terça-feira, 27 de novembro de 2012


                                                                                                          By  Arnaldo Machado
            His fingertips were sweaty when he pressed the number 4 on the elevator keypad. Not out of anticipation, but of dread, instead. The door of the elevator closed leaving him engulfed in a mixture of the invigorating smell of the Dunkin' Donuts’ coffee nearby and the smell of "people." The smell of "people," as he called it, was in itself a mix of other smells: cheap cologne, sweat, food, urine, and other things you would not be able to discern but you just knew - or guessed - were there. He made sure not to touch the walls or anything else inside the elevator. Any extra touch would mean an extra area of his body he would have to wash carefully in the restroom. Thankfully, the elevator in this building was very quick and he did not have to endure it for too long. It was with something resembling relief that he walked out of the elevator. And then, the dread.
            In the hall way, comprised by a not large rectangular space of 10 by 35 feet, there were the eyes. Always the people with the eyes. He never understood why people insisted on arriving early. The sign at the door clearly stated that the hours of operation were from 8:45AM to 5:00PM. But there they were: 8:15AM. That, however, did not stop them from eyeing him in the brief moment it took him to cross the 10 steps from the elevator to a door marked "Employees Only." Once again, a brief second of relief overcame him as he input the code on the door lock and entered into the safety of his office. As close to safety as that could be, in any case. He still had to deal with the crazies within.
            Not that all of the people he worked with were nuts, some were very nice people. Those few were usually the ones who partook of the conversations about the others. Those in this latter group were each unique, seeming to have forsaken any trace of normal behavior in the many years they had worked at that place. Maybe it was a defense mechanism, maybe a genetic predisposition. That was not that relevant. The point was they were not what they should be. Very few traces in personality or appearance still made them fall into the category of humans. In some cases, even their appearance changed so much that they resembled that creature that dwelt in a cave in "The Lord of the Rings." Scary, indeed. You would expect them to jump at you and say: “Precious” at any moment. Yet, those of funny appearance were amiable. He was more scared about those who looked normal, but were not.
            There was the lady in the cubicle next to his. Nice. Until you made a joke she did not like. Then the sexual insinuations would come: she would start talking about how you wanted her, and that she would come into your bedroom at night and abduct you. Well, that last comment was partially his fault, for making an unfortunate comparison of her constant coughing with sounds that only aliens can produce. Plus, if you overheard her conversations with her family you would think she was bipolar. "Hi, hunny" with the granddaughter in one second, "You, !#$%#^@&^#!!!!" in the next. Very confusing.
            But let us return to the young man filled with dread coming to work that morning. It was not because he did not like what he did – though he insisted on saying so – but rather because he was tired of it. He knew, as soon he walked in, that he would have to stand another day of lies, screams, and excuses, not necessarily on that order. There had been a time when he longed to go to work, where he would produce above anyone else and strive to earn compliments from his clients and bosses. Such time had long passed. Now, as we already mentioned, there was only the dread holding onto his spine and twisting his heart, causing him to hyperventilate at times just from thinking about work.
            It was short of breath that he walked to his cubicle, placed his precious lunch on his desk, and half-sat down to look at his daily schedule. People like him could be assigned different tasks during the day, such as processing work, telephone shifts, or assisting members in person. Seating fully in his chair would mean that he planned to remain seated, but lately, he had been outside helping the public live more often than not. Half-seating reflected his acceptance for the unchanging rules of schedule sent out by supervisors in the morning – shifts were unavoidable, untradeable, and unreturnable. Having confirmed his initial suspicions, he stood up, grabbed a couple of blank sheets of paper, pen and bottle of water, and walked outside, where the eyes awaited for him again.
            He went into his room – one out of three pink walled offices used to assist the walk-in clients – and opened the blinds, as he normally did. He was of the opinion that if you had to suffer, you should at least make sure it was in a well-lit environment. He then set up his desk, turned the computer on and off a couple of times until the right screen came up, and grasped for air he had not even realized he was holding inside of him. It was almost time to face the mouths attached to the eyes… He shivered.
            After processing a couple of tasks that had been assigned to him, he looked at the clock: 8:45AM. Let the madness begin!
            The first few cases he had worked in that initial hour had not been too bad, easy fixes, business as usual. He had learned over time, however, not to be fooled by the appearance of things, as if they were sign of an uneventful day – there just weren’t uneventful days at that place.
            “I am ready for the next,” said he to the receptionist. She was quite the character, apparently loving the job as much as he did. “Are you sure?” replied her. “If you want I can make them wait a little longer…” she winked at him. The disturbing thing about her is that she always made those comments loud enough for the ears attached to the mouths and to the eyes to hear. “Nah, it’s alright. You know me, Fennie.” “I surely do!” she cackled, winking at him and calling the next name on the list – business as usual.
            A little Hispanic lady came into the room with a 4 year-old boy. Her case had “mysteriously” closed, all of a sudden. By that she meant that she did “mysteriously” not receive the notices sent to her house reminding her to submit the paperwork on time, and stating, in detail, the deadlines for each item needed. She also meant that she did not receive the termination notice letting her know two weeks in advance that her benefits would be stopped, also another “mysterious” occurrence. Then, she got to the part when she had an “emergency” appointment with her doctor and they told her that her benefits had ended. Finally, she would got into how humiliating an experience that had been, and that she wishes no one else had to go through that in their lives. Once she stopped to grasp for air, our guy finally had a chance to interject:
            “Sure, let me look at your case and find out what we need in order to continue your benefits."
            Okay, the identity verification was supposedly a very simple process. For some Hispanic individuals, however, the question “What is your name?” apparently had a different meaning. It would not matter how many times you would ask that question, you would only get the first name. Our guy here spoke Spanish, so it was not like there was a language barrier. As he had found out over the course of the last year, one really had to say “May I please have your full name” before one would get the right answer.
            After ensuring she was the person she claimed to be, he noticed that her case had been closed for failure to report information regarding the father of her child, who did not reside with her. “Great!” he though. This is another “trend” – if you could call it that –, popular not only among Hispanic mothers, but mothers in general. Since eligibility for public assistance is based on household income, mothers tend to omit the presence of their husbands and “baby daddies” in their household, hoping to omit their earnings along with them. This way, daddy only applied when he got sick, and the desperate “single” mothers got coverage all year long. Regardless of the tugging here and there, the application of multiple interrogation techniques, and relentless insistence from the social worker in question, some applicants would not budge: “I do know who the father is, I am doing a paternity test with the four possible candidates,” or “He got deported,” or even, “It was a one night stand.” All plausible, but very unlikely to happen at the rate they were claimed to happen. If those were the answers he would get, there would not be anything he could do about it. All statements were made in writing and the so called “single” mothers signed forms stating that they would suffer the penalties if found guilty of perjury. He would simply wash his hands, like Pontius Pilate in a distant past, hoping they would be crucified some day. It became an issue when he got the other answer – the terrible, most detested of all the answers: “Well, you know, it is very hard for me to say. I don’t know how to answer that question.”
            He looked at the lady in front of him awaiting her answer: “It’s difficult for me to say. Look it, his father is in and out of the house. So he is in, but he is not. You understand?” He knew what he had ahead of him.
            Fifteen minutes later, apparently they had come to a consensus. She had to decide whether to claim the father as present or absent from her household. She finally stated that her husband had not been with her for the last two months. “Case closed,” he said, “He IS an absent parent!” He went on about how to fill out the form and other technicalities.
            As he walked her to the exit, once everything had finally been resolved, the little boy turned to his mother and with a mischievous smile said “Mommy! You lied a lot today!”
            At this point, our guy just washed his hands. Literally.
            By now you must have guessed without any shadow of doubt his profession: social worker – the scarlet letter of all titles. Despised by all, powerless creatures considered to hold all of the power in the world but in reality owning none of it. Ziltch. Nada.
            As he entered the waiting area and saw the clients he had ahead of him, he started to hyperventilate. He looked at the reception desk: Fennie was arguing with a customer about his right to use a cell phone in the waiting area. A baby was crying. A boy was playing with the dividers – which never divided anything, just got on the way for the people passing through them. Three men in a corner were talking lively about their cases, and sharing their disagreement on the sudden cancellation of their benefits. Upon his entrance, they threw a glazed look at him – the empty look of those in substance abuse treatments who are simply replacing the substances they are abusing for those of a more legal nature. “Addicts,” he thought, and reminisced about the people that asked for coffees with extra extra extra extra sugar in his distant past, when he used to work at a coffee shop. One, two seconds had passed, and yet, our guy was able to absorb and think all of this. It was simply overwhelming. He wondered how would he get through another day of this. And then, he saw it.
            In the other corner, oblivious to the chaos around her, a woman of many and many years looked straight into his eyes. Her look was not simply it, a glance or an eye looking at him: it spoke. He could see the pain, the years of abuse, of constant strife to overcome whatever struggles she had gone through. He saw that she never had been able to rise above the tides, that a life saver had not been thrown to her at the right time, or was too far for her to reach it. He saw that she also had dreams, like him, but did not see any of them to fruition. And yet, though her life had been much harder than his, he saw hope. Nope in him, as if he had all the answers. And then he realized the purpose of it all.
            He was not there only to think dryly of the misfortunes of those surrounding him, as a detached observer, incapable of changing any of it. He was not there only to fulfill his hours, get his pay every other week – which was never high enough by his standards, anyway -, nor tell people what he could not do. After all he could do something. He could be the change factor, that which would trigger the sparkle – not the whole reaction – but its beginning. Indeed, he had no power to solve people's problems, but he could show them the way. Though it was an ungrateful crowd he had to serve, what would be his reward otherwise? To help a crowd of smiling folks who were agreeable and who never lied would not be as rewarding as overcoming the challenge he had ahead of him. He had to overcome what they had not been able to overcome. He had to be the example of the life they had not had a chance to experience. He had to be the personification of their “what ifs.” The vice they had not been able to overcome. The husbands they had not been able to say “no” to while they still could. He had to bear his burden with pride, with a smile, with a gentle word, even. That was his role in the big picture.
            He returned the look. As he stared into her eyes he realized they were no longer the eyes.  The trembling was gone. The hyperventilation had disappeared. The pain in his chest, vanished. There was no trace of the dread that once filled him. Calmly, he walked up to the reception desk. He pointed to the sign indicating that cell phone usage was not allowed in the waiting area, helped Fennie defuse the angry customer, and looked at her. She also needed his help, just as he needed hers. All of a sudden the word coworker gained a new meaning to him. He would share with her at a later time what he had just found out. For now, what he said was simply:
            “I am ready for the next, Fennie.”

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