Working With Wackos, Part 2

August 10, 2012

Daniel Craig in Layer Cake (2004), October 4, 2010. (

This is the second of my two posts about my last summer working with a group of misfits and backstabbing micro-managers at the Mount Vernon Mental Health Clinic (as part of Westchester County Department of Community Mental Health) in ’92. I left off by talking about the decision I faced when the head of the clinic, Dr. Williams, wanted me to write a report that would implicate Johnstone as both an incompetent and capricious office manager. It would’ve been a report that would’ve led to Valerie Johnstone’s firing (see my “Working With Wackos, Part 1” post from last month).

Luckily I had the weekend before my last week at the job to think it through. I approached my task the same way I approached a research project. I interviewed my co-workers — at least in a way without them knowing that I was doing a formal interview — about their problems with Johnstone and about their refusal to learn the new computers and billing system for the office. I documented various incidents that I either experienced or witnessed in which Johnstone was far from professional. I even discussed the overall office dynamics and argued that they were the reason why the clinic had fallen behind twice in the past decade on hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of Medicaid and Medicare billing to New York State.

But I did more than that. I in fact put together two versions of the report. One version was specifically for Dr. Williams, one that could justify the demotion — if not the firing — of Johnstone. The other, much fuller version was one in which I made the case that Dr. Williams and Johnstone were both culpable as they created an unprofessional and chaotic atmosphere at the clinic.

The Things We Think And Do Not Say “Memo” from Jerry Maguire (1997), August 9, 2012. (

I made the point in the second version that it wasn’t just their violent language and their nasty public and private arguments. Nor was it just their disappearances from the office for hours at a time or showing up hours late looking hung over. Their mercurial natures and their lack of respect for the office and each other had trickled down to the office staff. So much so that some summer office worker like myself had no chance of training staff on how to use a computer or a new billing system.

On my last day at work, Friday, July 31, I handed in version one to Dr. Williams, who was giddy with delight, and gave me a hug and a handshake. I left work early that day, and immediately took the 40 bus up to White Plains, to the main Westchester County Department of Community Mental Health on Post Road. I went to Bob Beane’s office (the department’s director), and dropped off version two of my report. Beane had already left for the weekend. I sneaked in and out that day, as I had worked at this office the summer and holiday season ’90, and I didn’t want questions from my one-time co-workers about why I was there.

The following Friday morning, as I got ready to walk from 616 to the Mount Vernon clinic to pick up my final summer paycheck, the phone rang. It was Beane on the other end of the phone, asking me questions about my report. He asked me how much of what was in it was true. “All of it,” I said. “I need you to come into the office so I ask you some more questions,” Beane said in response. Since I was already about to walk out the door, I hung up and went into my warp-factor-9-walk to find out what was going on (and to get my paycheck without a lot of fuss).

Heads Will Roll sculpture, Embarcadero Center #4, San Francisco, June 25, 2010. (

I walked into the equivalent of an emotional tsunami. One of my former co-workers was in tears, while another looked completely stunned. Beane pulled me into Johnstone’s office, and closed the door. I explained what had been going on at the office between Dr. Williams and Johnstone over the previous eight weeks, and likely over the previous three years. Beane paused, then told me what had occurred when he read my report earlier in the week. He decided to fire Dr. Williams, while he demoted Johnstone and moved her to the Yonkers clinic. Beane was in the process of meeting with my former co-workers to verify what was in my report.

After he apprised me, Beane handed me my final paycheck. Then he said, “Thank you. What you did here was very brave and very helpful. But you know you can’t work here again.”

“I know. I knew that when I gave you my report,” I said. Thus ended my career working for Westchester County government.

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.

Fried Green Toenails

February 19, 2011

My Right Big Toenail Pre-Op, February 17, 2011. Donald Earl Collins. Note the black color of and the White Cliffs of Dover effect underneath my nail. Yuck, right?

Right Big Toe Post-Op, February 19, 2011. Donald Earl Collins. It feels like it looks right now, but I hope it becomes passable in time for sandals this spring and summer.

Well, not exactly green toenails, but a toenail story that might turn your face green. It’s a story that begins on Monday, June 26, ’89, my first day working for Valerie Johnstone at the Westchester County Department of Community Mental Health’s Mount Vernon Clinic on First Avenue and First Street. My first week without my stupid ass ex-stepfather at 616, my first time feeling like my future was truly my own.

I was hired to help get the clinic’s Medicaid and Medicare re-billing in order, as they had a five-year backlog in unpaid bills for psychiatric treatment, and not enough staff to do the work. That’s what I was hired to do, at $5.90 an hour. To eventually and successfully re-bill $371,000 worth of diagnoses and treatments to New York State, all the while learning DSM-III codes (that’s the Diagnostic Statistical Manual for Psychiatric Disorders for those of you who are not psychologists or psychiatrists) and the drugs that went with them. Xanax and Thorazine were among the most commonly prescribed medications to patients. I learned, sadly, that there were a few folks I knew who were also in need of psychiatric help. It was a sobering and valuable experience.

But that’s not what the boss woman had me do on my first day. Johnstone was pissed with her boss, Bob Beane, the director of clinics for the county, who had hired me because the Mount Vernon clinic was easily the furthest behind in billing, re-billing, and in covering their expenses. And she took her pissyness out on me, as well as I man I called Mr. Charles. He was in his mid-sixties and within months of retirement, but at least looked the part of a strong ex-athlete, very stout in the chest and muscular in the arms. His son had graduated a year or two before me, a trophy-winner on the Mount Vernon High School wrestling team.

Mr. Charles should’ve been taking it easy. But not with Johnstone as his boss. She berated him, yelled at him when he made mistakes, and generally treated the man as if he was less than the dirt that needed to be scraped off the bottom of her shoe. She sent the two of us to the warehouse in Tarrytown to pick up some old furniture — for her office! They had folks who worked for the county whose job it was to move furniture, but she sent a sixty-four-year-old man with arthritis and a nineteen-year-old who weighed 175 pounds to move cabinets and heavy wooden tables around. The two Black guys in the office, of course. Mr. Charles was still angry at Johnstone, though he tried to act as if he wasn’t.

I could tell anyway, because he was moving way too fast with the furniture for slow and weak young me. He moved so fast that he yanked a piece of heavy furniture out of my hands as we were carrying it downstairs, with part of a fifty-pound table coming down on my right big toe. The impact split the nail almost completely in two.

I should’ve gone to see a doctor. No insurance, no longer a regular resident, my mother and family still on welfare, and me being nineteen, I didn’t give it a second thought. I was mostly angry at Johnstone because she was an asshole of a boss. So I worked through that summer on a sore toe. It had bothered me all that fall when I went back to Pittsburgh and Pitt as well. Finally, in the middle of a snowstorm on Friday, December 15, ’89, I felt a popping sound on the top of my toe. The cold and snow had caused my toenail to fully crack, revealing a two-layer, ingrown toenail that had developed in the six months after my run-in with a wooden table.

I removed that nail, but I’ve had problems with that right big toenail ever since. Between basketball and hundreds of pickup games, with big guys stepping all over it. Years of walking everywhere, with me tripping on it. And a year of turf toe in ’05-’06, where I constantly played on it, that toenail grew darker and darker. Finally, in ’08, after dropping another, much smaller piece of furniture on the nail, it became susceptible to fungus, and that took over the growth, color, and thickness of the nail.

After removing it myself twice, I finally went to podiatrist, who told me that the best solution was to remove the nail and cauterize the nail root to stop it from growing — permanently. On Thursday, February 17, ’11, at 4:28 pm, after twenty minutes of bloody surgery, my right big toenail was gone. I’ll miss you. You didn’t deserve this. What should I do now? Maybe I should send pictures of it to Valerie Johnstone, thanking her for driving the office pool crazy, literally!


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