“DeMint is gone from Obama’s speech,” a friend said.
“De Mint is gone long before Obama’s speech,” I countered. “Now we’re borrowing the cash from China.”
Still, as the talking heads’ talking points remind us, we must respect the office of the Presidency. The President has declared that there must be jobs, so no one can doubt that jobs will be forthcoming forthwith. We all know that the Federal Government can create jobs like nobody’s business. Why, back in the 1970s there were all of these great jobs programs by Uncle Sam, and they brought much prosperity, did they not?
All of this musing catapulted me back in time to my first job, back in the summer of 1976, shortly after my 18th birthday. Yes, your faithful correspondent did start his employment career collecting a paycheck from the Feds, under the rubric of the CETA aegis, or possibly the aegis of the CETA rubric, I forget which. CETA was the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act, designed to teach minorities how gainful employment worked.
Of course, Jews and Asians are supposed to know that they are not really the minorities intended here, but a few of us played dumb and they could not turn us down. My father was a civil servant for the City of New York, so he was able to point me in all the right directions. Sure enough, I would work nine to five for the government, then take my college courses from 6:25 to 10:45, packing twelve credits into one summer, so life was good.
I would get my paycheck on Friday, run to Sears to cash it, and spend myself silly over the weekend. By Monday, I had exactly enough money left to pay for my carfare to work and school, and I was back to brown-bagging lunches for myself from whatever I could scavenge from my Dad’s fridge.
The American taxpayer really came through for me in that spot, and I am eternally grateful. In philosophical terms, programs like that may not be a great idea, but it definitely taught me how to punch a clock and how to maintain a basic performance level as an employee.
The vast majority of my coworkers were black, but none of them had the surly Black Power attitude which was rampant on the campuses at that time. They dressed well and were polite and friendly, with great senses of humor. Some of the girls were very pretty and everyone seemed bright and capable. There was one fellow, whose name might have been Alan Martin, who played for a college basketball team and who used to keep me — and all the girls — spellbound with amazing and amusing anecdotes about the personalities he encountered.
There was no such thing as staying a minute extra, but neither could you shave time off your schedule without getting docked. The office was in downtown Brooklyn, a 35-minute train ride from where I lived. The department I worked for was called HRA in those days, Human Resources Administration, and it consisted of case workers handling interminable lines of Welfare recipients. I was in charge of producing the case file of each person who came in for a status meeting in a particular section, hundreds of files a day.
My superiors treated me very nicely, and even the one woman who was hard on me clearly had a soft spot for me on a personal level. The frustration I experienced, which gave me a glimpse into how incompetence could perpetuate itself in government employ, came from the inability of whoever preceded me in that job to follow alphabetical order beyond the first two letters of the name. If the file cabinet read JA-JE, it would have Jeffries and James and Jessup and Jackson all lumped together in no particular order.
As to using first name, they really had no clue. To put Jackson, Adrian ahead of Jackson, Beatrice was way beyond the ken. There were two or three nightmare cabinets labeled Johnson. Johnson is the second most popular name in the United States after Smith and if Michelle Johnson and Patricia Johnson and Ramona Johnson turned up on my list, I could count on a frantic forty minutes spent knee deep in that maelstrom.
As I say, we did learn discipline in the workplace and it was a fruitful training ground in that sense. For a guy who had perfected the art of playing hookie all through school, this was a rude awakening. Finally, I managed to cheat the government out of a few dollars when we had some kind of training day with a lecturer in Manhattan. I walked into this huge auditorium, signed in, then walked right out for a day on the town. I saw The Shootist, with a dying John Wayne playing a dying cowboy. I had read the book (from which I learned the word yclept), so there was no way I could resist the film.
Thirty years later, I was with my family on a vacation at the resort by the International Hall of Fame in Orlando. The kids flipped on the cable TV and I saw The Shootist up there on the screen. My children looked at me quizzically as I immediately asked God forgiveness for defrauding the government to watch it the first time around.
All in all, I look back on that time fondly. I did not witness anything egregious, beyond the illiterate filing. The workers were fairly dedicated and the Welfare recipients all looked like life was moving a little too fast for them and they were barely hanging on. I would not recommend the government gets back into that type of program anytime soon, but neither could I condemn it as outrageously bad.