Category Archives: From the field

The flower salesman

I know the faces of most of the homeless in the town where I do my field work; many have sat across the desk from me at one time or another and others I just recognize from seeing them around town.

But I was caught by surprise with his flower-laden hands; the roses stolen, I’m nearly certain, from a streetside bush. “I love your hair!” he shouted at me as he crossed the street while I got in my car. Polite to a fault, I smiled and thanked him and closed the car door in his face.

Then I realized he meant to give me some of those flowers. Or so I thought.


Inwardly cursing my good manners, I rolled down the window and smiled some more and listened to his story. Because there’s always at least one good long one. Something in my face brings out the storyteller in people.

Really, I think I must have *I’m a social worker. Tell me every last one of your troubles, please!” stamped across my forehead in ink that everyone but me can see.

Turns out he’s a Vet that lives in a tent in the woods beyond Deal Lake in Asbury. Has a small army of children that eat up the majority of his VA pension with child support. His mind is still mostly somewhere in Vietnam, as he referred over and over to what his Captain says, as if that weren’t forty-some years ago.

I’d guess it was about 10 minutes into our conversation, when he wanted money for the freely offered roses, that he regretted ever throwing a compliment my way.

Cast aside was the smiling white lady who might have money in exchange for a sad story. She was replaced by the social worker with suggestions for where he might find a place to stay for a while, a list of phone numbers and more unsolicited advice than he cared to listen to.

I left him finally with my business card, some change from the bucket I keep in the car for tolls and a bit of inside information that might just make some real difference in his life.

The application list for rental assistance opened in Asbury today. Only today. People wait for years on those lists, wait for decades for the list even to be open. Most people find out after the fact, when it’s too late. Many of the people who need rental assistance never read a newspaper where the announcement and application are published.

I told him to take the money I’d *paid* him for the flowers and buy himself today’s paper so he could submit the application right away and have it postmarked in time.

He thanked me and ambled away across the street, not realizing I was watching him from the intersection while I waited for the light to change. He crossed Main St. and went straight to the liquor store with my money in his pocket.

I’m hoping he bought today’s paper and not a bottle.

Answers come, I suspect, in the form of angels sent to us unaware. So often we’re upheld by giants of Kindness and Hope, by the kind of people who you pass on the street and feel sorry for because they are poor or uneducated or unable to speak much English. Together with the burden of all the sad stories I hear, I like to imagine the benefit of understanding and knowing deeply that true treasures wait here, that a certain kind of strength and confidence resides in the exact places and in the very people you’d least expect.

His rose, suspended in a small ceramic vase on the fridge, will remind me of that for the next couple days.

First steps

We have a student interning with us for the summer… a sweet girl from my alma matter who I got to drag along on field visits with me today.

I have to give her credit… so far she seems unfazed by anything she’s seen. What she’s heard about during downtime late on Friday afternoons hasn’t scared her off, either.

I admit to being careful in the selection of clients we saw today; I don’t suppose I needed to do that. But some things and some clients just make me too uncomfortable to have to deal with, without a student watching every bumbling move I make.


So rather than treating her to the guy who routinely answers the door in his underwear (!) or the lady in the house without a single place to sit or any of the really shady parts of town, we met with mostly regular clients and one who likes to talk. Alot. About everything imaginable. Inappropriate things, even.

It was fun. She barely raised an eyebrow.

No more work!

Yesterday was Administrative Professional’s Day – were there flowers and chocolates for your staff?

We have a luncheon planned on Cinco de Mayo for our secretaries; once things have settled down and everyone is back from vacation.

Today was Bring Your Kid To Work Day. I wish I’d known ahead of time and could have brought my camera in to share pics of all the sweet little ones who were hanging around the office with us today. Sally’s daughter colored pictures for each of us that said, “Go! Go! Go! You’re doing a great job! Keep it up!”



Tomorrow I’m recording my voicemail message that says that I’ll be out of the office until the fifth of May and to call poor sweet Rosie in the meantime with any emergencies. I hope my clients behave while I’m away or I’ll owe Rosie big time.

A week of Tuesdays

Glass art on display at Hot Sand on the boardwalk at Asbury Park

I often have to walk off the workday on Tuesday. Tuesdays feel something like setting up your desk for the day on a subway platform in Manhattan; at midday I tried a few laps around the building in an effort to get my head straight… it didn’t help much, unfortunately. The end of every month tends to be crunch-time for me anyway, but whisper the word vacation and any facade of controlled chaos just falls away.

It feels almost wrong to vent about it here, but the first round of *bumping* that I’d mentioned in this post will take effect on the first of May. Sadly, a social worker with 24 years experience in my unit will be bumped to a downgraded position in another agency. We’ll have to train the person that’s taking her job, and a couple of us are consoling ourselves with thoughts of how we might best do that.

*insert evil grin*

She’s a nice-enough lady, but it’s been decades since she’s been expected to have any real client contact. People in my profession get promoted so they won’t have to deal with clients anymore, sort of like school teachers becoming administrators so they won’t be expected to actually teach. I imagine she’ll adjust soon enough, or maybe just retire a bit sooner than anticipated, but picture someone straight out of a Little House on the Prairie episode walking the streets of the South Bronx. That’s a bit of an exaggeration, but you need thick skin to do this job well and you also need to project a bit of an edge when you’re out there with clients and I have a hard time seeing anyone doing that in a twin-set and pearls and kitten heels. It should be amusing to watch, at least.

I’m working late more often the last couple months and today’s rain had turned to sun and then back to thick fog and drizzle by the time I found myself walking the boardwalk early this evening. The bit of color on display there was a welcome distraction from an otherwise dreary sort of day.

A quotable client

Outside a client’s house, the yard consisted of dirt, cement and a dog on a tie-out chain.

Friendly-looking for a pitbull, his tail was wagging and he smiled as I approached to pet him. Ever the cautious dog lover, I asked my client if he was friendly?

“Oh he’s friendly, but not like that.”


That has me laughing, still, a week later.


The Carousel at Asbury Park

Today was daffodil day in this part of NJ… and the forsythia has plans.

Spring almost!

An interesting day in the field with clients… I saw the spoon man (how many of you can say you know someone who collects wooden spoons?!?), plus I got a kiss on the cheek from the sweetest little old Italian lady.


(There are rare days when I think I have the best job in the whole-wide world.)

Tell me what you really think

Hm. In the last week at work, I’ve been told the following:

“That is none of your business and you really need to learn your place.”


“I feel really sorry for you that you hate being a social worker so much that you have to be so rude. You should find a new profession. In fact, I’ll suggest that to your supervisor, too.”


“Your caseload must be really high that it takes you a whole day to return my phone call. Maybe you need an assistant.”

That last one, finally, hits the truth.

I do need an assistant to return ridiculous phone calls for me, soothe the nerves of needy clients and do all the godforsaken paperwork that justifies my seat at this desk. All that crap handled by someone else and out of my way, I’ll have plenty of time to:

Tell them only what they want to hear


Do all the stuff they seem to think is my responsibility, rather than doing a thing for themselves.

Heaven forbid!

I’ve been at this far too long to be as surprised as I am by the hostility flung my way on a daily basis. I guess I’m just surprised that I’m surprised anymore.

Is it Friday yet?

On notice

Everyone (!) at my job was officially notified today that for reasons of economy and efficiency we are subject to layoff effective May 1, 2009.


The fact is that within our agency (Planning and Resources, Social Services, Mental Health and Addiction Services, Office on Aging, Office on Disabilities, and Veteran’s Internment) ten positions are being abolished. Ten people (some of whom are my friends! and have worked there for 20+ years!) received individual notices of layoff today. We all received a general notice of layoff or demotion because of the kooky way that civil service works…

If someone has what’s called displacement or *bumping* rights, they can exercise that right against another employee’s position in order to remain employed. The *bumped* employee may also have displacement rights and cause the layoff or demotion of another employee in a lateral or demotional position. Sort of a domino effect from top to bottom.

So while my position or that of anyone else in my unit isn’t in jeopardy, there’s the chance that any of us could be bumped into a lesser position (if we’re lucky) or bumped right out the door if there isn’t some other unfortunate soul with less seniority.

Makes for great morale and a pleasant work environment, really.

Image lifted from here.

A first step

I’d intended to share pics of iceboats this weekend at the river or maybe to celebrate the snow that’s been falling all day, but instead…

This story has been heavy on my mind and heart all day. The victim was nameless when the story first went to press this morning, but later in the day he was identified and I recognized a connection to one of my clients and before the workday ended I found myself meeting with a policeman to share next of kin information.


I’m bothered by the things I left unsaid last week in my rant about the homeless. I spoke mostly from a place of frustration, rather than from that place in me that works everyday with the poor and that sees the things they really lack.

A job, a home, a purpose to their day… society can provide for those things in some form or another, but…

There’s no way to counter the lack of a loving family to go home to or someone that smiles just to see you come in.

There’s no way to replicate the feel of a warm-mittened hand in yours on the walk home from school.

There’s no way to know what a kiss in the morning, coffee brewing and the newspaper waiting might do.

I’m not foolish enough to believe that love is the only answer. I know enough about the circumstances that lead people to find themselves in this situation. I understand about addiction and mental illness and the kinds of holes in a person’s spirit that a job or a handout can’t fill.

But we can try, can’t we? To take better care of the people we love? To look out for our neighbor? To hand over a dollar or two for the man begging outside the coffee shop, without worrying that he’ll use it, instead, to buy a bottle?

The need is overwhelming to those of us who stop to consider it, rather than just shutting down, or shutting it out entirely. It’s easy to forget, I think, that the answer needn’t be yes or no, all or nothing.

It’s painful to see the need of others; even more painful to be helpless to fix it. Admitting to that is the first step, I think.