The (hopefully not) Brief Wondrous Life of Señor Gobbles

21 11 2012

I would like to take a break from the serious business of complaining about coworkers social work blogging to share the possibly tragic, definitely inspirational tale of a dear friend of mine.

Señor Tomás Gobbles (pictured above) wandered into Anonymous Agency, seeking guidance. November in America is not a good time for turkeys, as you might know. It’s stressful. They’re facing certain death, their family support systems are being eaten, children are making hand versions of them, mocking their noble plight. It’s enough to give anyone anxiety.

Señor Gobbles needed services. He was really excited about the DREAM Act (Señor Gobbles is a proud immigrant, in addition to being a turkey) but was disappointed to learn that it would not apply to him. His only option was to apply for a pardon from President Obama. Señor Gobbles was also a registered Democrat, so he was hopeful.

He had learned a lot during the 2012 presidential election. First, he asked for cash. He had gotten a whole lot of emails from Joe Biden that were bordering on needy, so he knew how important money was to a campaign.

As has been previously mentioned, Anonymous Agency is short on cash.

Then, he suggested a smear campaign. Digging through other turkeys’ Facebook pages for compromising photos or vaguely racist statements, making up adulterous allegations, that sort of thing. We decided Señor Gobbles was better than this.

The only thing we had left to go on—sap. Holding babies, heartstring-tugging tales, stories so inspiring they could make Lincoln’s statue cry.

So he turned to the children of Anonymous Agency. To help him to exploit others’ weaknesses effect change within the nation. Or at least to save him from being dinner.

They helped him by delivering a message to Washington. What are the so often forgotten children (and a few good sport mothers) of the Bronx thankful for? Is there anything more moving than gratitude?

Plus, they gave him feathers, so he wasn’t that creepy naked turkey. Always helps a campaign.

Many sentiments were standard. We got lots of, “my mom,” “my dad,” “my family.” Some of that was genuine, surely, but some were definitely done in a rush to get back for seconds on pie.

Some were seemingly small. “My bike.” “My skateboard.” “The clothes on my body.”

Some were big. Really big. “Jesus.” “Being Mexican.” (Wahoo Señor!) “My mom for giving birth to me.” (I highly recommend being present when a mother sees that her eight year old son has written that. Magic.)

Some were surprising. “School.” “My brother.” “My mom brought us to Anonymous Agency.”

Some caused mixed feelings. “I’m glad Hurricane Sandy didn’t destroy my house.”

Some were funny. “I’m going to write, ‘I’m thankful for my dad.’ Oh never mind, how do you spell Chuck E. Cheez?”

Surely you’re asking now, what’s wrong with you SJ what’s the moral of this story? The personal is political? Count your blessings? Know that your families do experience gratitude and are happy to have one another, even if they don’t express it?

Those are good, but no. It’s this: when working with children, there’s nothing wrong with entertaining yourself, even if they think your turkey story is kind of nuts.

Happy Thanksgiving, everybody! (Or have a nice day, if you’re not in America.) I’ll let you know how it goes for Señor Gobbles.

Do the Rockaway

15 11 2012

People don’t associate New York with the beach. I grew up in Brooklyn, but I also grew up in a family of beach bums. We spent a majority of summer days there. Rockaway beach, in Queens, was a short drive, and is also accessible by public transportation. My dad had grown up there, working at the snack bar since age fourteen, his older brother trying to bring surfing to the city. (That same uncle also tried to grow corn in the front yard, with similar success.) Growing up in the boroughs comes with secrets like this. People assume we’re all high rises and cement, but we have nature if you know where to look.

Years ago, my parents moved back to Rockaway from Brooklyn, a few blocks from where my father grew up. It’s a peninsula in Queens, four blocks wide, beach on one side, bay on the other. Just about everyone seems to be originally from Brooklyn, and it’s a neighborhood heavy with cops, fire fighters, and other proud Irish American stereotypes.

It’s been great. Until that bitch Sandy rolled into town.

My parents evacuated, but neighbors who stayed behind told us about five foot waves at our front door. Others talked about fleeing fires and finding their homes burned to the ground.

The neighborhood is an unimaginable disaster. It’s hard to describe if you’re not there. Friends have told me that they wouldn’t have believed it if they hadn’t come themselves. The boardwalk was picked up and moved. Houses were knocked off their foundations, walls coming down. People’s entire lives are out on the curb, waiting to be whisked away by the overworked sanitation department. Cars were washed away, beat up, flipped over, and for some reason, many exploded. Fun fact? Saltwater destroys everything. Walls, floors, ceilings, wiring, appliances, teddy bears…and apparently things still catch fire when that water is rushing through.

At first it’s overwhelming, and you don’t know where to start. How do you get new walls? How do you file for assistance without Internet, cell service, or power? Do we turn the gas off? How do we get gasoline to run the generator to pump out the basement? Who the hell is in charge here?

I’m a social worker, in case you didn’t know. I volunteered constantly in college, and full time for a year afterwards. I’m used to helping (or at least trying.)

I’m not used to getting help. But lately, that’s what’s been happening. My mom spent a good long while on the phone with FEMA. We’ve had family, old friends, and random volunteers show up in the house to help with donations, hauling out, demolition, and preserving whatever could be saved. I’ve gone to the nearby church to pick up donated supplies.

This has been a learning experience, to say the least.

1. Laugh or die.

I’m quite serious about laughter. If my family and I weren’t laughing we’d be crying, or awaiting evaluation. My father admonishes everyone who walks in to talk off their shoes so they don’t ruin his good floors. (Which are filthy and about to be ripped out.) We have lovely photos of my brother and me stepping into garbage bags in order to wade through the basement. Going through all the crap your parents save because they couldn’t bear to throw it away, or so they could mock you later in life, has also been great. There was no card that I could not improve with an acrostic.


As my brother pointed out, our dad is quite daring, and once risked missing an episode of Jeopardy to finish dinner. (Side note: joking about how the hurricane didn’t affect you will not be so appreciated.)

2. People are mostly good.

This whole nightmare marks the most times in my life that I have been accused of optimism. I can’t help it. Looking around, things are bleak. But talking to people, they just aren’t. People have replaced, “let me know if there’s anything I can do,” with “I’m showing up at your house, use me as you will.” My friends gave up their weekends to do disgusting, backbreaking work, volunteers came from all over the country to cook us lunch, and a crew of Mormons helped me to bleach the basement for mold and didn’t try to convert me once. People we haven’t seen in years turned up with generators and power tools, ready to tear down anything in sight. In a good way. Police officers showed up with a van to allow people to charge their phones. The sanitation department has worked around the clock, because trust me, watching everything you own piling up at the curb isn’t fun. They even brought us breakfast. I am no longer too good for a garbage truck bagel. It means so much to know you aren’t forgotten at times like these. Even if it’s just a family from Manhattan going door to door with a Box of Joe.

The people who have given the most, though, are the ones who lost almost everything. Everyone on my block has donated extra supplies to people who need them. We pop into each others’s houses without knocking like this is Mayberry. A neighbor’s brother-in-law showed up with a truck and an industrial pump and got the water out of half the basements on our block, refusing to take any money. Because we all know what’s it’s like, and what a relief it can be.

3. Get angry.

Because some people aren’t so great. Anger is fueling. It can keep you going. We all love those “well behaved women rarely make history” bumper stickers, and getting angry is a part of living that. So yes, I anthropomorphize LIPA and curse them when drywall falls on my head. I told off a college classmate who got a lot of support on Facebook when she explained that she, a frustrated marathoner, was the true victim in all of this. And, while swinging a sledgehammer, I talked about a group of do-gooders who announced that people shouldn’t help in our neighborhood, as we have money and all hired contractors. (As I said, cops and firefighters. Impoverished, no. Rockefellers with a spare house fund? Also no.) We enjoy scapegoating the neighbor who suffered the least damage, does little work, but is always available for a photo op and somehow gets the most volunteers. This also provides a laugh, as my mother accused him of bogarting the Mormons. Of course these things don’t really matter, but if it gets you going for a minute and takes your mind off what’s really terrible, do it.

4. Be grateful if you’re in it, don’t tell people what they should be grateful for if you’re not.

Even saying “be grateful,” feels unnecessary. Everyone I know is grateful. Grateful that their house didn’t burn down. Grateful that, although their house burned down, they survived. Grateful for a FEMA check, grateful they had flood insurance, grateful they had so much to lose. Everyone is always saying how lucky we are. It could have been much worse. We’re fortunate to have someplace to go, to not be living in a housing project with no heat or electricity, that becomes a war zone after dark. Other people lost their jobs, don’t have family or friends to put them up, or didn’t make it through the storm alive. We are so, so lucky.

Reminding each other of this is great. But hearing it from other people can be a bit harsh. I know things can be replaced. Ok, the stuffed cat my grandma got me for my second birthday can’t be replaced, but most things can. If I’m saying, “woe is me, I am the unluckiest, just call me Job, no one has ever survived such trials,” then put me in my place. Aside from that, telling someone how to feel just makes them defensive.

5. Accept the help.

People want to help. They want to do something. Let them. I understand being embarrassed. Oh no, go help someone who really needs it. I can’t let me friends come over to wade through shitty water and chainsaw the couch! But we can and we did, and we all should. There is nothing lonelier than doing this work alone. It’s amazing how much faster things get done when you have a few extra hands. People aren’t going to be so eager forever, and we need to let it happen now.

6. You can surprise yourself with your own strength.

Emotionally, yes, we are more than the sum of our parts, what doesn’t kill you makes you Kelly Clarkson, blah blah blah. Aside from that–wet drywall is heavy, especially when packed in a contractor bag. I helped to carry a washer and dryer up the stairs, and only got stuck under one of them. I learned to use firefighter tools, pick out load-bearing beams (don’t make that mistake twice!) run a generator, and use a sump pump.

We are all much more capable than we think.

And now, because words can’t do it justice:


This is how high the water came up on our house.


A surfboard washed up in the backyard. I told those kids, if yous don’t keep it off my lawn, I’m keeping it!


Life floating by in the basement after the water started draining away.


It’s just stuff…


The Atlantic Ocean in the china cabinet. Cars were swept away, these glasses stayed neatly stacked.


FDNY beginning door to door inspections.


Our beloved beach.


The beach block, covered in a few feet of sand, getting shoveled out.


I don’t like to complain, but I’ve been waiting for my next Netflix delivery for days. I am right in the middle of True Blood season three, come on!


Mountains of sand being plowed away.


This restaurant used to be called the Newport Inn when my dad was a kid. The owner lost his son in 9/11. It was where the fires started.


Sign at church. “Wear coats. Bring flashlights. Pray together.” Life changes quickly.


The sun setting down on the Rockaway ground…

Please visit RockawayHelp for ways to help. Or take a trip to Gerritsen Beach, Red Hook, Staten Island, Fairfield Beach, the Jersey Shore…I promise we’ll be happy to see you.

Everything I need to know about social work, I learned from blogging.

4 06 2012

Strike that, reverse it. Wait, don’t. Either way.

Three years ago, I began my social work career at Anonymous Agency. One year later (so two years ago, just in case you have the typical social work math difficulties) I decided to start blogging. Both were things that seemed like really good ideas at the time. Both have brought me joy, pain, laughter, tears, and taken precious time away from Words with Friends. Both at times have kept me sane, while at other times have made me feel like I’m howling at the moon.

That’s not all they have in common, though. So many of the lessons I’ve learned in each of these endeavors are related.

1.) Whatever you do, someone will criticize or think of ways you could have done it better. No matter what. So just do what you think is best and be committed to it.

If you present a case in staff meeting, or write about literally anything on the internet, someone will be willing to tell you what an idiot you are. Sometimes in those words, sometimes not. The worst is when it’s couched in, “Interesting. I mean, I see it differently. Have you considered…?” The point is the same, though–you’re an idiot. You can learn from what others have to say, obviously. But if you spend any significant amount of time trying to avoid controversy or risk, you will be rather comfortably for a moment and achieve exactly nothing.

2.) Looking back, you’ll hardly recognize yourself. Because you were terrible.

When I first started, I had no idea what I was doing. I had some knowledge and education, sure, but for the most part I was relying on my enthusiasm and desire to do good. Am I talking about social work or SocialJerk? I’m not sure. As a new social worker, there were times that I was fighting so hard to come up with a clinical focus in a session that I stopped listening and let things lapse into silence. As newbie SocialJerk, I was at times afraid to commit to a point of view. But with both, I’m fairly certain that I’ve gotten better, and learned from my mistakes (which I continue to make.) In whatever you do, it’s all right to be kind of bad at first. As simple as that seems, it’s pretty liberating to realize.

3.) You can’t argue with crazy.

Hi, commenters. Yes, you. No, not all of you. You know who I mean. (Well, probably not.) This is a really social-work-inappropriate way to say that you aren’t going to change someone’s perception of reality. I can provide facts to those nutty individuals who live in my computer who tell me that I bring girls in for abortions in their ninth month of a healthy pregnancy, just for fun. I can explain to a parent that I’m invested in keeping their child in the home. I can tell violent elevator thugs that I’m not actually who they think I am, and in fact, I’m on their side! If they’re not willing to accept it, and are motivated enough to cling to the fantasy, they will. I can’t change that, and attempting to only wastes time and drags me down.

4.) Write it down, because you will forget it. Even if it’s amazing. Especially if it’s amazing.

There are those times when I have a momentary breakthrough. Oh my goodness, this kid’s relationship with her boyfriend if just like her relationship with her mother who rejected her! How didn’t I see it sooner? Or, ooh, I should blog about why I like Play-Doh! The public has a right to know! No matter how late it is, no matter how much you don’t want to take your work home with you, just write it down. You will forget. You’ll know you’ve forgotten. It will slowly drive you mad. Not that you can’t get it back. There’s just something to be said for the flash of genius.

5.) Be passionate, it’s when your best work gets done.

Figure out what you like in social work, and do it. Groups? Play therapy? Go for it. Find your population. It’s not that easy, I know. Jobs are scarce, sometimes we have to take what we can get. But there’s almost always a way to bring what you love into the job. (My kids all know I love comic books. I assure you, there’s a clinical explanation.) When I’m fired up about a topic, it’s when I do my best writing. Then, or when someone leaves me alone in the playroom.

6.) Take a break when you need it. Don’t force it. (Except for when you have to force it.)

A lot of writers talk about how you have to wait to be inspired. Obviously, inspiration is great. Writing when you feel passionate is amazing. Sometimes, though, you’re not feeling it. Take a break. The world won’t end. But…sometimes you just have to push yourself. If we only write when we are really feeling it, we’ll be very artistic souls who never write anything decent. Writing is something you need to practice, all the time. In social work, we need breaks. A vacation day here or there or a Ferris Bueller’s Day Off works wonders. Except when we can’t, because we’re really needed. So we do what we have to, and live for the vacation at the end of the rainbow.

8.) Appreciate those who support you.

I would probably have chronic ulcers and be wandering the streets of the Bronx drawing genograms of passing families if it weren’t for those who listen to me when I’m freaking out, tell me they’ve been there too, and get my fucked up social work humor. So thank you all.

9.) Know when to shut up.

I would explain this one, but I think it would take away from the point. I’m still working on it.

I’m Ms. Brightside

19 01 2012

Yesterday was a rough day. Like, the kind your mom warned you about. Or maybe she didn’t. But still, they happen. I had to listen to an awesome twelve year old girl cry about how she wants to go live with her dad, because her mom blames everything on this kid and just can’t be nice. Mom doesn’t beat this child. Her physical needs are taken care of. The mom just has a unique ability to make this kid feel like crap. Dad probably can’t take her, and mom would never allow it anyway, but it was all she could think of.

I am trying to help this kid. Really, really trying. But with a parent who isn’t willing to even think about change, and a situation that doesn’t warrant removal (and really, would removal solve this? Would this child suddenly be in the warm, loving environment she deserves? Maybe. Probably not.) I’m limited in what I can do. A mentor and an afterschool program to get her out of the house, counseling at school, and support from me are kind of all I can do. It happens. There are situations you can’t fix, because the people in charge of them don’t want you to help.

Let’s focus on the good. For a moment

1.) I have been working with a mother and her thirteen year old daughter for close to a year now. They were barely speaking when they started coming in, and it is ridiculously heartwarming to see how much they’ve grown. They do things together and talk to each other. Soon, their case will be closed, which is depressing and thrilling all at the same time.

Anyway, this girl is super smart, and loves school. She just got accepted to the Catholic school of her choice, the one she’s been dreaming of, complete with a full scholarship. As if that weren’t enough (it totally was) she ran to the office to tell me. (After crying with her mom over it.)

2.) The other morning, there was a parenting group meeting at the office for the first time. They assured the clients that child care would be provided, but neglected to tell the workers who provide the child care. As a result, there was a lot of, “Well, I have other work to do. They didn’t tell me. I can’t watch these kids rabble rabble rabble.”

One of the kids in question was from one of my families, so I told the parents to leave their kids with me and go ahead to group. I don’t know how many of you have had the surprise experience of reading “The Cat in the Hat” to a group of toddlers who are extremely rarely read to, but it’s a delight. Trust me.

3.) Recently, we had a holiday celebration for participants that didn’t go exactly as planned. Supervision was lacking, there was a lot of petty infighting, we didn’t have time or money…the usual. But my homemade mancala boards? Were a HUGE hit. Families asked to take them home, so they could play together. Video game addict kids wanted to teach their friends to play. Victory!

Egg carton + beads = no money fun!

4.) In social work, a case being ready to close (not closing because time is up, or because they’re moving on to other services, or the kids are being removed) is a great success. I’ve got a family with an eight year old who is in just that position. They’re doing well. The mother just told me, “Things are still stressful, but I have ways to manage it now.” Yeah. That’s pretty much it.

But that’s not the best part. Here is a pic of me and her eight year old daughter.

See how we get our hair done at the same place?

5.) Another mother just told me that her son had been acting up lately, so she made an appointment with his psychiatrist to see if his ADHD meds needed to be adjusted. This was a woman who remembered to give this child his meds only about half the time last year. As a result, this was a child who spent half the time last year throwing chairs.

6.) My girls’ group ended this week. (Speaking of crying. Oh, we weren’t? I was.) One of our traditions is to have all of the girls write a card to each girl in the group, saying something positive about their participation. Two of the girls decided to write notes to me, and insisted, under pain of death, that I display them in my cubicle.

Yeah. You don't get that often.

We can’t help everyone. There are situations that we work our best on, and then have to admit that there’s nothing else we can do. It’s just reality. The reminders, especially visual reminders, that there are, in fact, people we help, and changes we help bring about, can make quite the difference.

I was told someone would put a lampshade on their head

19 12 2011

It’s the time of year for global warming party after holiday party. Notice I said “holiday,” not Christmas. That’s right, it’s time to take sides in that imaginary war.

The parties can really pile up. Between friends, (shit, I still need to get my Kris Kringle gift) family, (much more fun now that I’m allowed to drink) and work (oh, we’ll get to that) your schedule can get pretty packed.

I remember hearing about wild office parties on TV when I was growing up. As a child, I couldn’t imagine why someone would have the urge to photocopy their own buttocks, but I understood that this was an important part of celebrating the holidays with coworkers. People were to get drunk, hook up in supply closets, talk shit about their boss, and then come in the next day reeking of Schnapps, shame, and regret.

Things don’t quite go that way in social work. Our parties are a little…tamer, to say the least.

At Anonymous Agency, we have our “celebration” (yes, those are sarcastic air quotes) in the middle of the day. A normal agency would send its overworked and overpaid workers straight home after all that organized “fun” (yes, again) but they chose not to. After two hours of luke-warm catered wares, eaten while balanced on our laps, and a half-hearted attempt to organize us into groups to sing “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” we were sent back to our offices. A half an hour away.

Not that I’m still pissed, or anything. (Not in the charming British drunk way–just furious.)

That get together isn’t quite enough. That’s for the entire agency, and we still have to celebrate with just our site. Because we love each other so, so much, and simply don’t spend enough time together.

The debate rages on. Do we go out to eat, or do we have a potluck in the office? A real Sophie’s choice. Whichever side I fall on, I’ll end up hurting someone, it seems.

Honestly, I don’t care. It’s happening in the middle of the day, and booze isn’t allowed no matter where we go. I’ll either be spending time and money baking, or spending money on lunch, because our budget for the Christmas party seems to be that we have no budget.

My only non-stick-in-the-mud coworker and I toyed with the idea of an after-work happy hour. This was primarily a way to get everyone drunk, so we could see if our intoxicated imitations of our supervisors were correct. But I don’t think it’s going to happen.

Whatever, staff. It’s not important. We all know Christmas is for the kids.

We also have a Christmas party for the families we work with. Here’s a word to the wise–when it comes to planning in the office, if you volunteer to do something once, you become the person who does that thing.

My first year here, as an engergetic new social worker, I volunteered to make the flyer for the party, and to run the arts and crafts room for the kids. Three years later, guess what I’m still doing?

They’re kind enough to say, “Oh, well SJ does such a great job with the flyers.” It’s true. I am able to type up dates and times, and steal snowman clipart on Google. It’s a gift, I suppose.

Then we have to discuss how many families we can invite. We work with a lot, and the office isn’t so big, so we have to cut it off somewhere. New Director is fond of advertising any goings-on at the agency, which puts all us workers in the awkward position of telling our families: yes, we’re having a party. No, you weren’t invited.

We’re the mean kid in your elementary school who hands out pool party invites to almost the whole class.

Some families get Christmas gifts through our donors, so we try to invite the families who don’t get gifts. Of course, given some of the gifts we’ve seen come in, I feel a little guilty about that.

Even if you don’t know that a kid has a history of vandalism, who gets an eleven year old a pack of Sharpies as a present? If something says, “small parts–not for children under 3” don’t give it to a fifteen month old. If I indicate that a six year old is a size nine, as her parents have yet to learn portion control, don’t assume that I’m an idiot, and she’s actually a 6x. Also, if you get one kid eight gifts, don’t give her older brother and sister three each, and think they won’t notice. They will. I had spreadsheets comparing what my brother and I got year to year when I was young. Have you ever seen a kid?

Anyway, back to the festivities. The debate tends to rage over what kind of food to get. Should we branch out, and try ham, or turkey? How about Italian food, something our families don’t usually have?

Then we remember we don’t have any money, and everyone will be sad if we don’t have rice and beans, anyway. Fine.

Then we need activities. As I mentioned, I’m the arts and crafts expert. What this actually means is that I am willing to sit in a large counseling room with rowdy children, guiding them in decorating tree ornaments, making cards, coloring snowy scenes, and generally not murdering each other. I do this all while wearing reindeer antlers, because I am festive and whimsical.

At least it’s not Easter, when eggs need to be boiled. Gross.

There’s usually a discussion about sending the kids home with gifts. Our budget is so small, we’d pretty much be sending them each home with a pencil. More than anything, I think this just calls more attention to the fact that we suck, and it’s best to avoid it.

Despite a lack of money, and no shortage of sugared up kids, the parties actually are always fun. It’s nice to see families come together and have a good time. And as much as I bitch about time with my coworkers, who understands the insanity of the job better than them? Once or twice a year, it’s nice to be reminded of that.

Provided we get to leave early.

Happy Spanxgiving

23 11 2011

People tend to have big reactions when I tell them what I do. “I’m a social worker, in the Bronx.” I inevitably get a look of concern or shock, told that the asker’s job is not nearly so important, and am asked how I do it?

I’ve gotten better at smiling and nodding, or assuring disbelieving conversationalists that I do, in fact, enjoy my job. But  no one really buys that. Sure, it’s rewarding, but isn’t my heart just always broken?

Sometimes, sure. I’ve written plenty about that. But this is a time of year when we eat our weight in potatoes give thanks, so I think I should get this out there.

I love my job. This is why.

It’s fun.

I swear. For all the complaining, breast-beating, and oh-what-a-worlding I engage in, my job gives me a lot of joy. And I don’t mean in the sappy “a child’s laughter is all the thanks I need” kind of way. I don’t dread going to work in the morning, like a lot of people I know do. (I used to, back when I did data entry. I could actually see my soul leaking out ears back then.)

Still don’t believe me? I get it. My righteous anger can be a lot to forget. But let me provide some reasons and examples, that I’ve conveniently compiled into bullet points.

  • I spent a good portion of this week cutting turkey feathers out of construction paper. I then spent most of Tuesday afternoon corralling sugared up toddlers and tweens and helping them to glue said turkey feathers down, and to decorate the office for Christmas. I know it isn’t everyone’s idea of a delightful afternoon, but it’s pretty damn enjoyable for me.
  • Once a week, I mold young minds in my girls’ group. I get to surreptitiously impart my feminist principles, under the guise of having a Beyoncé dance party.
  • Occasionally, I have Beyoncé dance parties.
  • I have gotten to take teen groups camping, to amusement parks, and ice skating.
  • After the Halloween party, I keep the leftover candy the kids didn’t want. Who the hell turns down Rolos?
  • I live in a walkable city, and have to do home visits. However rough the job gets, I have a de-stressing walk to look forward to.
  • On that camping overnight, I got to lead the way in a high ropes course, in which I realized that thirty feet off the ground is a lot higher than it sounds, and my girls learned some new words.
  • I can wear sneakers to work.
  • My Spanish improves by leaps and bounds. (Hola.)
  • At least twice a week, I am greeted with leg-crushing hugs from young kids, and excited shouts of, “Miss SJ!”
  • Girls’ group includes a snack budget.

Then there are the other things I’m grateful for. The things that make my job doable.

  • My Droid. OK, so it’s not an iPhone, but still. It has kept me from getting lost and helped me to get information on the go (translation: phone numbers I’ve forgotten to look up) during visits. It has also kept me entertained for simply hours while on delayed trains, or waiting for a delayed conference (email me to compare Fruit Ninja high scores.)
  • My iPod. Those walks would not be nearly as calming if I didn’t have the sounds of Amy Winehouse, the Decemberists, Mumford and Sons, or Florence and the Machine to keep me going. On really hard days, I play West Side Story and pretend that I’m doing outreach to the Sharks and the Jets.
  • Amy Winehouse, the Decemberists, Mumford and Sons, Florence and the Machine, musical theater, Glee…the soundtrack to my days and my walks that reminds me that the world can actually produce some pretty beautiful stuff.
  • My supervisor, who laughs at my inappropriate humor, shows me pictures of puppies when I’m feeling bummed, and believes in my abilities much more than I believe in myself.
  • My dollar store notebook. Where would I be without that thing? I have no idea, because it has every address I need in it.
  • My zip-up imitation suede boots from Target. Professional, yet comfy. Best $25 I ever spent.
  • My incredibly, amazingly generous family and friends, who somehow find the time to think of me and my families despite everything else they have to think about first. They’ve come through with donations of kids’ magazines for the waiting room, art and office supplies, and Christmas gifts. Not to mention, they listen to me rant and rave, and rarely tell me to shut it.
  • You blog readers out there. I mean, you know.

Of course I’m also grateful for the parents who finally started treating their son’s mental illness, or the mother who is in the process of leaving her abusive boyfriend. But that’s the boring stuff we all expect. So the thing I find myself most grateful for this year is the my secret fun job. The fact that I’m pretty much having a party every day (more or less) and I get credit for saving the world. There are worse ways to make a living.

Happy Thanksgiving, Americans! And happy Thursday, you international folk!

SocialJerk Scrooge

13 10 2011

It’s no secret that we have no money. Not just here at Anonymous Agency. I mean everywhere. Donations have dried up faster than…I can’t think of a PG way to finish that sentence, but you know what I mean. We’re short on money because the city is short on money. Programs that used to provide furniture, clothing, books, food, housing subsidies, and Christmas gifts, have shut down or drastically restricted their services.

“Is this for a left handed boy named Lou with an incarcerated parent? Oh, I’m sorry, in that case we don’t have any toddler beds available.”

Many of the families we work with have been in the system, in one form or another, for most of their lives. Many of them remember the good old days, when there was more to go around. When we were handing out clothing and furniture like candy. And you should have seen the way we gave out candy! Some people also confuse programs. ACS might have been able to give you things that we can’t, and no matter how many times we tell some people, they don’t really believe that we aren’t ACS.

This means that people have some expectations that we can’t meet. “You’re supposed to help me. I need food. Help me with that. My mother’s worker used to take her food shopping. And my aunt got a housing subsidy through you guys!” Apparently, a list of food pantries is not “help.” They need their back rent paid off, or their children need new school clothes. Unless one of the workers convinces someone to make a private donation (we do what we can, but you’ll be surprised to know that most of us don’t run with a particularly wealthy crowd) we usually can’t meet these needs.

It’s understandable that people want this kind of help. Who wouldn’t? But there are times when it seems like it’s expected. And that’s when we all start to get kind of pissed.

One family I have is constantly in need. I understand why. The sheer number of appointments and programs that the mother has to attend due to her court case meant that she needed to take a leave of absence from her job. Her public assistance case was sanctioned, and she’s having trouble providing the basics for her family. So the agency was kind enough to approve me buying them soap and detergent.

The kids are now demanding to know what they’ll be getting for their birthdays. I’m sorry, but there are six of you. I know you’re only nine, but it’s time you learned the phrase, “not in the budget.” (With or without a coupon.) Especially when the request is for red Jordans. If you’re that desperate, you’re not allowed to be that picky. That’s how this works.

All of the families we work with are in need, but some are needier than others. Some really tug at your heartstrings (I have those too) and make you want to help. One young mother I worked with upon first coming here had a serious cockroach problem in her apartment. Unfortunately, I’ve been there. (When I’m a rich and famous social worker, I’ll reveal my landlord’s name on The View and ruin her. But not yet.) This woman’s management company was not responsive, and complaints to 311 did nothing. The mother was desperately trying to find work, but having no luck, and couldn’t afford to deal with the problem herself.

So I didn’t really mind spending $15 of my own money on bug bombs, when the agency said there was nothing they could do. Mom was grateful, we all moved on. The same thing happened when I had two high school students who didn’t have bus fare for the first day of school. As much as I wanted to hang on to my laundry quarters, I can deal in order to get them to their first day of ninth grade. They were also almost embarrassingly thankful.

Sometimes it doesn’t go this way. There’s nothing like feeling like you’ve made a connection with a family, only to be told, “You haven’t done anything for me! I need clothes for the baby and school books, and you haven’t gotten me anything!”

Every so often, we do get donations. At the beginning of the school year, we’ll get a few bookbags. Around Christmas, we’ll get some toys or movie passes. Once in a while a worker with connections can get a department store to give us some new clothes for kids.

But it’s never enough for everyone. So choices have to be made.

As much as we all try to deny it (or not) we all have favorites. There are some families who are just more pleasant to work with than others. They make our jobs easier, they’re more polite, their kids are cute. They also tend not to be demanding.

That’s not to say that they don’t need services. But they don’t show up to the office and tell you that they’d like you to make them a fresh pot of coffee (oh yes, this has happened) or have their kids go to you requesting new school clothes. As much as we all try not to be, we are all human. There are families that make you want to go above and beyond, lay your own money out, call in favors. And there are families that don’t. We don’t want to let these kinds of personal preferences interfere with our assessment of who needs those rare, precious handouts the most. At the same time, we’re not perfect. It’s something to be aware of.

But we also don’t want to foster unrealistic expectations, or dependency. I don’t believe that this is human nature. I do think people want to provide for their own families, rather than rely on the public, whenever possible. But we have seen that people can be made dependent on a system. The flawed way public assistance works is a good example of this. When people grow up understanding that this is where and how you get what you want and need, it’s hard to blame them for seeming entitled and pissing off their social worker. Especially when the system has changed.

I understand, as a social worker, that people have needs. Not just for counseling, but for food, shelter, clothing, and even for toys. I would love to be able to give every kid I work with birthday and Christmas gifts, and to pay for families to go on outings together. Unfortunately, it’s not possible. I understand why people are looking for those things, but sometimes it feels like people misread “social worker” as “Santa Claus.”

And no one even bothers to leave me cookies.

It’s a bird, it’s a plane…no, it’s definitely a monkey.

4 08 2011

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.

What I like about the Bronx (still not the Yankees)

6 01 2011

Things have been a bit heavy around here lately. Poverty, judgment, philosophy…I think it’s time to get happy. There’s still a lot to love and enjoy around here!

SocialJerk hereby presents: How I learned to stop worrying and love the Bronx, part II.

Last time around I explained that most people don’t have the best view of the Bronx. They tend to think of things like this:
A fixer-upper for sure, but there’s probably potential. Somewhere.

Or this:

Look closely to learn who exactly in this NYCHA elevator loves dick!

But the Bronx offers many suprises.

You have a boat. In the Bronx. Ballin...

Yes, that is a baby doll carriage, caught in barbed wire atop a fence at the Bronx Zoo. Perhaps a moment of silence?

A bunny! And a rooster! In one of our many community gardens. How delightful...

Oh no...Mr. Rooster, run for you life!

There are helpful hints to be found: 

"it is only one way to escape Hell! it's by faith in Jesus Christ period..." I always look to trees for spiritual advice.

 There’s also truth in advertising:

Two Star restaurant. For that adequate person in your life.

That about sums it up.

 But I always come back to what always strikes me about the Bronx, and about my clients. Resourcefulness. It is one of their greatest strengths. As much as we joke, it is amazing to see what some people create from so little.

Basketball? I got next!

Yes, that's someone's car. What's the over/under on how many times a day he has to explain to irate pedestrians that he will not be picking them up?

The bed frame should do to keep this tree safe...

Bed frame said back away from the tree!

We’ve also got art, if only you know where to look:

There's no real reason for it, but I love it.

Murals left and right

Wow. If you're going to do graffiti, do it right.

This sculpture is on the sidewalk, for no discernible reason. Take my word for it, the woman is grabbing the man's butt.

 So yes, I complain. But I also love these people, and this place. Be sure to look out in Time Out NY for my SocialJerk walking tours (half price after dark!)

Happy Thanksgiving, ya ungrateful jerks!

24 11 2010

OK, that title was directed at me.

I complain a lot here. We all complain. It’s what keeps us social workers young (and good looking, I might add.)

But it’s that time of year in the US, when we gather with loved ones, eat dead birds, and watch Santa inexplicably get towed into Macy’s.

Oh, and take stock of what we’re grateful for. Here’s my list.

  • I have a job. (If you’re reading this, I hope you do as well, otherwise I’ll come off as more of a jerk than usual.) It’s a tough time, and a tough economy. Social services are usually the first thing to go. We’re eliminating all the unecessaries, and thus far, that isn’t me. Yay!
  • Today, I attended a school meeting. It was held in what is known as “The Situation Room.” Awesome.
  • Kids’ drawings. Need I say more?

Just in case I do–this is Megator. He gets picked on because he’s so much bigger than everyone. And he only hits bullies.

  • I closed a case successfully this month. The family was happy, and the mother told me how refreshing it was to have a social worker actually listen to her.
  • I get hugs from happy two year olds when I do home visits, and then I get to leave them with their moms.
  • Dealing with surly school secretaries who pretend not to see me when I am clearly standing directly in front of them makes me realize that my job is not so bad.
  • Getting hit on by gross men on the street gives me the opportunity to quote Janet Jackson regularly. “No my name ain’t baby…”
  • People in the Bronx are thoughtful. I was a little tired after a home visit today, and look at what was waiting outside for me:

Bedbugs are complimentary.

  • For every ten bad calls I get, about a teen being truant, a parent getting arrested, or a child being removed, there’s one good one. A mother calling to say her teenage daughter went to school on time. A young woman who thinks to call me from the hospital to let me know her child was just born. A kid who asks me to photocopy their social studies award, because they want it in their file.

This isn’t an easy job, but it’s what I studied, and what I signed on for. I’m fortunate to be able to practice. Hey, things could always be worse! What are you grateful for as a social worker this year?