It’s possible that I’ve been a bit down on the job lately. There are so many changes, so many new deadlines, so much pressure…plus, it’s summer. I miss summer. Actual summer, where you have time off to get hideous tan lines, develop beach hair, catch fireflies, all that whimsical shit. The fact that I’m an adult and am never going to have that again hits me occasionally, with depressing reality. This is compounded by a job where I’m faced with the realities of poverty, abuse, and neglect on a daily basis.
Where is the joy in this job? We all talk about the victories, big and small that we experience, as the things that keep us going. But if we’re being honest, we might go a long time without one. It’s been a rough month for me. My biggest victories have been my teen girls thinking I’m cool and wanting to paint their toenails purple like me. While that’s a nice feeling, it doesn’t change the fact that they’re failing school and about to be kicked out of their houses.
It doesn’t change the fact that I work in the Bronx. It’s certainly improved since the ’70s, when it was literally on fire and I think you were handed crack upon entry, but we’ve got a long way to go. The level of poverty is astonishing and, quite frankly, offensive in modern America.
And yet, there is something about being a social worker in the Bronx that I love.
I think the following sums it up.
I saw this one day while walking to a home visit. As much as I appreciate living in a city with
arguably absolutely the best public transit in the world, I love walking. I love that my job doesn’t keep me stuck in an office all day long.
While out walking, I saw this awesome stuffed money, chilling by a streetlight. One of those things that you think, “Ooh, so cool! It probably has bedbugs.” I carried on, not knowing that the odyssey of Bronx Tree Monkey had begun. (I know it’s not a brilliant title, but the Twitter hashtag worked well.)
A few days later, I was walking that same familiar route. And I noticed something–Bronx Tree Monkey was on the move.
Apparently, he decided it was time to branch out. (Please forgive me for that one.) See the great big world that the Bronx has to offer.
The following week, I walked by with my supervisor, and alerted her to what I had seen the previous week. Well, she was certainly in for a treat.
Bronx Tree Monkey had started a family! Congratulations were certainly in order.
Until the following week.
Holy. Shit. Could this get any better?
Apparently, no. Because things kind of petered out from there. But it was really fun while it lasted.
I mean, really fun. I keep thinking about how it started. Someone tossing a big stuffed animal their kids no longer had any use for. A passerby thinking it would be funny to stick it up in the tree, with help from a friend. Neighbors noticing, climbing up to add their own superfluous monkeys to the mix, perhaps with the aid of a stepladder or cocktail.
It’s kind of everything I love about social work. And the Bronx.
No-money-fun. An important concept. Life is giving fun away. And in the Bronx, we know where to seek it out. I have family members who grew up in communities where everyone had their own pool. Where I work, that would be frowned upon, as there are no backyards and you’re likely living in a high-rise. So the kids all gather at the community pool, especially those days when it cracks 104 degrees in July. (No more…please, no more.) Kids don’t have their own swingsets, so they go to the playground and actually interact with each other. Walking around for work, I have seen games you’d expect, like pick-up basketball, and ones you would think had died out, like hopscotch and skully. Every street has an open fire hydrant, with entire families gleefully playing in them.
When you actually need people, you can develop community.
We hear so much about the negative aspects of neighborhoods in the Bronx and other, similar, urban areas. They’re overcrowded, with high rates of crime and pollution, and devastating poverty. Of course it’s true. But there are wonderful aspects that we should take a moment to be proud of.
Social work is a profession that arose from need. People in impoverished, urban communities needed services, needed help, and empowerment. Social work developed from that, with little money or training at first. Things grew more sophisticated as time went on, but that early model of doing what works never left us.
It’s why we’ve all had experiences of taking families grocery shopping, bringing kids McDonald’s, helping with college applications, holding counseling sessions in the park, looking over homework assignments…when we do our jobs well, we do what needs to be done.
When we do our jobs well, there is plenty of sorrow. Fights, removals, violence, and deaths. But there’s also plenty of joy. Forgiveness, adoptions, new jobs, reunions, graduations, births, and funny little kids. Sometimes a teenager wanting to be just like you is enough to get you through the day.
Sometimes it takes a person, or persons, dedicated enough to making the neighborhood laugh, that they risk life and limb to put stuffed monkeys in a tree.