Fifteen years as a Child Support Enforcement Officer with the Country branch of the California Department of Child Support Services, almost three years since I retired for medical reasons, and I still remember July 8, 1996 (the first day I went on the clock) as if it were yesterday.
Looking my best. Maybe even better. Charcoal gray, pin-striped three-piece suit with a starched powder blue shirt, French cuffs, paisley tie from the Jerry Garcia collection, spit-shined and polished black Doc Martens and my hair tucked in the back of my jacket.
Come rolling up in a 1968 VW bus with a row of Deadie Bears dancing around the bottoms of all the windows, decals for Pearl Jam and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, another stating “Support Your Local Skateboarder”, and a “Free Leonard Peltier” bumper sticker.
AND it’s the classic Caltrans orange and cream color scheme.
AND EVEN BETTER …
mid-weight, lightly insulated, sun-blocking Batik curtains all around courtesy of my wife Liz’s talent, time and effort.
A picture of resplendent contradiction docked amidst the mundane, workaday similarities of the fleet of middle-class cars, eighty-five strong, surrounding me in the gated employee parking lot across the street from our cloistered halls
Okay, not quite “cloistered”. It was a scant few years after the County had been on the losing end of a lawsuit over “Sick Building Syndrome”, which was well founded in light of the frightening condition of the ventilation system in the joint, but likely overstated in the examining room of questionably ethical insurance company physicians frequented by the subsequently triumphant Plaintiffs ..
… one of whom had claimed to be deathly ill but threatened to sue yet again if she was not allowed to return to work at the site of her decades-long otolaryngological suffering. And an annual bitch of an allergy season.
Wasn’t too long before Herman Denney, the County security guard (as opposed to some minimum wage styrofoam cop) cautiously approached my certainly noteworthy and normally suspect vehicle to advise me that I was in an employee parking lot and would need to move out onto the street.
I explained it was my first day at work there, and that I was told that was where we parked.
Herman introduced himself cordially, welcoming me with a warm smile, and apologized that all the spaces were assigned and there was a waiting list. I was going to have to park out on the street, maybe around the corner.
Unprotected from the local drug fiends, alcoholics, panhandlers, homeless folk and the
occasional reliably frequent refugees from the County Mental Health Services offices and facilities a long block away on the other side of the abandoned grounds of what had been a State mental hospital. Would often encounter the usuals wandering down the street engaging in a highly animated conversation with either Napoleon Bonaparte or Harvey the Six-Foot Pooka.
Th drug fiends, alcoholics, panhandlers and homeless folks always needed a dollar to get breakfast over at La Espeanza taco truck parked in front of DMV, but I never had any spare change: it was a shorter walk for them to CalPark Liquors or the crack house behind the mortuary across the street and, well ….
The wackadoodles who needed to eat? I’d buy them a burrito. The emperor and rabbit were left to their own devices.
Some of them would even stop outside the fence surrounding The Smoking Section of our office to visit with us.
Delightful folks, some of them.
Basically everyone streaming in through the front doors with me at 7:55AM was in a casual dress mode, but I wanted to make a good impression the first day. Might have overdone it a bit, but two days later would be casual Dress Down Wednesday and I had already washed my well-worn Levis and “James Cotton / Superharp” t-shirt so I had something for sure to look forward to.
After a few days of thoroughly insufficient training and meeting some of the Upper Crust, we newbies were allowed to circulate more during the day to get the feel of things. Just on general principles I stuck with a suit, leaving the vest out of the mix and every now and then reverting (or regressing) to a Looney Tunes tie.
Even on the next two Dress Down days, I stayed appropriately subdued (Neil Young & Crazy Horse t-shirt from the “Rust Never Sleeps” tour for the second, “Steal Your Face” on the third) not wanting to give anybody too much of the wrong impression (“wrong” to them, maybe), but on the first day of my third week dressed to impress in a suit, I decided to let my hair down. Untucked and untied. Loose. Flowing. Radiantly and agonizingly natural blond. And noticeably past my shoulders.
And people noticed.
Got a few of “those” once-overs.
You know the ones I mean:
Where———————————————-down.——————V e r y, v e r y slowly.
You’d think I’d just opened a head shop in the fucking Courthouse basement, but it put them on notice:
I was not likely going to fit the mold exactly as they might have at first expected. Or counted upon. Or fervently hoped.
I also brought both an attitude and an m. o. with me that had served me well in the past
I had come from a twenty-year background in Retail and one of the most valuable lessons I had ever learned there was to “break it down to the basics”: if you were trying to sell someone a total sound system package (amp and separate tuner, tape deck and speakers) for $3,600.00 in 1983 dollars, and all they wanted to spend was $2,500.00 it was really, really simple.
You explained to them that the system would last them a minimum of ten years before they might think about replacing it.
That works out to roughly ninety-eight cents per day.
Ninety-eight CENTS per day
And how long would they be listening to their music each day?
Two, maybe three hours?
Less than thirty-three lousy pennies per hour of wall-to-wall, window-rattling, foundation-shaking, roof-buckling, fillings-in-your-teeth-melting crystal clear sound unlike ANYthing they’ve heard coming from – and here’s the big kicker, boys and girls – their neighbor’s house.
Then you stack it up on three different hand trucks (’cause they’d decide they needed a $175.00 rack for the thing), run their card, and wheel it out to their car AND throw in a $39.00 twelve pack of Ferric Oxide cassettes (that cost the store maybe $4.00) AND a FREE extended warranty usually running $149.00 (which cost the store nothing and statistically would never be used).
And you never told the customer what a good deal they were getting. You loaded them up with enough information for them to figure it out on their own and let them tell you.
I decided it would be the easiest approach with clients to use a variation of that when dealing with the legalistic double-talk, cross-talk and over-talk of the Child Support Enforcement system.
Take it a step away from the Courts and closer to real life.
I told you that so I could tell you this:
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