Tom Schreck: On the Ropes

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Tom Schreck On the Ropes
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    On the Ropes
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Tom Schreck

On the Ropes


“Hey Duff-did you hear what the Polack mom asked her pregnant daughter?” Sam from the business office said.

“Mornin’, Sam,” I said.

“Are you sure it’s yours?” Sam laughed himself back to his cubicle.

With the last name Dombrowski, I’ve heard every imaginable Polack joke and people like Sam made sure I kept up-to-date. I hate the routines, but I especially wasn’t in the mood on this particular Monday morning.

I am a caseworker at Jewish Unified Services in Crawford, a city in upstate New York, about fifty miles from New York City. Crawford is one of those northeastern cities that goes back to the time of the Revolutionary War. Years ago, it was a city with strong ethnic neighborhoods, the Irish, the Polish, the Jewish, the Italian, and the African American. Today, the neighborhoods are a shell of what they used to be, as most of the old families have participated in the white-flight to the suburbs. Much like a smaller version of New York City, the actual city confines are made up largely of poorer families of black and Latino extraction.

The other thing about Crawford that distinguishes it from other cities is the wind. Something about the valley formed by the Hudson and the Catskills causes it to be the windiest city in the country. I read something one time about Crawford being actually three times as windy as Chicago. The wind is a bizarre source of city pride-the city limit signs have this humanized cartoon of the wind, an old man with puffed-out cheeks, next to the “Welcome to Crawford,” and McDonough High, my alma mater and the city’s public high school, has the nickname “The Mighty Wind.” To this day, opposing fans chant “Break the Wind” at football games.

I handle a caseload of about seventy-five clients at the clinic. They use our agency for everything from addiction counseling to parenting skills to anger management. Most of our clients live on welfare and whatever benefits they can get out of the government.

I’m not a Monday type of guy anyway, but this one was going to be an exceptional pain in the ass. I had a nine-thirty meeting with my boss, the clinical director, Claudia Michelin. Claudia is one of the educated, heartless bureaucrats that live to be in control of other people. She was well suited for the gig. She’s the one who decides who gets thrown out of treatment for missing sessions or for not getting in line and doing everything she asks in just the right way. Claudia was not turning down offers from Victoria’s Secret, either. She had hit her maximum density a long time ago, and I’m figuring she carried almost three hundred pounds on her considerable six-foot frame. In fact, I’m not sure if she was actually a blood relative, but she bore a striking resemblance to her namesake, the Michelin Man tire guy. She had one of those bushy, curly-haired perms that mercifully went out of style around the demise of Studio 54. The Michelin Woman had a scowl permanently affixed to her face, and she had this tendency to shift her eyes back and forth instead of looking right at you.

She also loves the control of being the boss to me and the other case managers here. Since she took over eighteen months ago, she’s done everything she could to get me to quit or, preferably, to set up a future firing. Of course, I don’t help myself with some of the things I try to get away with. For one, I despise paperwork and avoid it, procrastinate it, and-I’ll tell you honestly-I lie about doing it. Michelin lives for it.

My extracurricular activities can sort of get in the way too. I’m a part-time professional fighter, the type that’s known in the trade as a professional opponent. Promoters call me to fight up-and-coming prospects because they know I’ll lose but not look horrible in the process. I split a lot of my local, small fights, but the money is in fighting the prospects that I don’t have a chance of beating. As a heavyweight, I can make ten grand getting my ass kicked by some ex-Olympian on his way up looking for an easy win.

Unfortunately, I scammed some time off a month ago. I got Rudy, the doc who hangs out down at the gym, and who also happens to be my landlord, to get me a temporary disability for a condition known as fibromyalgia. It’s a mostly improvable ailment of the joints that needs plenty of bed rest to get over. I was out of the office for three weeks with it, and it was all on the up and up because Rudy signed off on it.

The problem was, I was fighting on the undercard of a fight that was featured on ESPN. Not every bout on a fight card makes TV, usually only a main event and one or two of the better fights. I’m almost never on TV. On this particular night, I was positioned in an off-TV fight scheduled to go on after the TV bouts went off. It’s what’s known as a “walkout” because that’s exactly what all the fans are doing, but because there were three knockouts on the scheduled TV fights they moved my fight to the live telecast. There I was with my diagnosis of fibromyalgia fighting ten rounds on national television. At least I had the decency to get knocked out.

The Michelin Woman found no humor in this at all. Fortunately, because I had a doctor signing off on it, there was nothing she could do. What she could do was step up her Nazi-like review of my records, which were behind back to when Jimmy Carter was in office. I’ve already received “informal counseling” and “a verbal warning,” which, strangely enough, I learned, comes in typed memo form. Today, I realized I was about to get the formal written warning, which is different from the written verbal warning, not by the fact that it is written, but rather by its content. In it was verbiage that amounted to saying my ass was grass and Claudia was the mower. It was an official documentation of the last straw.

I made my way to her office, dreading every step. Not because I feared getting written up-that’s happened enough throughout my life-but because I would have to listen to Claudia go through her supervisory coaching. We both knew she hated my guts, but even in reprimanding me, she went by the book, encouraging me and telling me how much she needed me to improve. It was procedure for a supervisor to present disciplinary warnings in a positive coaching manner. It would feel better if she just called me a fuckin’ asshole.

“Duffy, do you know why we’re meeting today?” she asked.

“I’m guessing it’s not to give me a raise,” I said.

“This is not a time to get flip. I have some real concerns with your work. I want you to succeed here at Jewish Unified Services but I need you to keep your records up to regulations. It isn’t fair to the clients,” she said.

She always threw the part in about the clients and I hated it. My clients don’t give a rat’s ass about their files, unless it interferes with them getting benefits, and I always made sure that those reports were done. Even when I scammed disabilities to get out of work, I kept check of my caseload, calling the folks who really needed help and making sure they were all right-which was, by the way, against regulations.

“Claudia, can’t we just get on with it?” I said, knowing it would piss her off because I wasn’t scared and I was taking back some of her control.

“See, it’s that type of attitude that is self-defeating to you. I need you to take a look at some of the issues that get in your way,” she said.

This was the psychobabble that she employed that made her come off like a robot. The words were meaningless jargon and she hid behind them because she felt it gave her some sort of power. It was one of the reasons I liked hanging out at boxing gyms. If someone there didn’t like you, they told you to fuck off and tried to take your head off. It was clear and unambiguous.

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