Brooklyn, December 1967
I knew it was going to be another tough day at the Welfare Department when I saw the woman having an epileptic seizure in the Intake room. She was on her back, eyes rolling, jerking and thrashing, head thumping on the cement floor.
A security guard ran over and straddled her, trying to hold her down. Her arm whipped up and knocked off his black billed hat. Reaching back, he pulled out his billy club.
God, I thought, I hope he’s not going to hit her!
He wasn’t, but it was almost as bad. He tried to push the club between her teeth, to keep her from biting off her tongue, which could kill her. The jerking and thumping of her head made this almost impossible, though, and the club whacked repeatedly against her chin and face. Finally he got the club between her lips, and her movements seemed to slow down.
I couldn’t watch anymore. I turned back to the doorway and headed upstairs to the unit, where my desk sat in the second row from the back, the fourth desk over.
It was a freezing cold December in 1967, and there was no doubt about what I wanted for Christmas: Two things: a revolution; and then, a telephone for Mrs. Lee.
Actually, the telephone would probably have to come first, but that’s not how I felt–and I’m getting ahead of myself.
Every day in my job at the New York City Welfare Department, I saw dozens of good reasons for revolution: sad and desperate people trooping in and out of the Intake room, looking for help, begging for help, screaming for help. And every day, I watched the system fail them, giving them no help, or the wrong kind of help, or help that just wasn’t enough.
Even worse was the fact that I was part of this system, a caseworker giving out the help that at best was not enough, and for too many no real help at all. Day by day, I grew more convinced that somehow the whole thing, both the welfare system and the social order that created it, was rotten and needed to be overthrown and replaced.
That wasn’t all. Outside our big welfare center in downtown Brooklyn, the radios and TV echoed with endless reports of war, war in Vietnam, and something like war in the cities, riots and threats of riots and more and more crime.
I was against the war, of course, and doing what little seemed possible to protest and stop it. Lots of others were too. But none of it was working. The war ground on, getting bigger and bloodier each week. And nobody seemed to know what to do about the riots or the crime.
To stop all this, it seemed increasingly clear, would take more than protest. It would take a revolution. I hoped it would be nonviolent, but a revolution just the same, to end the war, the riots and the welfare system too.
Unfortunately, the revolution showed few signs of happening anytime soon. And in the meantime, I had work to do. My supervisor, Mr. Cliff, wouldn’t let me forget it. “Stats, Fager,” he kept repeating. “Let’s get those stats done.” There were big year-end reports due shortly, he said, and he needed reports on my stats to get them done on time.
“Stats” was shorthand for “statutory visits,” a visit to a welfare household that was required by law. Some households, mostly those with children, were supposed to get “stat” visits every three months. Others, mainly old people, got them every six months. With the end of the year looming, Mr. Cliff was nagging me to finish up a big backlog of “stats” in my caseload.
The details about “stat” visits, who got them and when, were still a little vague in my mind. I’d only been there since late summer.
“Don’t let it get you,” Mr. Dunbar in the basement training section had told me, “it takes two years to really learn this job.”
How true that was. Even after five months, I was also a little vague about how many and what kind of people were my responsibility.
“There are close to a million people on welfare in New York City,” Mr Dunbar had informed us when I started, “and for each one there’s a case file, a folder in a file drawer.”
Mr. Dunbar, a large black man who always had an unlit cigar in his mouth, seemed pleased by this information. It made me more than a little nervous. Sure enough, by the wall not far from our rows of desks stood a long bank of filing cabinets. In one of them was a drawer full of these files, almost a hundred of them, which were mine. My caseload.
Some of the files were thin, others fat, and growing fatter each month. The actual number of files changed often and mysteriously. Files came in from the steady stream of newcomers applying for welfare, or when welfare workers quit, as they often did, and their cases were reshuffled among the rest of us. Cases and files were also sent out to other offices, or given to the new workers who came into the basement training rooms every week.
Some of these file changes I knew about; others I didn’t. Each day was a scramble to keep up with the most urgent demands from Mr. Cliff or the clients in the noisy intake room downstairs. In this scramble, I had heard workers in the unit behind mine murmuring about “getting their caseload in order,” and it was just now dawning on me what this meant. They were getting rid of all the fat files–ones for families with children and all their needs and problems – and replacing them with the skinny ones of old people.
This winnowing was a shrewd career move, I was beginning to realize. For one thing, it cut the number of “stat” visits in half. And old people were usually embarrassed about being on welfare in the first place, so they hardly ever asked for any special help. Special help meant more work.
“In fact,” Mr. Dunbar had told us with a grin, “the Welfare Department has a separate category for the elderly, called ‘Old Age Assistance,’ so they can say ‘I’m not on welfare, I’m on Assistance.’”
He snickered, then took out his cigar and studied it. “It’s all the same welfare money, folks; but it lets them hang on to some sense of dignity.”
Yeah, I thought, a bogus sense. But was that better than none at all?
What all this meant was that those with their caseloads “in order” didn’t have to scramble much. In fact, as far as I could see they barely did any work. It also meant that many of the toughest cases were shuffled off on the likes of me, new workers who hardly knew what we were doing. So those families with the most needs usually got the worst service. The better I understood this, the more it made me hate the whole system, and yearn for that revolution.
But knowing all this didn’t change the fact that I had “stats” to take care of, and a deadline to meet, and Mr. Cliff riding me to get them done. When I got upstairs he gave me a list of names, and another reminder that the clock was ticking.
That was how I came to notice Mrs. Lee; her name was on the list. She was easy to miss: her file was one of the skinny old age ones; she hadn’t called or come in to ask for anything, and hadn’t had a “stat” since before I was hired. She also lived a long way from most of my other cases, really in another part of Brooklyn. Which meant a special trip.
Looking over her file, I grumbled to myself. Might as well get it out of the way. I bundled up, stuck a notebook in my coat pocket, and headed downstairs.
On the way out to the subway I stuck my head in the door of Intake. The woman who had had the seizure was gone, but there was a shiny spot on the floor where someone had mopped up after her. The security guard was standing by the Intake desk, chatting with the pretty but harried-looking woman behind it. His hat was back on, the billy club wedged under his armpit. I turned and pushed out into the frigid wind.
Two transfers later, I still had to walk several blocks to find Mrs. Lee’s place. Ice crunched under my shoes, and my nose ran. Finally I found her number, painted by a small door in what looked like an empty building.
I knocked. And knocked again. And again. Then I heard some shuffling behind it, and a muffled dog’s bark.
The door opened a crack. “What?” someone muttered.
I identified myself, and the door opened a bit more. An old woman with stringy white hair squinted at me, hesitated, then let me in.
I followed her as she limped slowly down a flight of darkened stairs. With every step an unpleasant smell got stronger. At the bottom I stepped on something soft, which turned out to be a carpet of newspapers. There were stacks of old newspapers everywhere, like an indoor hedge. A bare light bulb hung from the low ceiling, with an electrical cord running from a socket above it to an old radio on a table. The smell was overwhelming. A small ragged dog barked feebly at me, then cowered in a corner.
Mrs. Lee wore an old housecoat. She led me to a small table covered with yellowing newspapers and envelopes. Opening a drawer in the table, she took out several aged pairs of glasses, the rims folded up against the lenses. Then she fumbled for a sheaf of envelopes.
She knew the drill with welfare workers. We were supposed to check her receipts for what the handbook called “FRO,” or Food, Rent and Other, to make sure she wasn’t spending her tiny checks on some wild luxuries. She put three of the pairs of glasses together, in a kind of optical sandwich, and held the lot up to one eye, trying to read the envelopes through them.
My god, I thought, she’s essentially blind.
She was also barely able to walk, bent with arthritis and bad knees. She explained that a “nice man” at the corner market delivered groceries to her once a week.
Yeah, I thought, and I’ll bet that nice man charges double for them too, since she can’t even read the receipt. But that couldn’t be helped.
She also kept her dog with her all the time. This wasn’t only a matter of her game legs. She had been mugged by some young toughs in her changing neighborhood, and was afraid to go out. So she almost never left her tiny, dark warren.
That explained the odor, and maybe some of the newspapers. The dog relieved itself on them, and she put them in the trash, at least the ones she could see.
After putting the envelopes and glasses away, her hand moved into a pocket of her housecoat, and came out with a small bag. But then she stopped and gave me a defensive look. “I know I shouldn’t,” she said, “but it’s my one pleasure.”
I glanced at the bag. It was cloth, with an image of a bugler on the side. Tobacco. Her other hand came up with a packet of cigarette papers. She rolled her own. I shrugged at her. Hand-rolled cigarettes were not exactly extravagances, and I knew Bugler was the cheapest kind of tobacco. She rolled one, and lit up.
Then we were supposed to talk about any special needs she had, which I might – emphasis on the “might” – be able to get for her from the Welfare Department. Money for anything special meant filling out numerous forms and getting extra approval, sometimes several approvals.
But before getting to that, I had to ask how in God’s name she had ended up here, alone in a dark smelly basement. Though I couldn’t exactly ask it that way.
Her story was simple: she had come from Ireland as a girl, never married, and worked as a maid and then in similar jobs after that. Jobs, it turned out, that weren’t covered by Social Security. When she was too old and crippled to work anymore, she was left with nothing– nothing, that is, except Old Age Assistance. That, and the illusion that it wasn’t welfare, because unlike these young bums who were taking over the neighborhood, she had worked all her life.
Looking around the room again, I asked if she’d thought about applying for a space in one of the city’s old age homes.
She drew back, and shuddered. “No!” she almost shouted. “I worked in those places. I know what goes on there. Never!”
She stubbed out her cigarette, and told me about one place she had worked, which took the wet sheets from under incontinent patients, hung them on a line to dry, and then put them back on the beds, stiff and unwashed. She shuddered again and repeated, “Never.”
Wait a minute, I was about to say reassuringly, they’re much better places now. But the words stuck in my throat. I’d never been to one. How did I know they were any better now? “Well,” I said instead, “what, if anything, do you need?”
She started to shrug, but then looked thoughtful. After a long moment, in almost a little-girl voice, she said, “What I’d really like is a Victrola. To play my records on, you know. Just hymns and things.”
A “Victrola” I thought. A record player? “Can’t you get hymns on your radio?” I wondered aloud.
She looked apologetic again. “I can’t tune it,” she confessed. “It gives me a shock when I touch it.”
I turned and took a closer look. The case on the radio had cracked and fallen off; behind the dials I glimpsed old tubes, orange spots glowing within them.
“How–?” I started to ask.
“I turn it on and off with the light switch,” she said.
Now it was my turn to sigh. I couldn’t recall any mention of record players, or Victrolas, on the lists of special needs to fill out forms for.
“Oh,” she said, brightening, “and a telephone too. It would be so good to have a telephone. So I could call for help, you know.”
That was different. Telephone service was on the list. But it was tough to get it, requiring many forms and multiple levels of approvals, and with restrictions about long distance charges. I’d never tried to get one; I really didn’t even know how. But it made sense. “I’ll see what I can do,” I said.
Revolution. The word kept echoing in my mind back through the cold wind to the subway, and then the two transfers. That’s what was needed for a society that could treat people like Mrs. Lee so badly. Tear it down, start all over again. I didn’t know how or when it might come, or what it would look like, and still hoped it would be nonviolent. But it had to happen.
Back at the office, though, the Intake room was still crowded and noisy, with the security guard keeping a wary eye on the scene. Upstairs, Mr. Cliff was waiting, waving a list of the unfinished reports still to be written up from my other stat visits. So the revolution again had to be pushed to the back of my mind while I sat at the office dictating machine and tried to make sense of my notes from other visits. There were so many, and it seemed like each one had several forms to be filled out as well.
At five o-clock, I was grateful to escape into the icy December darkness, and turned away from the subway toward the department stores a few blocks away. I was behind on Christmas shopping, and there were only a few days left. I went into E.J. Korvette’s, a big discount place that was the Wal-Mart of those days.
Not sure what I was looking for, I wandered from one department to another, and soon was passing the pipe tobacco section.
I hate smoking, always have; but something drew me to the counter. There were large brightly colored round canisters of pipe tobacco on shelves behind it. “Do you have Bugler?” I asked.
The clerk smirked. Most tobacco fans think of Bugler as little more than shredded cardboard. But what did I care? He stooped down behind the counter and came up with the blue labeled canister. The price was ridiculously cheap. “I’ll take it,” I said. “Oh– and a couple packets of cigarette papers.”
From there, it was just a few steps to the electronics department, and a compact-sized AM radio. It took a little longer to settle on a small kid’s record player, with an arm you moved by hand. The real find was in the 99 cent record bin: an album of hymns by Tennessee Ernie Ford.
The whole haul didn’t cost much over twenty dollars. After that, the rest of my shopping came easily.
Christmas morning was still bitter cold, and subway trains were few and far between. It took a long time to get from home to that street, and I stood shivering for what seemed like an hour, pounding on Mrs. Lee’s door.
She was, of course, overwhelmed. I even brought a flashlight so she could turn off the light while I unplugged and replaced the dangerous old radio. Fortunately there was another plug for the “Victrola.” When Tennessee Ernie Ford launched into “The Old Rugged Cross,” she started to cry.
I felt a little uncomfortable. I was no philanthropist, and not good at emotional scenes. Anyway, this was so much less than she needed. But her gratitude seemed bottomless.
We sat listening to the hymns for a few minutes, while I tried to figure out a polite way to tell her I had to get back for Christmas dinner or something.
Abruptly she stood up. “Wait here,” she said, and padded off into the gloom of her small bedroom. I heard her rustling papers and moving things.
“Do you need any help?” I called.
But then she came shuffling back, with something in her hands. She handed it to me. It was dark and heavy. I lifted it into the dim light.
It was a horseshoe. A real horseshoe. Its bottom was worn and smoothed by many thousands of loping paces on the cobblestones of New York, or Dublin, or who knew what other city.
“It’s for good luck,” she said. “I’ve had it for a long time, but it’s for you now.” She took it back for a moment, hefting it in her wrinkled hands. “Be sure to hang it with the ends up,” she cautioned, “so the luck don’t fall out.”
I thanked her, and a few minutes later was walking back toward the subway, feeling the horseshoe’s weight in my coat pocket, and running fingers over its weathered surfaces.
Sure, the good deed lifted my spirits for awhile. But that euphoria was soon banished by Mr. Cliff’s demand to finish the remaining stat visits, get those reports done, and file all the various papers associated with them. Besides, outside the office, Christmas had barely interrupted the reports of war and more war that filled the radios and TVs.
Then on New Year’s Eve, in the middle of the night, an apartment building full of welfare families caught fire. The blaze started in an illegal garment factory in the back of the first floor, probably a spark from a frayed electrical wire on some old piece of equipment. Flames raced through the piles of fabric, and by the time the screaming fire trucks got there, twelve people, mostly children, had burned to death.
I walked past the building two days later, on the way to a stat visit. It was still near-zero in New York, and all up the front of its several stories, water from the firemen’s hoses had frozen on contact or halfway down, and turned the whole blackened frame into a massive, surrealistic, eerily beautiful ice sculpture.
Back at the office, the image haunted me, especially after someone from the unit whose clients lived in the building said they couldn’t find out who owned it. Like most slum housing, its real owners hid behind shell corporations, collecting the city’s checks but ignoring its safety codes.
Again the word welled up in my throat: revolution! Hunt down the slumlords who get rich while children burn in their lousy tenements. There’s got to be a better way to take care of people. Not that I knew what that better way was, or how to make it happen.
Then for some reason I remembered: Mrs. Lee. If I couldn’t get her a revolution, maybe I could get her a telephone. Then, if one of her handrolled cigarettes ignited a pile of newspapers, at least she could call for help. She’d have a chance, anyway.
But how to do that? First I had to figure out all the forms and procedures, and then get them done.
This wasn’t easy, especially since there were still some leftover reports from the late December stats that Mr. Cliff was hounding me for. It took several more days to catch up and get him off my back enough to start work on it.
But eventually I did, and some older workers helped me sort out what had to be done. Let’s see: three copies of this form, four copies of that one, and two each of several others. This one had to be signed by two supervisors, that one by three, and all of them filed here and there. Then there was the phone company to deal with, and their paperwork too.
All right. After several tries, all the papers were in proper order, and filled out correctly.
Even so, Mr. Cliff was not very anxious to sign them and start the process. A phone was a lot to ask; there was high potential for abuse he said, long distance calls to Timbuktu and who knew where else, all charged to the taxpayers. I patiently explained that Mrs. Lee was all alone in the world; she had no one to call, except maybe an ambulance.
After letting the forms sit on his desk for a couple more days, Mr. Cliff gave me a weary look and signed, and I was off to the races. With his John Henry, the signatures of the other supervisors, at levels above him, weren’t so hard to get.
Of course, copies of all the finished paperwork had to go into Mrs. Lee’s file; nothing would stick unless it was all in there. I came back from the last supervisor’s office feeling triumphant, and headed for the filing cabinet.
But her file was gone. I searched the drawer, then searched again. It wasn’t there.
Mr. Cliff shook his head. He wasn’t sure what had happened. Maybe it was transferred to some other office; she did live a long way away. Or – wait a minute – maybe they took it to training, for a new caseworker.
I raced down the stairs to the training room. Mr. Dunbar gave me a bored look and another shrug. “Often enough,” he said, “I just pull a batch of files from here and there for new trainees.”
He took the unlit cigar from his mouth and studied it. The chewed end looked slimy and disgusting. “And a week later I couldn’t tell you where they came from or where they’d gone, once the trainees go upstairs to their units.” He bit down on the cigar again.
I never saw Mrs. Lee’s file, or Mrs. Lee, again. The completed paperwork for her telephone sat on my desk until I quit, a couple months later. What happened to her I can only guess, and to tell the truth, I’d rather not think about it in any detail. It always brings back memories of that ice-covered burned-out slum apartment house, and the grinding war outside. And all that gets me thinking about revolution again, while I still have no better idea what it would look like or when it might come.
But even so, I feel as if I owe Mrs. Lee a lot. Fifty-plus years later, that old horseshoe is still hanging over the door of my office, with the ends up as instructed. And just the fact that I’m writing this story, after all this time, proves there was plenty of good luck left in it.
I just hope there was still some left over for her, too. Sometimes I think that canister of Bugler tobacco, and Tennessee Ernie Ford was enough.
But I really know it wasn’t.
She also needed a telephone. At least until the revolution.
Camp Story 2018 #1: “Talking With the Trees” is here.
Camp Story 2018 #3, “The Voice of God,” is here.
Camp Story #4: Old Plain Peter, the Ghost of Elders Past
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Copyright © Chuck Fager