ON THOSE MORNINGS when Nannie B. Diggs felt she could no longer face her tedious government job, she'd recall her salary was helping to put her daughter's through college and her mother's advice to "keep on plugging and things will work" and then head downtown, resigned to yet another day in Paper City.
Now her daughters are grown with children of their own and, at 56, Diggs has become the chief of the Real Property Division in the Office of the Recorder of Deeds. It is a job she finds "fascinating and challenging," but along with her rekindled interest has come the awareness that many fellow bureaucrats don't care. They are the ones who people our dreary image of a bureacracy stangled by regulations that slow everything to a snail's pace, who are so inefficient that simple tasks become nearly impossible, like paying on time kids with city-provided summer jobs. It is an iamge Diggs does not like being associated with.
Diggs is one of those rare, frequently faceless bureaucrats who also happens to care. As one of the division chiefs in the little 49-person Office of the Recorder of Deeds, which is destined to shrink with budget slashes, she is determined to deal with the everyday problems and says her section won't falter, a refreshing change from the squeals of many city officials quaking under the economic uncertainties brought on by the city's budget crisis.
She admits tht her reduced staff won't be able to assist as many telephone callers, that they're already passing around rubber bands and easing up on paper clips and pencils and may end up with heavier deed books if they can't soon order index pages. She notes that they still use handwritten records, not computers, and that their books dating back to 1792 are scripted in sky-blue ink as laboriously as the days when they used quill pens. But to Diggs, that startling lack of modern technology is seen only as a test of her staff's resourcefullness, not its nerves. And most definitely not something to be used as on excuse to serve the public poorly.
Real estate is the most imporant thing people own. From the tycoons and speculators nd their lawyers, to governments domestic and foreign, down to the people who struggle all their lives to obtain a single piece of the American Dream -- these are the people Nannie Diggs and her colleagues serve. To the educated and business-wise, Diggs has gained a reputation for courteously attending their needs and sending most out smiling, even those who come in cursing and growling. But Diggs knows that, for the native, courtesy and caring can only cushion the landing, not stop the fall.
CASE ONE: A newly widowed woman signed her home over to her son and daughter-in-law, who lived with her. The house caught fire and the family temporarily dispersed. "When am I coming back?" asked the mother after renovations. "This," said the son, "is my house." Diggs' advice to the elderly: See a lawyer about having the property deeded to the children but retaining a life estate so that you can remain an owner until your death.
Nannie Diggs began as a clerk in the recorder's office 11 years ago after a string of short-on-statisfaction positions. That agency, too, was unchallenging until five years ago, about the time acting Recorder of Deeds Margurite Stokes came aboard, when Diggs began a climb up the administative ladder that's culminated in her present $17,000-a-year position.
Until you sit in these offices for a few hours, it is difficult to appreciate the tedium and the omnipresence of regulations. The room is consumed with talk of amendments, correct certificates, instruments, memorandums requesting memorandums, deed acknowledgements and nullities. There is enough sterile language bouncing off the dull green file cabinets to supply two, not one, agencies.
But out of all of this, people like Diggs manage to touch the lives of nearly as many people in the city, as say, the Human Services Division.
CASE TWO: An elderly couple is befriended by a young man whom they grew so fond they call him their "nephew." The old man dies and the "nephew" gently pushes a paper before the old woman who absentmindedly signs it. Months later, she discovered she had added the young man's name to the deed on her home. Nannie Diggs advised the emotionally wrecked woman to fight for her property. The case is now in court.
Solid. That's the word you'd use to describe Nannie Diggs. She is the epitome of a middle class matron -- motherly, gray hair, neat aqua skirt and print blouse, with pink-tipped nails her only vanity. She's quiet-spoken, hard to ruffle and moves with slow deliberation. Her own lifestyle has remained unchanged, while, all around her, city lifestyles have undergone rapid shifts; she and her husband of many years Clifton, still attend Canaan Baptist Church on Sundays, and she finds comfort in her family and grandchildren and simple pursuits like bid whist.
Nannie Diggs, as do many bureaucrats, has a degree of power. But unlike many who take sanctuary in their anonymity, she knows that power comes from the people. She puts it this way:
"Once on the inside, some people who once questioned become brainwashed . . . most people seem to melt right into that pot. I'm not happy with the fact that there's so much red tape where things could be more clear and precise. But I don't like the fact that we're all lumped together. It angers me when people say government workers aren't worth their salt. . ."