Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Life in an Elevator

It's funny how people react when they find out what I do. A couple of weeks ago the very nice young man from Enterprise came to pick me up at the office, to take me to pick up my rental car. It was a pleasant ride down Veterans, with minimal traffic, and he seemed eager to fill the potentially awkward spaces with chatter about his life--the long hours demanded by his employer, his dream of becoming a manager, how he hoped the forecasted thunderstorms wouldn't ruin his weekly touch football game. And then:

"So that was your office, huh?"

"Yep." I tried not to sound depressed.

"What do you do there?"

"I work for Jewish Family Service."

"Uh huh." He nodded enthusiastically, which I took to mean he had no idea to what entity I was referring. "I'm a clinical social worker," I added.

"Oh! That's great." He seemed relieved. "So you help people get jobs, or what? You help people with the Road Home program?"

"Actually," I said, "I'm a therapist."

"Oh," he said, looking confused again, "you mean like a physical therapist?"

"A counselor," I said. "A psychotherapist."

"Ahhh," he said. "Oh. Okay."

We rode the rest of the way in silence. I had succeeded in scaring the living crap out of this poor guy.

Contrast that with the conversation I had with the very nice young man who drove me back to the office the following week, after I had returned the rental car.

"So, where we going?" He thumped the steering wheel to an imaginary beat. I gave him directions. "And what do you do there, if I may ask?"

Recalling my experience with his co-worker, I decided to cut to the chase.

"I'm a therapist," I said. "You know, like a counselor."

He turned in his seat to face me. "You're kidding." I raised my eyebrows. "I think that is so awesome. I've been needing to talk to one of you guys."

You can imagine the rest, I guess.

There is a man who works on my floor, a tall man in his fifties, with a pock-marked face and a Chalmette accent. He is so nice, one of those cheerful people who make me feel like an alien, make me wonder what exactly is wrong with me that I cannot seem to muster the same enthusiasm under the terrible lights of our common hallway. I'm not sure what company he works for, but he always seems jolly, more than happy to be there. We often share the elevator on our way into or out of the building, and yesterday afternoon we got to talking.

"You work for the Jewish Community Center, dontcha?" This is a common mistake, and I let it go, like I always do. "I've never been in there, myself."

I smiled. What could I say?

"And what do you do there?"

"I'm a clinical social worker."

"A-ha." He grinned at the woman standing next to him. "I have no idea what that is."

"I'm a counselor." (My spiel is getting shorter by the day.)

His face changed then, quite suddenly: the ever-present grin dropped away, his brows furrowed, he became...what?...grim. And he told me his story, which was not over by the time we reached the bottom, but the kind woman riding with us held the door open and waited, quietly.

He lives in a FEMA trailer in Arabi--he comes from Arabi, all his life. He's still in the trailer, he's the only one for as far as he can see, but he's not moving, he's going to stay in the trailer until his house is finished, neighbors be damned. "I guess I should talk to someone about it," he said, "but I guess I don't know what I would talk about." I didn't know how to respond to that. How do you respond to that?


Leigh C. said...

Lord, there's NO easy way to respond to that last one. And all the anecdotes you've relayed show something that has been true for the past God knows how many years, which is that therapists and counselors are being treated like clergymembers when they aren't in their offices doing their jobs.

Should I send you a talking "Big Lebowski" doll, so that you can press its button when someone asks you about JFS? "Shomer fuckin' shabbos!" it would say.



Jennifer said...

Just found your blog from your comment on b.rox and wanted to say hello. I don't update my blog frequently but I am a clinical social worker from Seattle. I love your city and went a few times to do some relief work and often dream of moving there. Anyway I can completely relate to the clinical social worker thing...