Wednesday, May 6, 2015
A Slice of Life in Philly
Today I’ve been thinking about when I worked for The Department of Public Assistance (DPA) in Philadelphia back in the 70s. You may remember that I couldn’t find a job in Pittsburgh after finishing my psychology degree (imagine that). So I took a Pennsylvania Civil Service test that eventually led to a Caseworker position in Philly. You and Jane helped me transition by letting me stay with you for a couple of weeks while I commuted by train into Philly. Eventually I found an apartment on Chester Avenue just off the University of Pennsylvania campus and near Clark Park (believe it or not).
The caseworker job turned out to be a game changer for me. In addition to providing a decent salary, benefits, and a more professional experience, it also introduced me to the realities of poverty and inner-city life that was heartbreaking to witness at times. However, I was also amazed by the determination and resilience of my clients. Most of them were good people who were trapped in poverty. My job involved visiting clients in their homes and office appointments with them. I had to determine their continuing eligibility for benefits and encourage them to follow through with employment searches and other requirements. I got to know and like most of them very well.
Nevertheless I experienced many strange and unpredictable interactions. Raymond, one of my on-again off-again clients, was always interesting. He had alcohol/substance abuse problems and he couldn’t seem to follow through with his treatment and eligibility requirements. We often had to stop his benefits and he would come to the office and confront me. My response was “Raymond stop yelling and sit down”; “Raymond put that knife back in your pocket.”; “Raymond let’s not do the threatening knife thing again. Put it away and get yourself under control.” I experienced similar behavior with other clients in the office: “James, put the folding chair down before you hurt someone or yourself with it.” I had people swing folding chairs above their heads threatening to hit me and others. Sometimes I had to grab those chairs and take them away from the client. I also remember the guy who brought an ax to the office and put it down on the reception desk while asking to see his caseworker (not me). Of course we did have a security guard, but he never really had to help me, although it was good to know he was there.
Walking through the neighborhoods for home visits was also interesting. We had to carefully pay attention to the surroundings. However, most of my clients watched out for me. I remember one time when I was approaching a client’s door a group of teenagers formed around me in a threatening manner. Luckily we were in front of my client’s residence and he told them to leave me alone.
There were also some humorous incidents while I worked that job. I remember visiting one very attractive woman client in her one-room apartment. She was very nice and even flirted with me, but she seemed a little strange. When I asked how her job search was going, she said, “The only thing I’m good at is keeping house.” She was a new client and I had not bothered to read her case record carefully. When I got back to the office I discovered that “She” was really a “He.” That fact didn’t bother me, but it was a little surprising. Another humorous thing about those inner-city neighborhoods was, when it was hot, the kids would bring hoses to the sidewalk, or even open the fire hydrants, to cool off. They also loved to fill buckets with water and dump them on passing pedestrians and especially they loved to dump them into the open windows of passing cars. It was actually pretty funny.
Overall, working for DPA was a great experience and I liked most of my clients. They were mostly good people who struggled with hard lives. However, I decided that I needed to get a graduate degree and I moved on after 3-4 years. It was the right move for me. Unfortunately, I moved out of the Philadelphia area, which made our relationship more challenging. I am still grateful for the help you gave me during those years.
Clark during the 1970s