Like many liberal arts majors, after graduation I had a difficult time turning my English degree into a job that required it. I continued the retail sales job I’d had in college, sending out scores of resumes and interview requests in the evenings and on weekends.
Finally, I landed a spot as an assistant to the public relations and development director at an inner city non-profit that worked with the physically challenged and socially disadvantaged.
It was a wide-ranging experience, beginning with my commute, which took me through the heart of Cleveland’s urban landscape. My responsibilities were immensely varied: everything from writing weekly news releases and radio spots to researching foundation giving patterns, customizing proposals and helping oversee large direct mail fund-raising campaigns.
Those were the kinds of responsibilities I’d expected to have. But there were plenty I hadn’t. One was supervising a long list of “clients” whom the agency “employed” during six-week job training programs. These individuals had a variety of afflictions ranging from physical handicaps to behavioral challenges that had kept them from maintaining gainful employment.
At times I had to supervise up to a half dozen of such cases at a time, keeping them busy with tasks like sorting and hand-collating mailings. I had one permanent, middle-aged client, Eugene, with an early childhood mentality and who periodically fell into epileptic petit-mal seizures when he would enter a near catatonic state. If you looked into his eyes at these times, they were like deep whirlpools of dark chaos. I learned to get him seated until the seizures would pass, and also learned it was best not to look into those eyes.
Among other responsibilities, my boss was supposed to oversee the kitchen foodservice, run by a long-tenured woman named Mrs. Lawrence. It offered a limited breakfast and lunch menu and also served as a job-training experience for clients. Mrs. Lawrence was a saint, patiently and regularly supervising nearly a dozen clients who had been selected as likely kitchen employees out in “the real world.”
My contributions to this were limited, and mostly involved soliciting and picking up donations of day-old bread and other foodstuffs from local supermarkets, bakeries and distributors. But when the occasional non-operational issue arose, it was technically our department’s job to address it.
Meantime, the main organization was staffed with psychology and social work majors whose job it was to counsel and place clients in jobs after they’d completed various retail, industrial and other job-training programs.
One afternoon in particular will always stick in my mind. It was ordinary enough until one of the counselors rushed in to announce that a knife fight was going on in the kitchen. She then hurried back to her office, shutting her door. It was clear that the counseling group was “delegating” responsibility for the situation to us. And since my boss was tied up elsewhere, I headed down the hall.
By now, lunch was technically over. In the kitchen, Mrs. Lewis was trying to calm down a client worker and a client customer while standing a safe distance away. Both held large kitchen knives in a face-off at the middle of the serving line.
“I’m gonna cut you,” one was saying.
“Come and get it,” the other snapped.
I knew the kitchen employee, Vergil. He was normally pretty laid back and I focused my attention on him.
“Come on, Vergil. Put the knife down,” I said. “Whatever happened, it’s not worth this.”
Vergil glanced at me quickly. “I told him we were closed down,” Vergil replied. “But he kept pushing.”
“I just wanted coffee, you %#[email protected] I’m gonna cut you!”
I couldn’t believe they were arguing over a cup of coffee and I couldn’t take my eyes off the knives. “Take it easy, guys. We can settle this some other way,” I said.
Eventually, Mrs. Lawrence and I got both of them to give the knives back and go talk to separate counselors back in the rehab department. “That was a close one,” I said to her.
“Lord knows,” she answered. “Everybody thinks kitchens are dull and slow. They just don’t know the things that go on here.”
I don’t remember anything more after that and, by the next day, things got back to “normal.” But I never forgot Mrs. Lawrence’s resigned observation.
I’ll bet every reader of this magazine has similar stories to share. If you’ve got a few moments, I’d love to hear a few of them.
E-mail me at [email protected].