A BLACK, HEAVYSET Cuban man of 50 sat in front of my desk and frowned, thoughtfully. "Como voy hacer esto? (How do I do this?)" he asked.
"Do what?" I looked down at the bill for $23 from C & P. "You send them a check."
"A check or money order. To this amount."
The man laughed faintly and shuffled the computer card around in his large, clumsy hands. "What is that? Can you do it for me?"
I held my breath and tapped my fingers on the desk. "How did you pay your bill last month?"
"That woman did it for me."
"My neighbor. The one who was in with me last week."
"Does she pay your phone bill for you every month?"
"She has to ... you have to ... What do I know about all this? I'm going to lose my phone ..."
"Look, all you have to do is to go to a post office ..." The man was on his feet, shaking his head as he stuffed the envelope into his pocket and glanced around the office for another social worker.
In one more week, my housing counseling days will be over. Once more I will be unemployed, another BA in liberal arts trying to break down doors and get by secretaries in the who-do-you-know city of Washington. But after 10 months and a lot of close calls with my clients, the authorities and even my co-workers, I have realized that I am just not social-worker material.
Yes, there really is a prototype "social worker." Take Yvonne, for example. Yvonne is a religious Christian, and perhaps that is why she never gets frustrated or gives up. Yvonne has been robbed and taken advantage of more times than I can count. Yet she looks forward to coming to work in the morning, to chauffeuring able-bodied men to the welfare office and to finding jobs for people who have already lost six or seven jobs gotten for them by Yvonne. She is the only one in the office who has patience for Laura, the hysterical football player of a woman who haunts our office day and night. For some reason, Laura never receives her welfare checks or her food stamps and is always starving to death. But her landlord claims she receives at least three male visitors per night.
Or look at Alba. Alba has never uttered a negative word about anyone in the nine months I have known her, even though she is grossly underpaid and constantly chewed out by the director. I remember one rainy day in March when one of her clients, a youth of 21, stood trembling over her desk.
"My landlord's trying to evict me," he shouted.
"Please try to lower your voice," Alba warned, quietly.
"Look, if I have to go back to sleeping in the car I'll shoot myself." The young man drew a .38-caliber out of his pocket and held it to his head. "I mean it, I'll shoot myself right here in this office."
"Now, just calm down," said Alba. "There's no need for that. Just let me have a talk with your landlord." As it turned out, the tenant only owed one month's rent and late fees.
Or the time when Yvonne was taking up a collection in the office for medicine for Bobby.
"What's wrong with him?" I asked. He looked thinner than usual, and he held his head in his hands as he sat across her desk.
"The bullet wound got worse and he's in constant pain. The blood is rushing out of his veins and down his esophagus."
"Can't the doctors do something?"
"Well, he's having an operation next week, but until then all he can do is take pain killers, and he has no money."
"What about his Medicaid card?"
"The police have that."
"The police? What for?"
"They took his clothes as evidence and the card was in his pocket. I spoke to the officer and he won't be able to release anything for a few days."
"Well, can't Social Services issue him a new card?"
"They are, but processing takes two weeks."
In the beginning, I relished the idea of working on direct services. You see, in a way I'm a '60s kid, a bleeding- heart liberal, someone who would rather take a low salary and work in a roach-infested community center than get dressed up every day, ride the Metro and shuffle papers for some trade association or federal bureaucracy. Or so I thought back in November.
But scarcely a year later I am realizing that there is just so much you can do. The displaced families of seven and eight are becoming more and more difficult to place. The regs in Welfare are becoming so cumbersome that you almost need a PhD to apply. You can't even preach family planning any more, as abortion clinics are closing left and right. Face it, it's time to "sell out" and join the ranks of the No-More-Free-Lunch movement in America.
You might say that our nation as a whole is selling out in much the same way I am. Our ears have become deafened to the cries of the poor, the handicapped, the elderly, the minorities, the diseased and persecuted, both at home and overseas.
Perhaps we as a society abandoned our efforts to eradicate poverty because we saw that there was no simple, scientifically contrived solution to it. The blacks tried to make it a racial problem, the women a sexual problem and the Hispanics a cultural problem, and we mercilessly cut each other's throats today as we all vie for those last remaining drops of public sympathy and federal funding.
But deep down it's just a problem, one that has existed since the beginning of mankind: Some of us have and others have not. That fact will not change, no matter how much affirmative action, how many state programs, county programs and voluntary guidelines we try. Those who went into the "welfare state" thinking that in 10 years we would have an economically egalitarian society were foolishly naive. For no matter how much training and incentives and subsidies you dole out, there will always be those who cannot compete in the job market, those who cannot learn English, and those who cannot pay a phone bill.
The beautiful thing about the '60s was that we embarked upon the War on Poverty not really worrying about how much it would cost or what would happen if somebody cheated or what if people became dependent upon it. We were sensitized to poverty, to racism, to wife abuse and child abuse and pollution and so many other ills of society, and we decided that the only moral thing to do was to use every available resource to simply alleviate suffering.
But along came the '70s, and we grew up. We began to worry about cost-effectiveness, about interest rates, about middle-class families being so heavily taxed that they could no longer afford that fourth car for Junior. The wave of conservatism that overtook the voters last fall and made us vote Republican was nothing but insensitivity, the kind a man of 30 experiences when he realizes that he cannot be a peace marcher, a volunteer ambulance driver and feed his family at the same time.
I have no guilt feelings as I leave counseling and seek out greener pastures. I put in my time, I helped my share of needy people, and at this point I'm too burned out to be much use. Perhaps the very thing that made me give up in housing counseling was the knowledge that no matter how many families I placed in apartments, no matter how many evictions I prevented and no matter how many crises I resolved, there would always be a steady stream of desperate people coming through my door.