My nom de plume in The Free Nameless News was J. Redmond Tardi, largely because I was late for work all the time. Part of the reason was that I took public (as opposed to rapid) transportation every day – specifically, the MBTA’s Arborway line, whose vehicles were one stop away from the Trolley Museum.
Then again – to be fair – mostly I was late just about every day because just about every night I was out writing jazz reviews for any second-rate music magazine that would have me. I knew virtually nothing about jazz at the time, which is why I concentrated on the second-rate magazines. But I got to see a lot of first-rate music. Being late for work was part of the system I developed in the summer of 1976.
It went like this: After work I’d go across the street to The Great Gatsby’s, wash the day away with three Wild Turkeys, go home, take a nap, then go out to see whoever was in town. I’d return home around one o’clock, do some writing, and eventually go to bed with a double album of Thelonius Monk on the stereo spindle.
And arrive late at work the next morning.
So I started going in on Saturdays, just to get within shouting distance of 40 hours a week. Saturdays were easy – no phones, no claimants, just paperwork and gossip. And there were donuts, except when there weren’t because I got in too late. Either way, I’d put in four or five hours of what had to be the least productive time in SSA history (which is saying a lot), and call it a week.
One Saturday afternoon, walking home with two bags of canned goods from the Hi-Lo, I saw my roommate’s car – The Fireball – headed the wrong way down our street. That didn’t strike me as unusual, since Jamaica Plain has long been famous for its two-way one-way streets (a sort of vigilante urban planning). Here’s what was unusual: it wasn’t my roommate driving the car, and the car had been stolen three days earlier.
The latter occurred despite the best efforts of my roommate, who chained together the steering wheel and the brake pedal every night, theoretically immobilizing the Fireball. That was standard practice on Sheridan street, where the cars sported more chains than Mr. T. The standard practice eventually led car thieves to carry small saws, so they could cut through the steering wheel and slip the chain off.
Which is what they must’ve done to the Fireball. I ran up the hill as best I could with two bags of canned goods, burst into the apartment, breathlessly told my roommate to call the cops, and fell to the floor. He made the call and ran down to the bottom of the hill, where, to his surprise, the thief had parked the car – legally, no less. The police, like Christmas, arrived eventually and asked me for a description of the driver, which I was generally unable to provide.
“It happened so quickly, I really didn’t get a good look at him, officers. I think he was wearing a red plaid jacket, though.”
“Well, let’s take a walk around and look for him, shall we?”
That was the last thing I wanted to do, since poking around with a policeman was no way to endear yourself to the fine patrons of the neighborhood establishments. Nonetheless I ventured several feet into the Hyde Square Bowl (“Nope, I don’t see him here”), Hyde Square Tavern (“Nope, not here”) and, most apprehensively, Los Villalinos (“Nope”). That night, my roommate parked the Fireball at a friend’s house in the suburbs.
The reason I didn’t want to parade around with the cops was simple: I walked through Hyde Square three or four nights a week right after closing time at the local watering holes, and I didn’t want anyone to have a wrong impression of me.
* * * * * * *
It was something to be in Boston that summer. The spirit of ’76 was everywhere, from the massive fireworks displays on the Esplanade to the stately procession of Tall Ships into Boston harbor to the red-white-and-blue redecoration of Li’l Stevie’s House of Pizza on Boylston street.
Bicentennial Fever Grips Hub.
That was the same summer I was supposed to get married to my college girlfriend, who two years earlier had chosen to live in the Midwest with her folks until we tied the knot and settled down in Boston. Six weeks before the wedding I looked up and realized that: a) I still hadn’t found us a place to live; b) I still hadn’t gone for a tuxedo fitting, even though all the ushers (spread out over three states) had; and c) between a and b, it was time to call off the wedding.
That night I did – “postponed” it, actually. I got in just under the wire, since the invitations were sitting on my ex-fiancée’s kitchen table, stamped and ready to go out the next morning. The rest of the details you don’t want to know. Suffice it to say Charles Manson had nothing on me in at least one Midwestern household.
And Here’s to You, Mr. Robinson
The thirty or so hours a week I actually was at work started getting tougher to handle, so I did what any sensible person back then would do: I took to smoking the occasional joint in the alley behind the Boston DO – but only on my morning and afternoon breaks, never at lunch. Unfortunately, it tended to make things worse. One day, for instance, I returned to my desk from a refreshing break bearing a large cup of coffee and a devil-may-care attitude. A few minutes later a claimant, puffing hard on a cigarette, walked up, handed me his redetermination letter, and sat down.
“You called me in?”
“Yes, Mr. Porter, we need to review your file.”
God only knows what was in the file, but the next thing Mr. Porter did was take the cigarette out of his mouth and drop it – snick – into my fresh cup of coffee. Then he really panicked. He lunged toward the coffee and knocked it over, barely missing me but thoroughly caffeinating that day’s paperwork. We rescheduled the meeting.
Another day, also post-break, an especially difficult claimant decided, in the course of our interview, to play what he thought was his trump card.
“You should be takin’ care of me here, man. You should be treatin’ me right. I pay your salary, man.”
That was all I needed to hear.
“You pay my salary? You pay my salary? You’re on welfare, you moron. You’re not a taxpayer. Or hadn’t you noticed?”
He stood up quickly.
“Hey! You can’t call me a moron, man!”
The Operations Supervisor happened to be walking by and quickly came over to my desk. He leaned his considerable bulk toward the claimant and said in a low voice, “Is there a problem here, Mister Moron?”
“Nossir. Nossir. I was just leaving.”
I decided I could use another break.
* * * * * * *
I look up and the Robinsons are at my desk – father, mother, two kids – straight out of some Southern Gothic novel. “We’re here for the welfare,” Mr. Robinson says, his tone indicating that he expects to be turned down.
“No problem. Let’s do the forms.”
It went well until the second question.
“What’s your home address?”
“Ain’t got no home address.”
“Well, Mr. Robinson, I need someplace to send your check, assuming you’re eligible for one. Where does your family stay?”
“Don’t stay anywhere. I’ll come in and pick up the check every month.”
“It doesn’t work that way, Mr. Robinson. We don’t write the checks here. They’re mailed out from a payment center.”
“Okay – I’ll go there.”
“There’s no there, Mr. Robinson. It’s all computerized down in Birmingham, Alabama. You need a home address – maybe the Long Island Shelter or the Pine Street Inn. You could get your check mailed to either place.”
“Ain’t goin’ there.”
And with that, the Dismiss Family Robinson got up and left.
A couple of weeks later I walked into the DO about 9:30 and was told to go right to the Assistant District Manager’s office. I was expecting another lecture on punctuality, but instead the ADM said, “Guess who paid a little visit to the Birmingham DO?”
“Take a guess.”
“Vice President Rockefeller?”
“No. Why would you say that? No – it was Mr. Robinson.”
“Mr. Robinson . . . our Mr. Robinson?”
“That’s right. Mr. Robinson went down to Birmingham and demanded his check. And when they said they couldn’t issue him one – “
“Wait – how’d he get there?”
“How the heck would I know?”
“He must’ve hitchhiked. Wonder where he left his family.”
“His family was with him.”
“The whole family hitchhiked to Alabama?”
“How the heck would I know? The point is, when they didn’t give him a check, he – and this is a quote – he destroyed the outer office of the Birmingham DO, which, by the way, had just been renovated.”
“Really? Do they have a mural too – maybe Bull Connor with some German shepherds and fire hoses?”
The ADM glared at me.
“When they finally subdued Mr. Robinson, he said he was told to go there for his check. And he used your name.”
“Of course he did.”
“What do you mean of course he did?”
“Of course he used my name.”
“Because he knows it. Why else? If he knew your name, he’d have used that too.”
The ADM glared some more.
“You should know, they’re holding you personally responsible for the damage he did.”
“What, I’m supposed to pay to fix the place up?”
“Probably not, but they could make you pay for it. One other thing: the Area Director wants you in his office at nine o’clock tomorrow.”
“That’s pretty early.” I got up and headed for the door. “Hey, if they charge me for the repairs, do I get to design a new mural?”
The Area Director’s office was high atop the JFK federal building in Government Center, with views of downtown Boston and the harbor. The AD told me to sit down and leaned back in his government-approved leather chair.
“You’re a troublemaker, son. You know it and I know it.”
“Anyone else know it?”
“Everyone knows it. Why’d you tell that claimant to go to Birmingham?”
“For the hundredth time, I didn’t tell Mr. Robinson to go to Birmingham. I said that he couldn’t pick up a check at the Boston DO, that the checks come from the payment center in Birmingham, and that he needed to have an address so that we could mail him one. It’s not my fault he has an active imagination.”
The AD leaned forward.
“You know why you still have a job? Do you? Not because of your performance, that’s for sure. You’re chronically late, you have an attitude problem, you forced the ADM to shut down that . . . that newsletter of yours – oh yes, I’ve checked your file. Despite all that, you still have a job at SSA. You know why?”
“Sure – ‘cause I’m a term employee and if you let me go, you can’t replace me. You figure it’s better to have 30 hours of me than 40 hours of nobody.”
The AD leaned back.
“You’re lucky, son. If we didn’t have the Overpayment Recovery Program just starting up, you’d be out of here.”
The AD leaned forward.
“Now get out of here.”