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Help Line

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[1982-1984]: Looking back on this experience so many years later it seems an odd and uncharacteristically bold thing that I did, to join this telephone crisis counseling service, Help Line, as a volunteer. At the time I just felt the need to take on a challenge of some sort, because I was tired of my usual routine and felt “stuck,” needing to change my life somehow, and I also hoped that by taking on something challenging I might learn more about myself.

So I plunged rather recklessly, as it seems to me now, into this new adventure. It did in fact turn out to be a significant learning experience. I learned something about principles of good communication, and I learned how terribly vulnerable people can be, and that people’s true inner lives are generally very different from their public personalities. Help Line changed my way of looking at people. Up until then I’d never really thought about what people are like underneath their outward appearances, but after getting so many calls from people pouring out all of their secret sorrows and fears, people suffering and often deeply in conflict with themselves, I came to have a greater intuitive feeling for what human nature was, for the great complexity and difficulty of the inner conflicts that almost all of us carry around with us.

When I was on my shift in the phone room I felt I was part of a huge web, composed of the invisible inner lives of all the people in the city, people confused and not knowing what to do about themselves. What must drive a person to call up a total stranger on the phone and talk about his or her personal problems? Even though just a very small percentage of the population of the city actually called us I had the feeling that they must be representative of the general population. I wondered if maybe there was really no one who was well and happy after all, but that all were secretly suffering in some way or other. We were all in it together, whether friend or stranger, talking, listening, needing help, trying to help.

Many of the calls were low-urgency, being mainly requests for information,and many more calls were from people who were troubled by relationship and communication issues such as problems with a spouse, partner, child, parent, or sibling, and who were looking for someone to talk it out with. On such calls I tried to take a (hopefully) common-sense approach and try to help the caller see his or her situation more clearly, to bring them back down to reality and try to get them to focus on what was really going on. As a volunteer one had to resist the temptation to be overly directive and try to “fix” the caller’s problem. Only a very few of the calls were of a crisis nature and those could be challenging, such as the fellow who called, drunk and upset, and said he had just found out that his wife had been having an affair with a friend of his. He said he had a gun and was planning to kill them both. Fortunately I was able to talk him down from this and let him see for himself that this was not a good idea.

I only did Help Line for three years, as it eventually did start to become too routine and a little wearisome to me. But they were good years, years of personal expansion and learning for me. I helped some people and I made many friends among the other volunteers. I learned that I was not as neurotic and screwed-up as I thought I had been, that I was, though somewhat troubled and awkward, basically okay, as was everyone. And that everyone was essentially incomplete and searching, sometimes desperately, for the missing parts of themselves. I felt more connected to other people. I came to have a lot of respect, even a reverence, for people’s vulnerable souls.

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Adventures in dishwashing

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Last fall I got it into my head that I needed a bit more income. I was (and still am) semi-retired from my IT job, only working two days a week, and was starting to feel a bit of a financial pinch from the fact that I was only working part-time. Being pretty much sick of the tech world after many years of it I decided I wanted to do something different. Unfortunately outside of tech I have no real marketable job skills. But there was a restaurant just down the street, a place my wife and I were both fond of, and I thought I might try to work there as a dish washer. I emailed the restaurant and got a quick response back from the chef and owner, Ali, inviting me to come in and get started. No interview, no application, no meeting first, nothing. I was to work two evenings a week, Fridays and Saturdays, a 7 hour shift each evening. Ali had wanted me to work Thursdays as well but I told her I couldn’t do that because I had another job on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

I showed up on Friday at the restaurant to start work. I must have seemed pretty strange to Ali and her crew. Sixty year old men with long experience in the computer business do not normally seek jobs as dishwashers. That’s a job normally done by kids in high school. Ali looked at me a little suspiciously but went ahead and showed me the basics of how to do the job. I was a bit surprised because I had thought they must be using one of those big industrial dishwashers to do all the washing and that my job would be an easy one, just load up the washer and turn it on, etc. But no, no industrial dishwasher. Everything had to be washed by hand in big metal sinks. The dishwashing sinks were in a corner of the kitchen and the kitchen was rather small, so I was close to where Ali and the other chef worked.

After I started in on it, while I was working Ali would occasionally probe me with little questions. Where did I work on Tuesdays and Thursdays? I told her the name of the university where I worked. What kind of work did I do? IT and computer tech support. Clearly, she was wondering what in God’s name would possess an old guy with a long career in the computer business to want to do this menial little job in a restaurant. Another time she asked me about my wife. I said she was a professor. Oh really, where? Hamilton College. A professor of what? Philosophy and religious studies, especially Jewish studies. Why don’t you want to do more IT work instead of working in a restaurant? Well, because I’m sick of IT work. At one point she asked me if I’d taken the job because I’d planned to write about it. How did she know I was a writer?,  I wondered, though in truth I hadn’t planned on writing anything about the experience, at least not then. What did I do for hobbies outside of work? Well, I played music sometimes. Really, on what? Flutes. What kind of music? Well I play middle-eastern and Japanese and Irish, on different kinds of flutes. Do you play with a group? I used to, middle-eastern stuff. At this point I’m sure Ali must have decided that she had a complete and total weirdo on her hands.

Ali was a character, but I liked her. She was brash, bold, tough, and enormously energetic. She used the word “fuck” frequently. She worked extremely hard and had the energy of ten people. She was also an excellent chef. She had learned her business on-the-job over the years, living an adventurous life in different cities all over the world and working in whatever restaurant jobs she could get, gradually learning thereby how to be a chef. For all of her tough talk (“Hey I’m Irish, don’t fuck with me!”) I think she really cared about her employees and she treated everyone fairly. She expected all her employees to work very hard but she also tried to give them opportunities to learn on the job and gain more skills.  In addition to washing dishes she occasionally had me doing some basic food prep work, like shucking corn, peeling shrimp, slicing potatoes for french fries, rolling out dough for pastries, etc.

One thing I noticed right away is that I was actually making more money working in this job two days a week than I had been making the previous year teaching two math courses at a local college. It seems to me that it says something about the state of American education when anybody can walk right into an unskilled job off the street and start out making more money, just working two days a week, than someone teaching two college-level courses. I sometimes used to wonder, what if one of my former math students came in to the restaurant and saw me there carrying stacks of plates? I finally decided not to give a damn what anybody thought, and to do my job with pride. It was an honest job after all, there was nothing shameful about it. Once my wife’s lawyer (and a longtime friend) came in and saw me there wearing an apron and carrying a bunch of dishes. I chatted with him a bit, and he looked at my apron and asked me what I was doing there. I said I was working as a dishwasher. “No shit?” he said, “Wow.” Occasionally I would see other friends who came in to eat. They’d look at me askance, wondering what I was doing there. “I’m working! I like it here, it’s a good place to work,” I’d respond. I took my job seriously and I felt loyal to Ali and her crew, and wanted to present a good image of the place to the public. I became fond of all the people who worked there, Ali, the other chef, the house manager, the servers. I liked being a part of the team, even if I seemed a bit out of place because I was quite a bit older than the rest of them. The best part of the job was that at the end of each shift Ali would cook a late dinner for the whole crew and we would sit at the bar and eat and drink wine. At that time it felt like the hard work was worth it. I felt like I belonged there, that I was really a part of the team.

But there were problems. I found the work to be physically very challenging. As much as I didn’t want to admit it to myself, the fact was that I was a 60-year old man and I was feeling my age. It was very hard for me to keep up the energy needed to keep washing all those dishes 7 hours straight without stopping. About 5 hours into each shift I would start SERIOUSLY running out of energy and I’d get a tremendous amount of pain in my back. I began to wonder if I had the physical ability to keep working at that job. By the time my shift was over and I’d had the late dinner with the crew, I was so absolutely exhausted I could barely stand up and my back pain was excruciating. I would stagger home, fortunately not far, and with difficulty drag myself up the steps to the house. My wife was getting concerned about me. There was also the little problem of not being able to do anything together with my wife on Friday or Saturday evenings because I was working then. So I missed a couple of concerts that I would have liked to go to with her.

The final deciding factor was the news of a planned book publication party in honor my wife’s book. The party was to be attended by many of my wife’s longtime friends and colleagues and was kind of a big deal. This was a significant event and I felt it was important that I be there with my wife at this celebration but it was scheduled for a Saturday evening when I would normally be working at the restaurant. So the next time I went to work I told Ali I was giving 2 weeks notice. She said, “OK thanks for letting me know. Most people who quit don’t even bother to give notice. They just stop showing up.”

Several months later, sadly, that restaurant closed. The landlord was insisting on an exorbitant increase in rent and Ali said she couldn’t afford to pay the rent increase. So they went out of business. Now I walk past that place and there’s just a big empty space there. A lot of fun was had by a lot of people in that place over the years, all gone now.

Routine madness in the workplace

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I used to be a staff member at a small academic department in a major American university. My job was to provide computer and other technical support services to the department, and especially to one lab within the department. The department hired a new assistant professor, whom I’ll call A., and designated her as my supervisor. At first I felt good about A. She seemed to be a good communicator, and I was impressed with her apparent technical virtuosity and thought I would be able to learn a lot from her. But after about a year or so things started to get weird. Once while A. was in my office and we were talking, she happened to mention that one of the professors at the university where she’d done her Ph.D. had done some consulting work for the FBI. OK fine, I thought. Then she asked me, “Do you work for the FBI?” I was momentarily a little stunned but I think I managed to keep a straight face and replied no.

Then in the following weeks she bombarded me with a series of strange technical requests. She wanted to know how possible it would be for malefactors to attack her computer using some kind of electromagnetic pulse attack, or by sending a high voltage through the internet cable, or various other bizarre imaginary scenarios. She asked me to implement a slew of additional network and computer security measures, most of which were unnecessary and inappropriate. It was clear that she had an obsession with security. Finally she came out with the whole story. At my office one day she unloaded her whole paranoid catalog of concerns: she was totally convinced that she was the target of a worldwide conspiracy, involving the CIA, the FBI, the NSA, the NSF, the State Department, and several other government agencies, to sabotage her research, and that this worldwide conspiracy was being masterminded by a former professor of hers at another university, a man she had apparently had some disputes with in the past. She said that this former professor was a master computer hacker, able to hack into any computer in the world and make it do anything he wanted, and that he also had the ability to recruit spies and agents anywhere in the world to do his bidding. She lived in constant fear of this professor and his supposed army of henchmen and their surreptitious attacks on her. She also told me that she knew for certain that all of her phone calls were being monitored.

Sitting there in my office and hearing her pour out this incredible story, it felt like the bottom dropped out of my life. I had the sudden and terrible realization that my boss was a person who was seriously insane, and that probably I would be heading into some really deep shit. I don’t remember what I said to her but I think I probably tried to be tactfully reassuring and to let her know that I would do my best to help her with whatever she needed help with.

At first I think she saw me as an ally with her in her struggle against this imagined conspiracy. She shared her concerns with me, and even though I thought they were pure delusion I didn’t say so, but tried to respond tactfully. I did approach one of the senior professors in the department, C., a professor I had worked closely with for years and who had always been very supportive of me. I told C. the crazy delusional things that A. had told me. At first C. didn’t believe me. She seemed to be trying to humor me but it was clear she didn’t believe it. But eventually when A.’s crazy behavior became more consistent and more pronounced C. started to believe it and started to become very concerned about the department having a real live crazy person on its hands. I continued to work with A. as best I could, hopeful that somehow she would eventually come to her senses and see that there was no conspiracy and nothing to be so uptight about.

A.’s research was not going well. She had committed herself to the use of a new technology that she was not sufficiently familiar with and she had trouble getting it to work the way that she needed it to. Her attitude started to shift. She started to see me as one of her adversaries. She came into my office one time and without speaking handed me a little slip of paper. On the paper was written, “Do you know what’s going on?” I was confused and asked her if she needed help with anything. She just shook her head without saying anything and walked out. Another time she phoned me and asked me to come up to her office and bring a screwdriver. I asked her what it was about but she wouldn’t say. I went to her office and she told me to shut down her computer and open up its case. Again, no explanation. I did as she said and opened up the machine for her inspection. She looked inside and said “Well I guess I wouldn’t really be able to tell if there was something unusual planted in there after all.” She had been afraid somebody had planted some kind of surveillance device in her computer! Several times she complained to me that a hacker had hacked her account and changed her password. Eventually it turned out that she had simply been typing it in incorrectly. This type of incident happened many times during the time I worked for A. Sometimes she would complain that a hacker had surreptitiously changed some documents on her computer, things like changing the margins, or deleting the last page or something like that. The fact she would literally believe that a hacker would take the trouble to hack her account just so he could change the margins of her Word document was astounding to me! How could someone who is intelligent enough to get a Ph.D. be so utterly out of touch with reality?

A. started to become openly hostile toward me. She often hinted that I might try to sabotage some of the lab equipment. Other times she accused me of gross incompetence and negligence. She slandered me to other professors in the department, sending them lengthy emails accusing me of professional incompetence and calling for me to be fired. She bullied, insulted and harassed me regularly, complaining that my productivity was far too low and that I was lazy and unorganized, when the truth was that I was working as hard as I could and getting things done as fast as possible. She assigned me huge, tedious, ultimately useless projects like scanning a collection of thousands of photographs, or entering data from a huge stack of old field reports that no one would ever use. She purchased large amounts of software and lab equipment that were never used for any purpose. She sometimes threw a hysterical, screaming fit at me or at grad students in the lab. To make things worse, A. hired a guy (K.) who was supposedly a consulting engineer to help her with her equipment issues. This guy was almost as bad as she was. I don’t think he was paranoid-delusional like A. but he had something seriously wrong with him. He certainly wasn’t much of an engineer, he was apparently more of a con artist. I think he humored A. and helped to maintain her delusions because it helped him to keep getting paying work from her. He was insulting and arrogant toward everyone. But I don’t think he actually solved any significant technical problems or delivered any kind of engineering product the whole time he was there. He was nothing but a lot of arrogant bluster as far as I could see, but A. kept him on.

It was hard to believe that this supremely crazy nut case A. was actually a professor in one of the top universities in the world. The whole situation was utterly bizarre and unbelievable. I talked with the department chairman about it. He agreed there was a problem but that nothing could be done about it until A. came up for tenure. I talked to a couple of other professors whose judgment and discretion I thought I could trust. Same response. I talked to the HR representative for our academic unit about it, but she said there was nothing that could be done. I was getting frantic. The stress of working for and with this woman and her asshole sidekick K. was becoming overwhelming. I dreaded going to work. I was so charged up with anxiety all the time that I felt like I would explode. Every time I went to work in the morning I felt like a soldier marching into battle.

Eventually A. took a postdoc job at another university. I guess it was clear to her that she was not going to get tenure where she was, so she left, to my great relief. I had worked 6 years for that crazy nut.