Working With Wackos, Part I

July 2, 2012

Shaun Of The Dead (2004) poster, August 22, 2011. (Quentin X via Wikipedia). Qualifies as fair use under US Copyright laws because of poster’s low resolution.

I don’t mean this in a literal sense, although in this particular case, it’s pretty close to true. In the case of my last summer working for Westchester County Department of Community Mental Health at its Mount Vernon clinic on 9 East First Street, it’s ironic that the least sane folks around were my bosses and colleagues. The amount of drama generated from such a small office was enough to start a nuclear fusion reaction, providing power for Mount Vernon’s residents for years on end.

Unlike the summer of ’89, the summer of ’92 wasn’t just about the dreaded Valerie Johnstone (see my post “Fried Green Toenails”  from February ’11). This summer involved the head of the clinic, a Dr. Ralph Williams. From my first day there, it was obvious that there was a strange and sordid dynamic at the clinic, one that had little to do with the patients who showed up with everything from associative disorder to schizophrenia, for drugs from Dilantin to Xanax. I got a dressing down from Johnstone about having earned my master’s degree two months earlier, as she said, “See, I have a master’s degree, too.” Except that she was sixty, and I was twenty-two, at least that’s what went through my head while she was telling me how much better she was than me.

Williams wasn’t much better. My first one-on-one with him at the end of June was about how much better we were than “ordinary” folks like Johnstone because he had the ultimate prize – a medical degree from Harvard – and I was about to embark on the ultimate degree, a doctorate. From our first meeting, Williams had described Johnstone as a “dummy” and an “overbearing bitch.” While I knew that the latter was true, I would’ve have never said it, certainly in a workplace setting. And I certainly didn’t expect it from my boss.

By the beginning of July, it had become obvious to me that the main issue with the clinic front office and its director was much more than being three years behind in back-billing to New York State Medicaid and Medicare for psychiatric services. On the first Friday in July, I happened to be outside the director’s office, pulling old files for re-billing to New York State, when I heard someone crying. I overheard Williams say, “you are the dumbest person that I’ve ever worked with,” and another sentence where he called the woman in his office “a bitch.”

The calmness in which Williams spoke, it was as if he was attempting to comfort parents who had learned their kid was autistic. It was scary. I knew that the woman crying was Johnstone, as I’d seen her later on that afternoon, eyes unusually burgundy, mood unusually insecure.

The secret war between the office manager and the clinic director became an open one later on in mid-July, a Thursday to be more precise. They became embroiled in a shouting match over a patient’s records, escalating from “stupid” and “idiot” to “bitch” and “motherfucker” in a matter of seconds. All right in front of the office pool and waiting patients, at 3:30 pm. If I hadn’t known any better, I’d guessed that Johnstone and Williams had been involved prior to a breakup, and were using the office as a way to work out their frustrations over their relationship. But I probably read too much into what was going on.

Finally, at the end of July, came the most foul thing I’d ever been a part of in the workplace. Williams requested a one-on-one meeting with me. He wanted me to write a report that would implicate Johnstone as both incompetent and capricious as the office manager. Williams said, “people like us need to stick together.”

I knew that I wouldn’t be coming back to work for this clinic or the county again. At least, not in this capacity, and not with me starting Pitt’s doctoral program, so I really had no skin in this game. At the same time, I knew that if I wrote the report exactly as Williams had requested, that Johnstone would be out of a job. In their own way, they were both terrible bosses, lousy leaders, and had warped perceptions of the people and the world around them. I didn’t know yet what to do. I just knew that if I did exactly what I’d been told, it would lead to more office chaos, something the outpatients at the clinic didn’t need or deserve.

Working At AED: Alternate Sources of Fear

June 28, 2011

AED’s DC Office, circa 2008, before the sign came down. Source:

It was ten years ago on this date that I began to think seriously about quitting New Voices and AED, the Academy for Educational Development, the subcontractor for USAID and the State Department in trouble these days (see my “USAID suspends District-based nonprofit AED from contracts amid investigation” post from December ’10). In the end, I probably should’ve on this date. I realized that most of the people I worked for and with cared more about money than Wall Street investment bankers, and had an addiction to fear greater than a junkie’s addiction to heroin. And, most sadly, I began to see signs of what my former immediate supervisor would admit two and a half years later, his bipolar disorder.

I’d seen signs of Ken’s mental illness as early as February ’01, but the first time I realized that I worked in an organization that thrived on fear was after me and my wife returned from our honeymoon in Seattle, at the end of May that year. All during the month of June, as I did site visits in Tulsa, Jackson, Mississippi, Fairbanks, Alaska and Durham, North Carolina, and visited my maternal grandparents in Arkansas, all fear was breaking loose in the New Voices offices at AED. Our funder, the Human Rights and International Cooperation unit at the Ford Foundation in New York, had called for a meeting to discuss the progress of the New Voices Fellowship Program to date.

I didn’t think all that much of it at the time, with me doing site visits almost every week and having done presentations for funders and academicians, including the Spencer Foundation, what was now the Gates Foundation, and a few corporate foundations over the previous five years. But as soon as I returned to the office that last Monday in June ’01, I realized that nearly everyone I worked with directly was on pins and needles about our Thursday afternoon meeting on East 43rd Street in Manhattan. Ken was on a higher level of worry than the rest of the staff, but it wasn’t a good worry. He had our program assistant and associate printing new copies of memos and other meeting materials every time he came up with a new sentence, found an error or realized he wanted orange paper for program statistics instead of lavender.

Jessica Tandy as Miss Daisy in Driving Miss Daisy Screen Shot (though Sandra wasn’t as aged, her attitudes definitely were), 1989. Source:

What made this even worse was that on Tuesday, Ken’s boss Sandra — whom I regularly called “Driving Miss Daisy” because of her bigoted semi-liberal ways — called an additional meeting to emphasize how crucial this meeting was to the future of New Voices. After ten minutes, Ken, the program assistant and associate all looked like Bush 43 and former Secretary of the Treasury Hank Paulson did on September 15, ’08, when the US financial markets melted down. When I politely pointed out that “we need to be ready, but not scared” in presenting our results to date to the folks at Ford, another meeting was called.

Except this Wednesday afternoon meeting was just between me and Driving Miss Daisy. She called me out on the carpet for “disrespecting” her. She told me, “if you don’t like it here, you can leave,” and that she’ll be at AED “longer than [me].” It made me feel as if I had to worry about my job for doing my job. Meanwhile, Ken was going over word for word what each of us would have to say the following afternoon in New York, as if one bad choice of words would cost us $2.25 million, money we’d already received from Ford.

After a rough night of sleep before an early Amtrak from DC to New York, I arrived at Penn Station refreshed and glad that I didn’t ride the same train with the rest of the Nervous Nellies. They were already at Houlihan’s, eating an early lunch, with Ken obviously more relaxed from whatever he had to drink by the time I arrived.

The Ford Foundation, 320 East 43rd Street, New York City, November 19, 2007. Source: Stakhanov (permission granted)

The Ford Foundation, 320 East 43rd Street, New York City, November 19, 2007. Source: Stakhanov (permission granted)

The meeting itself was where something kicked in for Ken, what appeared to be a natural high at first. After Sandra and Yvonne (Ken’s actual immediate supervisor, even though Ken never listened to her) did the introductions, Ken took over the two-hour meeting. He talked over me, the program assistant and associate, even the program officers in the spartan meeting room. Ken’s euphoric fear was so strong that he didn’t trust us to speak on behalf of New Voices, meaning that it was a waste of time and money for anyone other than Ken to be there.

Or was is? The imam-suit-wearing program officers from Anthony Romero (who was within a few months had moved on to become the Executive Director of the ACLU) to Alan Jenkins (now co-founder of The Opportunity Agenda), who had sat silently through Ken’s soliloquy, finally spoke in the final fifteen minutes of the meeting. Romero said, “Maybe it’s time for AED to consider looking for alternate sources of funding” for New Voices “over the next couple of years.” That was my take-away from the whole ordeal.

But it wasn’t for Ken. He was on one of his blue-crystal-meth-like highs again, giddy like a kid getting a ten-speed bike for Christmas. Yvonne looked ready to go, while Sandra the wise-one was just happy it was over. I wondered, out loud to the group, if the not-so-veiled hint provided by Romero meant that the unit and foundation’s priorities were changing. I, of course, was accused of worrying too much. Too bad none of the senior staff understood the definition of irony.

A Real Piece of Work

June 29, 2010

Gabe Kaplan as Kotter (an image sub for my former boss)

“You’re a real piece of work,” my former boss Joe Carbone said to me one day, about this time twenty years ago. He smiled when he said it, though, which made me take the statement less seriously than I would’ve otherwise. It was my introduction to the politics of my new workplace for the summer of ’90.

For ten weeks between June and August ’90, I worked at the main office of Westchester County’s Department of Community Mental Health in White Plains. My immediate supervisor that summer was Joe Carbone, a highly-placed higher-up in the department. It turned out that he lived three blocks from me on East Lincoln in Mount Vernon, and that one of his kids graduated a year ahead of me at MVHS. Small world as usual. That gave us a little something in common.

When it came to work, though, I think our styles were a bit different. I worked as hard and as quickly as I could to finish the database-related projects he’d assign, then I worked as hard as I could to get to know the other staff and the other aspects of the office. And when that ran out, I’d work on getting ready for my senior year and my project on the resegregation that occurred in magnet schools in the ’80s. It was in that context that Carbone had called me “a real piece of work.” I guess I didn’t look like I was working that hard. Or maybe it was too obvious that I found my school research more interesting than my database work. Or maybe he just envied the way I used my time when I ran out of things to do (or things to make up to do, for that matter).

Whatever it was, I wasn’t the model worker, at least in the sense that I worried about my job, about pleasing my bosses more than the quality of my work, about making things merely look good. Carbone may well have been saying as much, constantly comparing me to some guy who worked for him in ’89 who was a junior at Yale. Like the Ivy League moniker alone was supposed to impress. If there had been one thing I learned in three years of college, that differential equations, primary resource grad-level research papers, and scholarly monographs looked about the same in the hands of a good Yale or Pitt student. I was glad to hear those comparisons go away after my first six weeks there.

Still, despite this “real piece of work” issue, Carbone remains the best supervisor I ever had. He made my tasks and duties clear, gave me room to work and make mistakes, introduced me to a wide variety of colleagues and work styles, and, if the mental health field had been my passion, would’ve been a great mentor for sure. He was my Kotter and I saw myself as his Horshack.

Yesterday also reminded me of the contrast between someone like Carbone in the workplace and the people I worked for when I was a manager in a social justice fellowship program in DC nine years ago. We had a meeting with our funder in New York in June ’01. Having met with funders before, I already knew the deal, and had explained that deal to the program assistant and associate in the days leading up to the meeting.

Napoleon's Mother (aka Ms. Wisdom). Source: Robert Lefevre, Letizia Ramolino, 1813

But apparently that wasn’t enough. My immediate supervisor and his all-wise supervisor’s supervisor and so-called mentor (henceforth known as Ms. Wisdom) had us meet twice to discuss this meeting and what each of us were to discuss, right down to the exact words we should use. They discussed protocol and etiquette, as if we were in nuclear disarmament talks with the former Soviet Union, China, North Korea, Iran and Israel all at the same time.

When I pointed out at the second meeting that these meetings were in fact redundant and panic-inducing — very politely, I might add — I got pulled into the superintendent’s office and accused of not taking the meeting up in New York seriously. Ms. Wisdom told me that I could quit at any time, and that she “would be around long after” I was gone. At least she was wrong about that prediction.

It made for a very stressful preparation for a meeting about the state of a program that had only been around for two years. Still, despite the lack of sleep, the micromanaging and threats, I felt ready, and I hoped that the other staff were ready as well. None of that

Napoleon I. Source: Jacques-Louis David, 1812

mattered, though, once the meeting in New York was underway. My immediate boss was so keyed up that he literally did all of the talking for our group of six. When I say all, I mean all except for two comments from me, one from Ms. Wisdom, and one from our program associate. By the end of the two hours, I thought that the man would’ve jumped on the conference table and done a jig for an additional $100,000.

My ex-boss was euphoric of course, even though the director at the time (now the executive director of the ACLU) specifically said that we “should consider looking for alternate sources of funding” for the program to ensure its viability after 2004. I thought then that he and Ms. Wisdom were real pieces of work. Even at the time, that reminded me of Joe Carbone, and gave me something to smile about. Maybe I’m a real piece of work, too. But at least I’m one in progress.


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