Saving Graces

by jkatejohnston

8 November 2013

Dear Max,

It’s funny how you enter into the life of a place. I’ve worked at Social Services for almost a year now. When I first started I would stand in my office right up against the window looking out at the trains coming and going, the people, the trees. I wasn’t sure I’d get used to it.

I was used to hanging out with my lawyer pals in our converted Victorian office building, sitting on the front stairs in the winter sun, drinking coffee and second-hand smoking and talking about our cases and our lives. Oh yeah, and I had to go to court a lot. And to the jail.

At Social Services I go through eighteen doors to get to my office, six of them “secure doors” needing a coded badge. I go in the service door in back because I have my bike: swipe badge—beep—I’m in the building, another swipe—beep—down the freight elevator to the basement, through several sets of doors to the bike storage room—beep—hang up my bike—beep—into the exercise room to do my stretches—beep—into the locker room for minor hygiene, down the tunnel—beep—into the other building, up one set of stairs then over to another, and then I’m on my floor which is not secure. (The feeling seems to be that if someone’s going to get past security and shoot up the place they might as well start with the lawyers.) Anyway, at first it all felt like I was going deeper and deeper into the beast. 

But then I got my cases and, just like any kind of law, each one’s a story. Opening a new file it’s—oh geez, what now? And I know the people at least a little. I’ve know who changed their hair color and how it went in their opinion and my opinion. I know about impending grandchildren and custody battles and parents who had to go into an old folks home. I know who has good candy. Rita, my paralegal–I love saying that, it’s almost as good as Erin, my secretary—anyway, Rita has good Japanese hard candies that taste like flowers. Julie, the person who keeps track of our hours and days off, has ordinary Halloween type candy on her desk, but if you stand there and look needy she’ll pull out the bag of Ghirardelli chocolate squares. She’s in paralegal school, and sometimes I help her with her homework. Then I get some chocolate.

But big institutions have this kind of hulking inertia. I had a case last month where we made a mistake, and I had to unwind it. No one knew about it but me—not even the person we were accidentally screwing over. And it took me about three days of steady work, diplomacy, meetings, memos to undo this thing. No one was trying to stop me. Everyone was gracious and grateful and wanted to do the right thing. But the Department of Social Services is a big locomotive. We take up a full, square city block in downtown Sacramento, two buildings, seventeen floors (I have no idea what most of the people who work here actually do.) And once we get moving in any particular direction we’re hard to stop. But anyway, it all ended happy.

What brought all this to my mind was yesterday in the basement I put my bike away and as I walked past the men’s locker room I heard someone in there singing loud and long and not very well. One way or another, people escape.