Things Fall Apart

This is a change of pace, but I’ve taken to writing short stories. I hope you enjoy this – and I’d love constructive criticism. This story includes strong language.

The Second Coming 

Turning and turning in the widening gyre 
The falcon cannot hear the falconer; 
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; 
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, 
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere 
The ceremony of innocence is drowned; 
The best lack all conviction, while the worst 
Are full of passionate intensity. 

— WB Yeates 

°°°

FRIDAY IN BROOKLYN 

He remembers when New York was perfect – clean, vibrant, joyous. That was when his father was alive – a burly, sure man on the gym floor, spot checking machines and joking with customers. Those were the years of Christmas Eves at Rockefeller Center and days at the skating rink. When the snow stayed white even on the ground. 

Dan wakes up early today. Unlike his father, God rest his soul, Dan cleans every machine thoroughly, starting from the top and working his way methodically down across the weights, the pads, the springs. He mops the floor and re-mops it. Because there’s time left he goes into the locker rooms and patiently cleans each locker, using an old toothbrush and a cleaning solution in a spray bottle. 

Then he sits at the front counter, waiting for customers. Dan is used to waiting. Nobody comes in today. 

At 5:00 pm Dan goes into a locker room, showers and puts on a shirt and tie. He meticulously polishes his glasses with special solution and returns the solution to its storage place. Then he turns off all the lights in the gym. He locks the front door and walks to Jerry’s. 

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Jerry’s is the opposite of Dan’s memory of New York, yet also a cornerstone, because it exists exactly as it was when his father was alive (In fact, it’s where his father gave him his first beer, a rite of passage). It’s among a dying breed of New York bars, those with dusty windows and Budweiser on ice. Christmas lights and shamrocks strewn across the back of the bar in the least festive way. The first twenty dollar bill taped to the cash register and covered in dust. A sign reading, “No tabs.” It’s the kind of bar that would be ruined by thorough cleaning. Dan starts adjusting a stack of Miller Light coasters so they’re perfectly aligned, a tower with straight edges. 

“You’re driving me nuts with that,” says the aging, yellow-haired bartender, whose name is Sharlene. 

“Sorry. I want things to be perfect. I’m meeting a date.” 

“Here?” 

Dan orders a Budweiser. Why did he tell his date to meet him at Jerry’s? He hadn’t thought about it. Maybe he wanted her to know something about where he comes from. Still, he decides he’d better plan something more impressive than straightening coasters. He takes out his phone, thinking he’ll check the Village Voice to see if there are any events today. Instead, he finds himself at the website where he met the his date today. No new messages. Dan feels deflated. 

“Oh, this motherfucker don’t got my number saved… It’s Tiffany, but how come you don’t got my number saved?” 

The young woman at the other end of the bar is with a friend but talking to someone on the phone. 

“Hon, take that outside,” Sharlene says. 

“You wouldn’t say that to a white person.” 

“I treat everyone the same as long as they pay their tab.” 

“Whatever.” The young woman pays her tab and leaves.

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It’s true, Dan thought – Sharlene wouldn’t say that to a white woman. She’s pissed, though. She only calls people hon if she dislikes them. Sharlene takes a pack of Marlboro Lights from inside the cash register and begins to pack it against the palm of her hand, one, two, three, four taps against her wedding band. 

Dan suddenly feels as though he’s covered in hot, dirty, sweaty rags. “Excuse me,” he says to Sharlene (Sharlene doesn’t respond), and he walks to the men’s room, where he checks to make sure his fly is aligned with his tie and shirt buttons. He splashes cold water on his face and combs his hair again. When he returns to his place at the bar he feels like he’s seeing and hearing the world through a layer of water. 

This date is going to be a nightmare, Dan thinks. 

Television: “Grant… consistent improvement in the off-season… twisted ankle last March. He could really… most valuable free agents out there… you can’t top Grant for… Stay with us. Coming up: my top 10 free agents…” 

“Another fucking commercial,” Sharlene muttered, removing the unlit cigarette from her lips. “Just tell me if my Giants won.” 

Dan offers to look up the game on his phone and Sharlene threatens to cut him off. “Hearing it from the sportscaster is part of the experience. Looking it up on your damned gadget, that’s no experience.” She recovers the cigarette. “I’m going for a smoke.” 

Television: “…get lean and fit the easy way with AbCruncher. Join millions of…” 

“Can you turn that thing off please?” Dan says. “Machines like that are why people have stopped coming to my gym.” 

“I’ll change it,” Sharlene says. “…authorities say he was a lone wolf acting without the support of a terrorist organization…” “…ran a populist campaign where he energized his supporters with a constant stream of Twitter updates…” “…latest update from a blogger…” “Give me a vowel, Alex.” “There,” Sharlene says. Then she leaves. 

“Just missed the bartender,” Dan says to a man who walks into the bar and sits down next to him. “Sorry.” For some reason he feels genuinely at fault. Why is that? 

“No pasa nada,” the man replies. “It’s OK.” He takes a pouch from the pocket of his loose flannel shirt and begins rolling what Dan hopes are cigarettes. 

“Are you just getting off work?” Dan asks with effort. 

“I make my own hours.” The man drives for Uber, does landscaping and makes furniture. He has big rough hands and a bushy mustache; he is a man. 

“I’d hate to have to do so much.” 

“It’s better that way. If I had to stay in one place all week I’d go crazy. Unfortunately, business isn’t good these days.” 

“Everything was better in the past.” 

The man with many jobs believes nostalgia, like religion, is a crutch for the weak. That just as there is no God, things were not really better in the past. However, he does not know how to put this into words so he only shrugs. “No pasa nada,” he says again. 

Sharlene comes back and gives the man a Corona. Dan finds himself straightening the stack of Miller Light coasters again. Sharlene picks the coasters up and moves them to the opposite end of the bar. 

“I remember my first date with Jerry,” she says, resting a hand and dish rag on her hip. “My girlfriend Molly set us up. She tells me, ‘‘There’s this fella from the neighborhood who’s seen you around and wants to meet you. I think he’s an asshole. Real player.’ He’d just gotten back from Vietnam; I figured he’s entitled to be an asshole. Still, I thought I’d better be careful, not go to any unfamiliar places with him, just use common sense. But the moment I see him he says, ‘Come with me. Just come with me. Trust me.’ He’s wearing a suit and tie and he’s got this big dopey smile. It turns out he set up a big Italian meal on the rooftop of his building with candles and paper plates on a card table. I knew in that moment that I’d marry this man.” 

Something about the story strikes Dan as beautiful. Two people meeting and falling for each other; two souls in a complicated world. He asks for another Budweiser. 

It’s 9 o’clock. Dan says he doesn’t think his date is showing up. He’s relieved but also disappointed, and anxious as he anticipates more online messages and more first dates. 

Sharlene gives him the beer on the house. “Plenty of fish,” she says.

Waitlisted

Just try getting a shrink in New York.

You’d better be suicidal if you don’t want to wait for months.

I don’t mean vague-plan-and-means suicidal – that won’t cut it. I know. I’m vague-plan-and-means suicidal and I’ve been waiting for a month and a half for my first appointment at a large, well-known clinic that serves New Yorkers with and without insurance.

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No, you need intent. You need to want to die. I know because whenever I call the intern who’s handling my case at the clinic to plead for an appointment he asks me about intent. At the time of the call I don’t want to die, so I say no. So he tells me I’ll have to wait, because it’s a walk-in clinic and there needs to be room for everyone. There are mornings, though, when I wake up hours after I meant to and my life feels outside of my control, when I look at my pill bottles and…

So a word to the wise: if you need help ham it up. Come in off the street with pills in your belly or self-inflicted cuts on your arms. Tear your clothes and shave your head. Make all the gestures, give all the cries for help I don’t give for fear of scaring the people who care about me.

Ham it up. And when you get help, tell me what it’s like.

The Weed Truck, Part II

This is the second installment in a multi-part story I’m writing for Child Abuse Awareness Month. Everything happened as described. Names have been changed. Nobody’s innocent.

Click here to read The Weed Truck, Part I

Panic comes flooding up my throat. It tasted like stomach acid.

“Chris Chris Chris Chris Chris,” I say.

Chris, my supervisor, strolls over. A bit older than me at 32 and fashionably dressed, he tries to keep his people calm and productive. He’s white, like I am.

“What’s the deal?” he says laconically.

I show him the note: “New CPS case re: Ms Tambora. Charges prostitution / drug use.”

“That’s not good,” he says. “Is it true?”

“It’s bullshit,” I say.

“Who’s the worker?”

I log into the computerized system that logs families’ Child Protective Services involvement – a catalogue of failure and suspicion. I navigate to Ms. Tambora’s new case.

“Patricia Black,” I say.

“I don’t know her,” Chris says.

The panic in my throat has receded somewhat, met in my throat by a generalized sadness, a despair mixed with acceptance that this is my life.

“Guess you’re about to,” I say.

* * * * * * * * *

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I take three deep breaths before dialing the phone.
The deep breaths never work.

Ring. Ring. “What.”

“Um hello, Ms. Black. This is [—] with [—]. I’m Ms. Tambora’s preventive worker.”

I don’t know why I’m so nervous. The panic is back.

“Oh yes, the prostitute.”

“Well, about that. She’s actually a very good mother. I don’t think – -”

“Do you need something?”

“I thought it would help if I joined you when you make a home visit to the family.”

“Fine. 3 o’ clock today.”

“Great. I’ll let Ms. Tambora know to expect us.”

“Please don’t. I like to catch families when they don’t expect me. I don’t want her having time to hide anything.”

“Fine.”

“3 o’clock. I’ll be wearing black.”

“Really?”

“Really what?”

“Nothing. See you at 3.”

I hang up the phone. The panic is gone again. This time it’s anger that’s pushing it down. A righteous, durable anger.

My next call is to Ms. Tambora.

* * * * * * * * *

I show up 30 minutes early to prepare Ms. Tambora, but when I knock on the door Ms. Black is already there. “Bitch,” I think. She’s standing above Ms. Tambora, who’s sitting at her kitchen table. A framed picture of her daughter is on a curio shelf behind her; as always, she’s clutching her daughter on her lap.

Ms. Black is younger than I expected – about my age, late twenties – white and, as she said, dressed entirely in black. I wonder if she was aware of the symbolism when she got dressed this morning – a woman in black, here to take your children.

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I try to remember the last time I thought of Child Protective Services as people who help.

Ms. Black doesn’t acknowledge me. She’s giving Ms. Tambora a release form. Like me, Child Protective Services workers need written permission from a caregiver before talking to a child’s provider. A strange facade of respect, I think – how odd what we choose to care about.

“Sign this so I can talk to Helena’s doctor,” she says.

“Ms. Tambora, is the doctor’s name filled in?” I ask.

She hesitates, looking at Ms. Black, then at me. “No.”

“Then signing that form would let her talk to anybody.”

Ms. Black bends down and scribbles on the form. “I was going to fill in the doctor’s name later, but whatever makes you happy,” she says.

Ms. Tambora signs the form.

* * * * * * * * *

Ms. Black is finally getting ready to leave.

“Can you tell me anything else about this family?” she says.

“Just that they seem to me like a great family. I’ve never seen a sign of drug use, prostitution or anything else.”

“Will Helena’s doctor tell me anything is wrong?”

“I haven’t spoken with her doctor yet.”

Ms. Black wags her finger. “It’s your job to communicate with the child’s providers, Mr. [—]. When Child Protective Services contracts a family out to your agency that’s one of our expectations.”

“Right, sorry. I’ve left the doctor messages.”

“Very well. The next step for Ms. Tambora will be to take a drug test. I’ll arrange that. See that she takes it.”

“She’ll take it.”

“Very well. Good bye.”

She says good bye to me, of course – not to Ms. Tambora. Then she leaves.

Ms. Tambora is still clutching Helena, tighter than ever. She looks terrified.

“I can’t take the drug test,” she whispers, even though we’re alone.

“Why not?”

“I’ve been going to the weed truck.”

To be continued

The Weed Truck, Part I

This is the first installment in a multi-part story I’m writing for Child Abuse Awareness Month.

Ms. Tambora had had enough – of me, of the system. But I didn’t know it yet.

I don’t think she knew it either.

Ms. Tambora isn’t polite – she and her partner, Mr. Greene, are obsequious. When she answers the door, 18-month-old baby in her arms, she looks like an abused child that doesn’t know if she’s in for a hug or a beating. Sweet, kind, mild Ms. Tambora.

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Despite her demeanor I don’t feel like I’m taking advantage of her. I’m here to help.

I’m a preventive worker. I occupy a gray area between child protective services and traditional therapists. CPS contracts with my agency to provide services to families that have been reported for child abuse or neglect but who have been allowed to keep their kids. In theory, my services are accepted voluntarily. In practice, it’s often a choice between working with me or losing your children.

She lets me in, as always, with a nervous smile on her face. “Good morning, Ms. Tambora!” I say cheerily. “How are you?”

Ms. Tambora pauses for a moment, thinking. “I’m good,” she finally says.

In theory my services are voluntary. In practice it’s often a choice beween working with me or losing your child.

Today we’re talking about a domestic violence program Ms. Tambora is trying to sign up for. As we’re talking I notice she seems uncomfortable.

“You look worried.”

“I’m worried they’re going to take Helena,” she says, holding up her daughter, whom she’s clutched in her arms since I arrived.

“They’re not going to take Helena. You’re too good a mother.”

“But they took Joseph.”

I still don’t understand how Ms. Tambora lost custody of her older son, Joseph, who’s now 8. Ms. Tambora doesn’t understand it either. She only knows that a child protective services worker and two cops showed up at her door one day and “made me sign something.” The worker picked Joseph up and left. The cops blocked Ms. Tambora when she tried to follow.

Later she learned that Joseph’s father had accused her of drug use and prostitution.

The father now has custody of the child.

I know from previous visits to be careful around this topic because, five years later, discussing it still makes Ms. Tambora tearful. I like to think of myself as a traveling therapist, but honestly, I just don’t have the energy today.

“We really should figure out how to get you into this program,” I say, holding up a pile of intake documents for the the domestic violence program. “If they accept you we’ll continue this discussion, OK?”

Ms. Tambora dries her eyes with a tissue. “OK,” she says.

We finish the application and I feel satisfied when I leave. Ms. Tambora has a real shot at getting into this program, which provides domestic violence counseling, rent subsidies, legal assistance and more. They receive so many applications they basically draw winning names out of a hat.

I get to the office and I mail the application. I flirt a bit with a coworker I’d never see outside of work. I’m humming a bit when I sit down at my desk.

There’s a sticky note with a message in the receptionist’s handwriting.

“Oh Christ no.”

Ms. Tambora had been reported to child protective services for drug use and prostitution.

Blood

My bosses were oddly sympathetic – they didn’t just want to know why I kept coming in late for work but why I was having so much trouble sleeping at night. I didn’t know, so I just looked at the floor, feeling my cheeks flush.

Which is why I’m on medical leave now. Timetable? “Open-ended.”

This time I ask the question, and once again a room falls silent. After a moment the guy leading the support group leans towards me and says, softly, “You know, a lot of us have nightmares.”

Something connects inside me. Nightmares. Goddamn right.

Like when I woke up that morning to a guy climbing into my bed, getting ready to punch me. I sat up and in a moment he was gone, taking the fear with him.

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Courtesy of Matthew Hall, The Noun Project

Some nightmares are imaginary and some nightmares are real.

A year earlier I was a social worker in the Bronx. I’m in the lobby of an apartment building waiting to meet with a family I work with. A teenage girl comes in, then a guy. The guy corners the girl. She tells the guy to leave her alone. “It sounds like you’d better go,” I say. “Mind your fucking business,” the guy says. I’m between them. The guy has his fist cocked back but all I see in his eyes is fear. “Move or I’ll punch you.”

I make him to be about 16.

I’m on the floor. Blood is pouring out of a busted lip. There’s something so wrong about the feeling of a busted lip.

I must have blacked out. My head hurt. The girl was still there. The guy was gone.

These are the things I remember, usually at night. Fear is such a funny thing. The memories come at night, the fear comes in the day.

I remember a teenage girl on a bench near a park in the Bronx, two other teenagers above her, raining down on her with their fists. There’s so much blood. You can’t pull the two girls off, they’re like magnets, but they run when a cop shows up. The cop just shrugs when I offer to give a statement so I leave; I’m late to see a family.

I remember a cop talking about how the neighborhood used to be when white people lived there; he’s nostalgic. I’m thinking, you racist bastard.

I remember a guy hitting a cop with a two-by-four, two blocks from my office.

A funny thing. Sometimes you’re afraid when you shouldn’t be and sometimes you’re not afraid when you should be.

I remember standing outside my office smoking a cigarette when my phone rings. It’s my boss calling from inside the office – “Get inside. Now.” I’m pissed about her tone until I realize someone got shot right across the street, at the dollar slice pizza parlor where I eat most days. We can’t see the body through the office windows, just blood pooling from behind the bus shelter that obscures our view. The police and paramedics take a long time to arrive. When they load him into an ambulance we realize the guy isn’t dead because they have to push him into the stretcher; and he yells, “Matelo.” “Kill him,” a coworker translates. The police don’t react; they stay in a tight-knit circle, talking to each other. A Hispanic guy comes out of the pizza place and uses a hose to wash away the blood. The guy who was barking out prices for stockings returns to his stool by the fire hydrant. A minute later the street is full again. A year later I’m still numb.

I often miss that job – even the bad parts. The late nights. The shelters and the projects. The stories of abuse. The bruises on a kid’s arm. I especially miss the bad parts because I could do something about them; or failing that, I could at least bear witness.

But I don’t miss the blood. I never want to see blood again.

When I started the job kids would tell me about blood – classmates’, strangers’, parents’, their own. The blood was often their excuse for misbehaving. I didn’t always believe them – it was my job to be skeptical. That was before I knew about blood.

That was before I got off elevators carefully, checking sight lines to make sure no one was waiting for me.

Before I started wondering, every time I met someone, whether I could hurt them or they could hurt me.

Before this anger that has no name.

They say the Bronx is getting more violent – more violence, more killings, more blood. It hardly matters. You only need to see blood once for it to get in you, change you. Make your future open-ended.

Trust me on this.

I see it in my dreams.

Update: I’ve given up on finding a common language

Update: April 2, 2016

I no longer stand by the below entry. Soft, euphemistic terms like “trans critical feminism” whitewash the hatred I’ve seen Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists (TERFs) use. Also, I’ve asked several people who fit that title what term they prefer without getting a response – it seems they would rather complain about being “slurred” as TERFs than collaborate on finding a more helpful, mutually-understood language. Most importantly, from what I’ve seen, they’re not critical – they’re hateful. I can’t parlay with people preaching hate.

I’ll revisit this position if I encounter a radical feminist who a). is open to a conversation about language and b). can articulate a reason for being “critical” of transgender people that still recognizes their rights, humanity and decency.

Original Post

In previous posts I’ve used the term TERF (Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminist) despite being fully aware the people this term describes consider it a slur. I did this because I didn’t know what the alternative is. (A “TERF” might say she’s a “radical feminist,” however, there are radical feminists who embrace transgender people.) Still, I’ve been feeling badly about this, especially since I complain about these feminists misgendering transgender people.

I know some transgender people and trans allies wouldn’t see this as a problem. They might even accuse me of letting these feminists off the hook, not calling a spade. I understand that, but I also want this type of feminist to read my posts and engage with them without being turned off by the first paragraph. Truthfully, I question why this type of feminist objects to being called a Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminist – it seems perfectly descriptive of their views. I think nasty things they’ve done – arguing against health coverage for transgender people, etc – might be a factor here. On the other hand, any term can become “tainted” (it was once perfectly acceptable to call a black person “negro,” but that word become more offensive the more racists used it); if a person feels others keep screening “TERF!” at them derisively it’s understandable they’d grow to hate it.

Unfortunately, this means that, for my purposes, I need to invent a new term for these feminists. I’m not so egotistical that I expect it to catch on (certainly not with the people it describes), but I do need it for my own usage.

So the term: I actually considered “Feminist Against Transgender Inclusion” – but calling people FATIs is probably not conducive to productive debate.

For now let me go with Transgender Critical Feminist (TCF). If you object to this or know a better term (that isn’t “radical feminist,” see above) please let me know. I know TCFs might object to being labeled by a man; again, though, this is the best I can do and I don’t expect you to take the term on for yourself.

I might occasionally use “TERF” in headlines, tweets about posts, etc -situations where I want to reach people who wouldn’t know what TCF means. This is partially so that TCFs themselves know the piece involves them. I ask TCFs to indulge me.

I’ll continue to use terms like “cis” and gender transgender people appropriately (e.g. calling a MTF “her”) because that’s a matter of social justice for me; using different terms would feel like ceding and throwing the trans community under the bus.

This is who I am

It’s been a little while since I’ve posted. I’ve been focused on my social media accounts, living and dying with my retweets and follower counts as if they mean something important.

I care about how emotional issues can make social workers better at their jobs. If that resonates with you, welcome.

Like everyone new to social media and blogging, I’ve struggled to find my voice. I’ve labored over long, exhaustively researched articles only to realize you prefer personal, emotional essays. Doesn’t matter; I’ll keep writing both. I’ve written as if I’m an individual person or a company or a nonprofit, aping social media accounts I admire. At the end of the day, I’ve realized I can only be myself.

So let me tell you who I am.

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Image by Wilson Joseph, The Noun Project

I’m a social worker – at least I usually am. My bosses have “suggested” I take medical leave, which I’m doing now.

Would you read a SocialWorked newsletter? If enough people sign up I’ll start writing. Click here to join the SocialWorked mailing list. I promise not to share your information.

They noticed I have severe depression (and anxiety), which impacts my work. For the better and worse. This blog is for writing about that.

I’m a guy writing from my apartment, which I find impossible to keep clean. I love my two dogs. I don’t get out enough.

I believe mental illness can be destigmatized, that it’s possible to start a national conversation about emotional wellbeing focused on everybody achieving wellness, and after believing that I usually masturbate and take a nap.

I’m interested in how things intersect. In particular, I care about how emotional issues can make social workers better at their jobs, in addition to making their jobs harder. If that resonates with you, welcome.

I have high hopes and dreams, despite not having my own shit figured out.