There are some problems even bunk beds can’t solve

16 07 2012

Housing is a massive issue in New York City. You might not know that if most of your NYC knowledge comes from TV and movies, where a struggling waitress/fashion intern/unemployed homosexual who gives straight girls love advice/dog walker lives in an apartment large enough to roller skate in. But it is. It’s not easy to afford things like food, clothes, or an occasional $14 movie, if you also want to pay rent.

Paying a lot of money for a tiny amount of space is a New York institution. It’s just what’s done. The things we brag about are kind of hilarious as a result. “Did I tell you we got a pullout couch? We even have enough space to pull it out. Eh?” “My kitchen isn’t an eat-in, but it fits a dishwasher. No big deal.” “I don’t even have to loft my bed anymore.”

That last one was a pick-up line.

For young twenty-somethings trying to make it in the big city (otherwise known as The Insufferables) there is a sense of adventure in all this. Cramming in with your best buds, staggering home from the bar together, having impromptu roomie sleepovers…it’s the stuff dreams are made of.

Once you have a family, the magic is sort of gone.

I’m sort of the Queen of Icebreakers when it comes to groups. One of my favorite icebreakers is Human Bingo. That sounds like medieval torture, but it’s actually delightful and straightforward. The deal is that everyone gets a bingo form with different characteristics, like “I read a book this month,” “I love to dance,” or “I’m an aunt.” Out of sheer stubbornness, I’ve included “I have my own room.” That one has never gotten checked off. As I am also the Duchess of Home Visits, this doesn’t shock me.

In our family assessments, we always have to include a description of the family’s living conditions. It’s very rare that I don’t have to mention that there’s “some overcrowding.” My families have kids. Lots of kids. The largest family I ever worked with had ten children. The current average is five.

When I conducted my first home visit with a family with three children, I was under the mistaken impression that a closet door led to a second bedroom. (Significantly less embarrassing than the times that I’ve thought a closet door was the exit.) The family showed me that no, the apartment was actually a one bedroom. There was a double bed, bunk beds, and a toddler bed all in one room. I think they were trying to avoid giving the two year old milk, in hopes that she’d stay small enough for the toddler bed as long as possible.

The family wanted to move. When we talked about the tension in the household, and how to alleviate this, the parents consistently said that everyone being on top of each other is a big part of what leads to issues. They were far from the first family to say this. Another family I worked with had six children, including newborn twins. Yes, there’s plenty of room for two cribs in a one bedroom apartment! Oh wait, that’s ridiculous. So they had to switch in and out, one in the crib, one in the carseat or being held. Ask any parent of twins-you want them on entirely opposite sleep schedules.

Then there are the brothers and sisters who have been sharing for years, and are getting a bit older and it’s becoming an issue. So many of the teen girls I work with just want to be able to get dressed in their own bedrooms. Or the moms who want to have a boyfriend spend the night (for a game of Sorry, I think) but sharing a room with two children isn’t terribly conducive to this.

It feels like the kind of thing we should disagree with, at least somewhat. I can’t counsel you into a bigger apartment! But obviously, it makes sense. Who wants their bedroom to look like a Dickensian orphanage? Who couldn’t do with a little time to themselves? How do you put a child in timeout when there’s nowhere for him to go? And how do you keep having kids…you know what, never mind.

You might not be familiar with the process of getting an apartment with more than four bedrooms in the city. Allow me to share: first, be fabulously wealthy. If this is not feasible, continue to try. Play the lottery. Borrow eleventy billion dollars from a friend.

If this doesn’t work out, get yourself on the waiting list for a NYCHA apartment. NYCHA is the New York City housing authority. Their buildings are otherwise known as the projects. These are invaluably important to low income families. They also don’t maintain their elevators in twenty story buildings, and the crime rates are shockingly offensive, but we take what we can get.

So get yourself on that waiting list. And wait. Wait. Wait. A year from now you’ll get an appointment! Oh never mind, that was an error. Go back to waiting. The larger the family, the longer the wait. Public housing has regulations regarding how many people can live in a certain size apartments, and five bedroom units are harder to come by than Cadbury creme eggs in July. (Side note: anyone, help me out.)

There’s been some controversy about requiring people to leave NYCHA apartments that they’ve lived in for years. You see, there are some older people who were given large apartments twenty or thirty years ago, whose children have since moved out and now have space for a gift wrapping room. Some of my fellow do-gooders don’t like the idea of them being transferred to another apartment that will likely be outside of their community. I don’t like it either, but come on. I will show up with a U-Haul myself if it will get one of my cramped eight member families in faster.

You can try to get an apartment on your own. Again, not easy in New York, even in the less desirable areas. You need to have some savings–in some cases, first AND last month’s rent, and a security deposit. If your rent is over $1000 a month, that’s not easy. You might get a voucher program to help out, but as I’ve written about previously, that’s even harder.

If all else fails, go into a shelter. Depending on a somewhat mysterious set of factors, you’ll be placed in a shelter apartment. It’s private and has a bathroom, and may or may not have a kitchen. There are curfews and often one bedroom for the entire family, so not exactly a fun option. Some people think that by entering the shelter system they’ll be helped in getting their own, stable housing, but this is less and less often the case.

Really, your only hope is to be willing to move to Staten Island. Sure you’ll have to take a boat home, and your social worker will be a bit put off by a the two and a half hour trek to see you until your case is transferred, and you might never see your friends and family again. But there is a very real possibility that you’ll get a backyard.

There are so many housing issues, but so few solutions. Well, I can think of plenty of solutions, the problem is that I can’t pay for them. It would seem that for the moment, all I can do is keep supporting my families and advocating like hell at the NYCHA office.

And also continue saving for SJ’s Utopian Public Housing (complete with free child care, job opportunities, and a community garden.)

Safety First…well, maybe third

23 02 2012

Recently, I was reading an article by a fellow social work blogger. DorleeM interviewed a former police officer who worked in the mental health field, on the topic of social worker safety.

Safety is an important topic in social work. We work in volatile situations with people who have difficulty controlling themselves. We often work in high crime areas. Very often, we have parents who worry about us. (Who can maybe skip over this post.)

Upon coming across this article, I thought, “What could this guy possibly have to teach me? No one would mess with that hat and mustache combo. What could he know about being a lone white girl wandering into situations where she’s not wanted?”

In a moment usually reserved for mandatory trainings, I got something out of it when I wasn’t expecting to. The best thing he did was confirm what I knew.

Be aware of your surroundings. Listen to your instincts. Get out of the situation if you feel unsafe.

When I was eight, some puppets came to my elementary school to teach us how not to get molested. They talked about the importance of listening to what you’re feeling. They termed it the “uh-oh feeling” that you get in your tummy. The one that caused Arnold Drummond to book it out of that bicycle shop.

Oh Dudley, why didn’t you listen?

But that’s essentially what listening to your instincts is. This situation feels weird…why is that? Maybe I should figure it out and be on my way.

I have had some mildly scary sessions. Homes where domestic violence is present are always a bit dangerous. Mentall illness is, by nature, unpredictable.

I once had “white dick sucking bitch!” yelled at me by a client’s adult son. This was shortly after he was released from prison for attempted murder.

In my head, I was thinking, “Watch your adjective placement, you’re saying something slightly different than you intend to. Also, I object to your slut shaming tone. Sexual behaviors are not relevant here.” In practice, I listened to his mother and left the apartment with her.

Those scary experiences with clients are pretty limited, for me. More often, I get nervous on the street.

Not long ago, I was walking to the bus after work, and noticed something was off. A minute later, everyone started running and my brain processed, “they’re going to start shooting.” I essentially did a cartoon double take–THEY’RE GOING TO START SHOOTING!!! A bus driver saw me running towards the stop and waited for me, the modern day Bronx equivalent of a knight riding up on a noble steed, and I was perfectly safe.

Safety is, supposedly, an important topic to our directors and supervisors. They often remind us to “be careful.” (Thanks. What they fuck does that entail?) Or to bring along a coworker if we feel unsafe. (Because they all have so much free time.)

We need to figure out ways to make ourselves feel safe. So, like any sensible lady, I’ve procured some pepper spray and invested in comfy shoes.

I’m familiar with the area. I know when something’s out of place. I’ve seen people get their phones ripped off them enough times to know what someone who is about to do some mugging looks like. If you’re dressing in a manner that doesn’t let me see your face, I’ll grant you that privacy and book it.

I’m so aware of my surroundings you might think I have some sort of weird eye twitch. I also always have my head phones on, so I can ignore you, but they’re on low, so I can hear you. It’s only mildly crafty, but it works for me.

I also know who I can trust. I have been in the neighborhood long enough and forged enough positive relationships that I know where I can run to, need be. One of my moms adores and is always really sweet to me, but I’ve seen her talk to people she feels have “messed with her” and she’s fucking scary. Her door is always open. The deli and bodega guys have sent their kids to summer camp on my Starbursts purchases, so they’re always willing to help. My supervisor grew up in a housing project in the Bronx, and has street smarts and experience that I just don’t. If I plan ahead, she’s happy to work being my back up into her busy schedule. (I’ve only used this once, but it’s good to know it’s an option.)

There was a time in my life when I gave a shit about looking like a crazy person, or insulting someone, by crossing the street when I saw them coming. That time is long gone. As annoying as it is, often the shortest way home is not the safest. I will walk out of my way in order to take the busier, better lit route. Even if I’m racing home to catch Glee.

Note: taking the deserted, poorly lit, shorter route to make it home in time for my favorite show was an actual internal debate I had at one point.

I recently canceled a home visit for the first time ever due to safety concerns. This was the home of my young boy who was shot. The building is awful and run by a gang on a normal day. I’ve had one issue, in which some charmingly terrrifying dude on the elevator yelled at me as I got off, “ACS bitches gonna die!”

Again, my inner monologue was quite sassy. “I’m not ACS, and we’re all gonna die one day, sir. Bitch…I’ll let you have that one.” Again, in practice, I hid behind someone’s mom. My dear client was waiting for me at her door, shot Elevator Tough Guy a look, and there were no further issues.

Aside from that, everyone in that building knows me and greets me like I’m a beloved regular. When I walk in the front door, people hanging out or waiting for the elevator tell me if my client is in.

But that day, I had the uh-oh feeling. There were no creepy bike shop owners trying to ply me with liquor (I really hope you all watched Diff’rent Strokes) but I felt weird about the guys on the elevator.

I got on, though, because I didn’t want people to think I was scared, and I wanted to make my appointment in time, and those elevators suck. You know, those things that seem important at the time?

That feeling crept up on me again, when going to visit my littlest shooting victim. So my badass supervisor came with me, and the day was without incident.

We don’t want to listen to that feeling. One client told me how her son’s court appointed drug counselor was terrified to go to their building. “And I told her, Miss SJ walks right in! Miss SJ is bold.” In that moment, I was proud. I’m bold! I’m not scared.

I’m not bold. I’m dumb. Sometimes you get so used to a place you don’t see it from the outside. I have moments when I’m walking to the train in the dark, wondering what my parents would think if they saw me. My mind essentially replays the scene from Armageddon when Liv Tyler is crying at the TV monitor, begging her father not to go.

I got in a little debate about safety with a fellow student back in la-la land social work school about child protection workers bringing police officers to do removals. This fellow student, a well-intentioned lunatic, said that she didn’t think it was right. “Our clients don’t get police escorts home!”

Um, no shit. Because they’re going to their home. We’re going into someone else’s home. Obviously it’s still dangerous to live in these high crime areas, but there’s a difference between belonging there and being a good-doing interloper. Especially if you’re there to take someone’s kid. You might feel like you belong, as I often did at the building I mentioned earlier. But I was reminded that I actually don’t, by those helpful elevator assholes.

The “one of these things that’s not like the other” is the easiest to pick out, and sometimes, we look like targets. (That’s far from exclusively a race thing, by the way.) We need to remember that feelings of unconditional positive regard and an understanding of the socioeconomic factors that lead to gang violence aren’t going to protect us.

So let’s buddy up, check in, tighten those shoelaces, and make sure your mace is facing away from you.

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.

Same old woman, different shoe: The housing saga continues

23 03 2011

Monday, March 21st was a rough day in this office. Phones were ringing off the hook. There was also a surge in people being directed to my blog (OK, so it wasn’t all bad) by search terms including the words “Advantage voucher” and “FEPS,” or “Family Eviction Prevention Supplement.”

That’s because letters went out the previous week, informing clients that the Advantage voucher program was ending. No more rent checks would be issued after April 1st. The Advantage program is a program that helped people to move out of shelters and into their own apartments. The idea is that the program pays your rent for two years, then either ends or tapers off, converting into a Section 8 subsidy.

Except, Section 8 is no longer available. OK. And the waiting list for public housing is still years long. Oh, and rent in NYC, even in the Bronx, is still just a bit high.

Did I mention that people were informed of this March 21st? That their rent would no longer be paid as of April 1st? Not, “Oh, we won’t be honoring your two-for-one yogurt coupon.” We won’t be paying for the place that you and your children live.

We had a bit of a heads up at the office. The New York Times (let’s face it, all struggling parents have the time and energy to read the Times cover to cover, daily) ran this article explaining that this was happening due to the city’s financial crisis.

It’s cool. We’re short on funds, so we’re making people homeless.

In case you’re wondering, this is not SocialJerk being dramatic. It’s not my style. (Not entirely true, I was a fierce Little Engine that Could in 1989, but I digress.) The NYC Department of Homelessness website explains that if you have an active public assistance case, and are receiving cash assistance, you might qualify for a rental allowance. It might not be enough to cover your current rent; in fact, it almost definitely will not be enough. But it will be something. If you have sanctions, due to missing a recertification date, or skipping a Back to Work program in favor of attending college, or you only receive food stamps, too bad. Not happening. You are responsible for your rent, and you have a week to come up with it.

Now, SocialJerk, these are adults. Shouldn’t they be responsible for their own rent? I mean, is that asking so much? I certainly pay my own rent!

Shut up. Hear me out. Certainly, independence and self-reliance is the goal. But that’s not what our public assistance system is set up for. It’s set up to give people the least amount of help and comfort for a limited amount of time before cutting them loose. The Advantage program helped a lot of my clients get out of shelters. That’s great. And it paid their rent for a while. Also great. But their excessive public assistance appointments, the constant sanctions and fair hearings, the difficulty getting themselves enrolled in school (b-t-dubs, higher education is actively discouraged) in favor of attending pointless “work programs,” and the hoops they have to jump through just to get their kids into day care? Shockingly, none of this gets people educated and into a job that will pay their rent.

Maybe you don’t care. Maybe you think people deserve this, because their poor women minorities lazy. But a vast majority of these people have kids. And all that money the city doesn’t have? Is being spent on building new shelters. Very cost effective, I foresee no issues with this plan.

I spent a lot of time on the phone yesterday with a 22 year old mother of two. She wound up in a shelter after leaving the abusive father of her children. She got out with the help of the Advantage program. This woman described herself as being “on top of the world” when she moved into a one bedroom apartment with faulty plumbing and broken windows.

She was at her local PA office all day yesterday, missing a day of college classes, trying to figure out what to do. She knows that this is going to interfere with her completing her education, and with her daughters continuing at their current day care. She doesn’t want to return to the shelter, but she doesn’t have anywhere else to go.

This woman doesn’t have until April 1st, because, due to budget issues, the Department of Homeless Services started missing rent payments for her a few months ago. Now the arrears are her responsibility. She’s missing school, and almost forgot that it was her youngest child’s third birthday today, because of all the stress.

But really, the mom is irresponsible. That toddler doesn’t deserve presents or cake.

You can think what you want about these types of programs. But to tell people that they’ll be helped, to promise them a service, to provide them with something as basic as a place to live, and then yank that away with minimal warning, is cruel and inhumane. To go after people who are too busy, too overwhelmed, to wrapped up in struggling to survive to protest and call attention to their plight, is wrong.

New York social workers are now in the position of receiving these calls, and having to tell people that there’s nothing to be done. I knew the system was broken before, but it never hit me in this way.

It’s our job to fight this.

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!)

Free-Range Kids…delicious?

14 12 2010

There’s a movement sweeping the nation–or at least, beginning to dust certain parts of it. It’s called “Free-Range Kids.” I know it sounds like the children are allowed to roam free so that they will grow to be extra succulent, but it’s actually based on the idea of giving your kids a little freedom. Not holding their hands constantly, allowing them to walk to school, and not laboring under the delusion that everyone in the country is out to kidnap your kid. (Personally, I have enough kids in my life. I’m not about to go looking for more.)

It was started by writer Lenore Skenazy, who allowed her 9 year old to take the subway a few stops on his own and was then written up as “America’s worst mom.” (I’ll give my fellow social workers a moment to absorb that.)

The blog is pretty interesting. Skenazy’s parenting ideas don’t differ much from the way I was raised. And it gets me thinking about the kids I interact with and see on a daily basis.

I spend a good deal of time in Manhattan and Brooklyn. The Upper East and West Side parents, as well as the Park Slope ones, are decidedly not raising free-range kids. Not just parents, but nannies and other staff are constantly hovering. No one walks to school. I have seen 12 year old kids wander away from a cab and leave the door open, the bewildered driver thanking me for noticing and shutting it.

Kids who are taken care of to that extent don’t get the idea that they have to do some things for themselves, it would seem.

Oh, and when your able-bodied five year old is still confined to a stroller, deal with the fact that you have essentially put your kid in a wheelchair.

These are the kids I’m always hearing about in human interest stories on the news, or in Time magazine. “The over-scheduled child.” All those appointments and enrichment programs leave so little time for free play. Besides, the poor kids aren’t allowed to play outside in their rather safe neighborhoods, because their parents just can’t take the risk. Can’t we just let kids be kids?

Then I think of the children I work with.

They are decidedly not overscheduled. They aren’t on organized sports teams, they don’t take outside classes. A number of them attend their school extended-day programs, but that’s about it. There’s not much pressure to go above and beyond in school–just being on grade level is considered achievement enough.

Most of them need to get home right after school. They aren’t allowed to just hang out outside, carefree, but not because of ridiculous fears of kidnapping by strangers with vans full of candy. (Who could resist?!) Because there are in fact drug dealers and other gang members trying to chat them up, and shootings do occur regularly.

Despite this, these kids have more freedom than the wealthier kids kept on leashes on their way to Gymboree. They are well acquainted with public transportation, and can get themselves home from anywhere at any hour of the night. (Usually without a Metrocard…I just don’t even ask.)

The kids I work with are trusted with responsibilities, because there’s no other choice. They need to care for younger siblings, clean house, cook. Parents are working, or not present for a multitude of other, less desirable, reasons.

I hear so much about the kids who aren’t allowed to be kids because they are under pressure, and given every opportunity, to succeed. They are over-protected to the nth degree.

I’m the first to say that’s detrimental. I shudder to think what kind of college student, employee, or partner a 12 year old will grow up to be if he or she can’t even figure out how to operate a door.

But I wouldn’t mind a little more media coverage and awareness for my kids, who aren’t allowed to be kids because it truly isn’t safe outside, and because they’re needed at home just to keep the family functioning. The parents who don’t weigh the pros and cons of each parenting style, because they just need to make do with what they have.

For those of us with choices, though, the blog is a good read. (And if I’m saying it about someone else’s writing, it must be true.)

Or how I learned to stop worrying and love the Bronx

7 09 2010

I recently read a  not-too-positive article about the Bronx. It focused on a lack of jobs, poor population growth, and little commercial development.

I couldn’t help but get defensive. I mean, it’s like with the kids I work with. They can say that their mom is a crazy bitch. When their friend says, “Yeah, I didn’t agree with her locking you out of the house at 2 am,” it’s on. Not unlike Donkey Kong.

So yes, we have more than our fair share of unemployment, violence, and poverty. But the Bronx also has a lot to offer (besides that baseball team that just won’t go away, even when their stadium has been torn down.) It is interesting, historic, quirky, and beautiful, with a strong sense of community despite everything.

Most people have images like this come to mind when asked to think of the Bronx.

Rundown infrastructure, graffiti…

Tall, ugly buildings, a little more graffiti…

Empty lots…good thing they sprung for that “No Trespassing” sign. I don’t think I’m the only one just dying to scale that fence, tangle with the barbed wire, and have a good old-fashioned picnic.

Some might be unfortunate enough to have this memory to dredge up.

We’ve all felt the need for a pedicure spring up suddenly while waiting for the subway. Am I right, ladies?

But the Bronx has a lot more to offer. Some that people expect…

This place is awesome. Free on Wednesdays, and right in the middle of the borough. It’s always fun to walk by, and imagine that at any second, some rhinos are going to come charging through the fence.

We’ve got more community gardens than you can shake a stick at, if shaking sticks is your thing.

The beach is nice, but there is no better way to cool off on a 100 degree day. We’re nothing if not resourceful.

In the mood to relive “Toy Story?” Or just feel like wasting some quarters while trying to grab a stuffed pink unicorn? These things are all over the sidewalks, in front of corner stores. I think it really adds something to the neighborhood.

We’ve also got some of the best signs and advertisements I’ve found anywhere.

Boost that butt!

Speaking of butts, Beyonce is apparently hard up enough to lend her image to an independent hair salon.

I’m glad that they included the photo of the crayons. It helps.

Thank goodness. I’m so tired of those filthy, adults only laudromats.

We’ve also got some great architecture.

Just ignore the satellite dishes.

If you have to deal with the Department of Education, it might as well be in a building that looks like a wedding cake.

We’ve got nature.

Yes, Bronx River, we see you hiding behind that fence.

And someone is always watching over you.

My Size Barbies in the window. Redefining creepy since 1995.

Cultural diversity.

Our Little Italy can kick your Little Italy’s ass.

And if this social work thing doesn’t work out, there are always plenty of career opportunities.

What was his name-o, again?

10 08 2010

That’s right, we’re talking bingo today. It’s not just for stereotypical old people anymore.

As I’ve mentioned once or twice, we spend a lot of time out in the field. Being “out in the field” sounds much nicer than it is. It actually means that we’re walking the streets of the Bronx, not romping in a meadow. All that walking gives a social worker time to think, plan, and get sweaty on the way to a visit. It also gives us all time to notice certain patterns in our beloved Bronx.

This brings us to “Ghetto Bingo.” It works just like regular bingo- get a full line across, up and down, or diagonal checked off, and you win!

But this is a special edition. No “B6” for us. Instead, we at the office compiled a list of things you’re likely to see in the neighborhood, that will earn you a square.

Get honked at by a gypsy cab? That’s one space. A painfully obvious drug deal going on between a guy on the corner and a stopped car? That’s another one. You can also mark down that open fire hydrant, but only once. Checking it off on every block just wouldn’t be fair.

A pit bull on a chain is another available square. A pit bull off a chain means you should start running. (Another option is to push a friend in the path of the oncoming dog. I was once the one being pushed, so I assure you it really does work, though it won’t earn you any good karma.)

Of course, any kind of sexual harrassment is also worth a square. We’re considering a rule that would make it worth two for men. Getting stuck in an elevator in a NYCHA building will not only give you time to mark down everything you’ve seen, but is also a space on your bingo card.

Spotting anyone drinking a 40 before noon is a space. (When I first started working here, there were so many people lined up outside of one store at 7:30 am, I thought that Apple had released a new product. Turns out they were waiting for the liquor store to open. I have since nicknamed them “The Fanboys of 40 oz.”)

The daytime hooker, the rarest of all the prostitute breeds (popularized by “My Name is Earl”) has her own, richly deserved, square on our bingo cards. Lost, frightened tourists desperately seeking out the Bronx Zoo also get a space. Gang fights have their own as well, but have a similar clause to the pit bull square- when gun shots are heard, it’s time to run.

Disclaimer: Bingo cards available by emailing SocialJerk. Play “Ghetto Bingo” at your own risk. Please maintain a sense of humor during play, remembering that this game was developed by people with a deep love and respect for this neighborhood. Also, wear comfortable shoes.

The art of inter-floor travel

30 07 2010

Getting to the upper floors of a building has always been fairly straight forward in my life. I don’t like to brag, but I’ve pretty much mastered both stairs AND elevators.

Social work has made even this difficult.

A lot of my clients live in NYCHA apartments, better known as the projects. I’m sure their reputation precedes them.

The elevators in these places are notorious. I’ve been in crowded elevators that residents were convinced were going to get stuck between floors, because we broke the sacred “six people at a time” rule. (Little known fact—elevators can count.) They were planning who would crawl out of the ceiling to pry the doors open and go for help.

There is also the fact that these elevators are not places you would want to bottle perfume. Like I said, they get stuck, and when you gotta go…

Terrible elevators shouldn’t be a problem for fat Americans, right? Get a little exercise, tubby. The problem is, lots of these places are over 20 stories high.  If you’re on the top floor and don’t happen to be Lance Armstrong, you probably aren’t going to make it.

If you don’t go into cardiac arrest, there’s another problem—people hang out in the stairwells.  People you don’t want to run into in a poorly lit area with few options for escape (such as, say, a stairwell.) They’re a favorite of drug dealers and other people I try not to associate with.

I was visiting a family on the second floor of one such building a while back. I took the elevator anyway, for all the aforementioned reasons. On the way back out, I found that there was a crack dealer and a crackhead customer standing in front of the elevator. The dealer was standing by the window, counting his money out for all to see. The crackhead was, predictably, mumbling and scratching herself.

I decided to risk the stairs. I opened the door, and was immediately hit in the face with smoke.  This made me think of two things: 1) I hate the smell of crack. 2) Why do I know what crack smells like?

Realizing I was stuck between a crack rock and a hard place (I apologize for that one, I really do) I headed back for the elevator. As I waited for it, I realized that the dealer was trying to get my attention.  I turned to find him smiling and waving, looking up from his drug money to ask how my day was going.

I’ve found that the only way to act in these situations is something I call, “pretty and dumb.” “I’m fine, how are you? Look at all that money you’ve got! You must have won some sort of a sweepstakes.”

Luckily the elevator was working, and I was able to beat a hasty retreat. I’ll soon be investing in a parachute, for any similar situations in the future.