellow and blew around. It was my last day in the district. Joe Faigabank asked me to organize my ideas on a handout fund before I quit. He figured it would be a little something extra the union could concede over the bargaining table. Rumors of a public employees' strike against the Agency continued to circulate. Newspapers carried articles predicting riots in the Negro community during the coming "long, hot summer."
I thought on my last day I would remember my first day and see everything vividly again, but I didn't. I was walking down the street adding up one quarter times 5 per day times 3 days per week times 49 weeks per year times how many years per life when I saw this panhandler coming a block away. I see him getting ready to mooch and automatically prepare my excuses: I'd like to help you man, but do you realize how much I'd be spending if I gave to everyone who asked for it, not just you, man, but all the charities for orphans and war victims and mental illness and cancer and the heart fund and kidney disease and the Panthers and the Peace Movement and I'm hardly making it myself, brother.
No socks. At half a block I see his red-rimmed eyes behind cracked foggy glasses, a crushed hat, baggy pants with dragging frayed cuffs, a too-thin even for this spring day topcoat, limping like a scarecrow assembled at a Good Will store. He blinks at me and says, "Can you give me one cent?"
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