Sunday, August 6, 2017

A Simple Truth


I walked away from the Berkeley coliseum a 1965 graduate. I had already begun a job search process. It was Spring and it was time to apply for jobs.

My first job interview was in one of the temporary barracks located on the UC campus. We called them T-buildings.  The shabby green wooden buildings  were clustered directly opposite the grand marble stairs and entry columns of the main library. The T-buildings had a wooden ramp that lead to the entrance.  The old barracks had been there since the end of WWII. Inside the building was a warren of little interview offices.

I checked a bulletin board every day in the employment placement office. I was excited to have my first interview. Newly weds, Sarah and I  had essentially no money and earned just enough to get by with campus jobs. But since I was about to graduate my student job would end. I needed a real job.  Today’s interview was for a job called a Public Health Investigator I.

I came to the interview with zero knowledge about this “investigator thing”. I knew nothing. I had on my white shirt and tie and I polished my shoes.  I walked into a tiny interview office and sat in a war surplus metal chair across from a kindly young man perhaps 4 years older than me.  Quickly he explained the job to me. I would be expected to interview people with newly diagnosed syphilis and then do follow-up interviews with all their previous sexual contacts.

I sat there a bit dumfounded.

I thought: “Really?!”

I squirmed a bit on the chair. It squeaked and I flushed a bit.

“You mean I am actually supposed to ask people that?”
“Yes, could you do that?”

I thought for a moment. No doubt it was for a moment too long, before I said” Yes, I could do that.”

The interview was brief. We  both knew the outcome.

A pleasant firm handshake,
“Good luck”
I headed down the dim hall towards the bright red Exit sign.

At this time,  the Vietnam war was underway, and so was the draft.  While  looking for a job, I was also looking for a way to not be drafted.

My next interview was with the US Army Reserve. If I could get into the reserves, conventional wisdom promised:I would not be drafted.  I found an Army Civil Affairs unit about 40 miles North of Berkeley.  My interview was in the early evening at an actual military facility.

I drove my Volkswagon north on a busy highway and then down a dark road through barbed wire fencing to a guard gate. 

“Oh wow,” I hope they let me in here”. 

It all seemed quite official.  I had never visited such a place.   

I was shown to another interview room. Again, I sat on a small metal office chair, this time with a uniformed reserve Army officer on the other side of a metal table. He explained the work of Civil Affairs Units to me. I was actually interested. I thought: “This seems to be a bit like local political science, sociology and anthropology. “

Hey! I know this stuff.

“Well, if I have to do something in the military, this would be o.k.  I could put up with it.”

At the conclusion of yet another brief interview the officer said:

“Mike, the next time you have one of these interviews, you need to at least pretend that you want to do it.”

I was learning about being interviewed.

Hmm, I thought I am being a bit transparent. Everyone is trying to get into these seemingly safe Reserve units. There is competition and I was not competing.  I need to be enthusiastic. I need to pretend better.

My job quest next took me to a civil service test to become a deputy probation officer trainee.  Fresh from 4 years at CAL, the written test was easy and I very quickly was hired. I ranked high on the test score and I did not bumble the pro forma interview.  This was a real job.

Training was mostly on-the-job. The training program  was modeled after the sink or swim school of swimming instruction. The first few weeks we worked as assistants in juvenile hall.  The kids called Juvenile Hall, the Green Hotel. 



I worked on one of the several locked units.  Each section was a segregated by age with the teen-age unit considered to be too challenging for trainees and much too scary. I worked with 9 and 10 year old  kids whose most dangerous activity was grinding down their toothbrushes into   very sharp knives. The routine work days  revealed  sad little kids. Each boy had been sent away from  home. They were locked-up.

“OK” the voice commanded over the loud speakers situated in each child’s locked room.
“Time for breakfast, everyone OUT.”
As the trainee, I walked to the end of a long hall and then quickly opened each door.  The kids, all in jeans and white t-shirts left their rooms in silence.

The atmosphere was military/ hospital/institution-like.  Although the building was full of children, there was rarely laughter. There was no color. Just light green walls.  A smell of Clorox was common. The rules were many:
No loud noises.
No television unless as a special group privilege
No touching, shoving, pinching, taunting,
Absolutely no fighting

One afternoon, I was called to the front office. A 9 year old black child with very short curly hair was standing in the hall with his hand bleeding. His white t-shirt was bloody. His hand had been caught the door to his room. The doors were heavy.  

I stepped around a pool of blood on the floor. The officer in charge told me to take Sammy to the hospital. The hospital was only a few hundred yards away. 

The boy was mute and was trying to be brave. His face was wet from recent tears.  Some of the custody officers were discussing handcuffs.

I said, “Really?” “His hand is bleeding”. “I don’t want to put him in handcuffs.”

“But if he runs, Mike, just let him go. Don’t chase him.”

This was a repeat of our standing instructions. Kids almost always ran home.  Chasing was dangerous since he might run into traffic.

 I put my hand on his should as we went to the door. The loud buzzer sounded and we walked into the bright sunlight of the parking lot.

I said, “Sammy, we’ll go see the doctor.” “They will take the pain away.”
Sammy said nothing.

As we walked through a parking lot, I worried he might indeed take off running. I helped him with the towel that was wrapped around his hand. I kept my hand on his back.

We walked through the automatic doors into the ER at the County hospital. 

A nurse saw us and quickly took me aside. She whispered, “Dr. Blau” is on duty”. She pointed him out. He wore a white coat with the required stethoscope around his nepck. He seemed quite old to me and was clearly muttering to himself.

“Don’t let the boy near him.  I’ll get an intern or resident to sew him up.”

She took us to an exam  room, bypassing the busy waiting room.

I helped Sammy up on an examining table.  I held  on to him gently afraid he might roll off.  A young physician approached us. He was rushing.  He quickly looked at the wound.

“OK hold him down.”  He injected some local anesthetic and then walked away.  The injections were very painful and Sammy cried.

“I’ll be back,” said the young doctor. He did not speak to Sammy.

After a long wait, the physician  returned with a needle and thread and was ready to suture the wound closed.

I said, “Do you think the anesthetic is still working.”
The doctor gave me a look of complete disdain. He began to sew the wound.

Sammy screamed loudly.
The doctor:
“Hold him down.” I laid my body across the child and the nurse held his feet.
I petted his brow and face and tried to reassure. I spoke softly directly into his ear.
“Ok now Sammy, you are going to be ok. He’s almost done. He’s almost done. He’s almost done.”
I had a cloth and wiped Sammy’s face as I spoke.

The doctor said, “These people are just animals.”

I felt ashamed by the doctors words  I thought:
“Who are these people? Does he mean black people?”

I did not say anything. The nurse and I exchanged a quick glance. I tried focus on the child.

When the sutures were finished, the nurse said:
“Is this your brother?”
Her remark was spontaneous and genuine.

Again, I didn’t reply as I helped Sammy off the table and I we walked back  to the locked facility.
.....

After my training period ended, I was assigned to do pre-sentence investigations for the Court in Alameda County.

Each day, I would interview 3 or 4 men who had been convicted of a variety of minor crimes. I wrote reports  to the judge recommending probation, jail, restitution or some combination.

Through the door to my glassed in office came a variety of persons convicted of such things as driving on a suspended license, public drunkenness, soliciting sex in a restroom, possession of marijuana, shoplifting and petty theft of various types.

The people I met were poor people.  They often wore tattered, soiled clothing.  They had little education and were  not very forthcoming when talking. They rarely made eye contact and my interviews were mostly questions  from me and brief answers from them.

“It says  in the police report that you stole a bottle of beer at the 7-11”
“Right”
“It says here that you have done this before”
“No that’s not true”
“Your rap sheet shows you were arrested last year for the same thing.”

“Oh, I forgot”
“Do you have a family”
“No”
“Do you have a job”
“No”

And so it went each day. Sometimes the interviews were in the county jail and sometimes in my office.

First thing Monday morning, the receptionist called to tell me John Brewer was in the waiting room.
I went out to bring him back to my interview room.
John was dressed nicely and extended his hand in greeting. 
I thought, “Oh, this will be interesting.”
In my office, John told me he was married and was expecting to begin work soon.  He had been arrested for stealing bologna and bread.

Going somewhat off script, I asked:

“Did you steal the food?”
Unlike others I met, John looked straight at me with an engaging smile.
Yes, my kids were hungry.”
“Do you have food at home?”
“No.  We are 4 days away from the next welfare check and we having nothing to eat.”

I thought, “my refrigerator is bursting with food. We throw food out every week.”

John continued:
“Hey, do you think you could loan me some money and help me out. I can pay you back as soon as I start work.” “Really, I promise I’ll pay you back.”

I thought, “I am  probably being hustled.”
I reached into my wallet and handed him $10.00.  This was a good bit of money in 1965.
John smiled: “Thank you! I promise I’ll pay you back.”

After John left, I worried.
“Had I just done something stupid?” At our morning coffee chat, would my co-workers laugh at my naiveté.  Was I being a dumb kid?

The next morning, I hesitantly asked to see Mr. Greene, my supervisor.
He was a tall dignified black man, always dressed perfectly.  He invited me to sit across from him at his desk.

“What’s up?”
“Well, uh.” “Yesterday, I was doing an investigation and, uh…”
I took a breath.
“Well, this guy told me he had no food for his family and asked me to loan him some money. I gave him $10.00.”
“Was that stupid?” “Was I being conned?”

Mr. Greene smiled. He said:
“Well, Mike, you get to decide who you are going to be. You can be someone who is never fooled. You can be someone who is rigid and never ever falls for any false appeals for help. Or, you can be that other person who might have helped a family to have food.  Who do you want to be?

 


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