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.